From his second-floor office in Parliament’s East Block—once John A. Macdonald’s lair and still appointed with some of his furniture—Sen. Doug Finley has a direct sightline across Wellington Street to Stephen Harper’s office in the Langevin Block. He points out the Prime Minister’s window for a visitor. Asked if they ever wave to one another, Finley deadpans, “Not much.” Neither man is known for his playful gestures.
What they are known for is partnering to reshape the federal political landscape. But that relationship is now changing. Finley, 64, is undergoing chemotherapy for colorectal cancer, and is stepping down as Harper’s campaign director. He’ll remain, though, a key adviser to the Tory machine, which he largely assembled and kept oiled for eight years. He recently summed up his role this way: “I’m not the world’s greatest strategist, or the world’s greatest pollster, or the world’s greatest advertising man, but somebody has to pull these bits together.”
That’s a deceptively chipper job description for a notoriously hard-driving party boss. Finley’s few moments in the public spotlight solidified his reputation as a tough customer. He was once ushered out of a House committee room by security, after he showed up at hearings demanding to testify according to his own timetable, refusing to wait to be called. He banished would-be Tory candidates who didn’t meet with his approval. He lashed out at the CBC in a fundraising letter to Conservative supporters.
But in a rare interview with Maclean’s last week, Finley sounded like the methodical backroom organizer Tory insiders talk of in awestruck tones, rather than the intimidating figure who occasionally emerged to brief bursts of media attention. He sketched a road map to majority that the party will surely try to follow in the next election.
His starting point is elementary election arithmetic. Of the 308 seats in the House, each of the Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois parties, he reckons, can reasonably be allocated about 40 seats at the outset of a campaign. That leaves just 148 up for grabs. So to claim a majority, the winner would need to grab 115 of those ridings. “To win 115 of 148 seats is a huge, huge undertaking,” Finley says. There’s no clear sign of either party cresting toward the roughly 40 per cent of the popular vote needed to accomplish that feat. Conservative and Liberal polling numbers have remained stubbornly consistent since the 2008 election, the Tories in the mid-thirties, the Liberals in the high twenties.
Still, that puts Harper several precious percentage points closer than Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to majority territory. To get the rest of the way, Finley says, means converting voters who can’t be easily corralled under either of the two parties’ banners. “There’s a sizable group of people, perhaps enough to sway an election, who could be Blue Liberals or Red Tories,” he says. How to switch Liberal voters in that centrist group to his side? With a gruff laugh, Finley says they must be “transmogrified”—the trick Calvin, of the defunct Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, while playing a spaceman, accomplished using a hair drier as a ray gun.
In the political playground, the tools used to transform voters aren’t so harmless. Attack ads have been a hallmark of Finley’s style. The most recent batch of Tory TV ads again take aim at Ignatieff’s character. They accuse him of returning to Canada, after about three decades in Britain and the U.S., not to serve his country, but to satisfy his ambition. The acerbic tag line: “He didn’t come back for you.”
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