Who has time on his side?

In a 1964 Rolling Stones record of the same name, Mick Jagger sang that, “Time is on my side.” Apparently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a similar message in mind when he announced that Governor General David Johnson had dissolved the 41st Parliament and issued the writ for a federal election on October 19. At 78 days, the campaign period is the longest in Canadian history since 1872. With the election so far off and the major parties in a virtual tie in the polls, Harper may believe that time is on his side and that voters who have deserted his party will come “running back” in the same way that Jagger sang about getting back a lover who wanted “to be free.”

Harper probably invisions that time will bring about a turn around in the Canadian economy to his party’s advantage. A massive war chest means the Conservatives also have significantly more money to spend than the other contenders over the course of a lengthy campaign.

In the meantime, what any of the three parties in contention really need is a game changer to take the upper hand in the present campaign while providing a good dose of entertainment. Although at this time and with three party leaders in question, it’s hard — at this stage in the campaign — to imagine any of them hitting upon the right combination to win a majority government.

Perhaps, they should look for their inspiration from past campaigns in order to turn adversity into electoral success.

Unlike today’s aspirants — Harper, the Liberal’s Justin Trudeau and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair — Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, a Conservative, had a deft command of the fine art of making a subtle point in a public setting, allowing him to turn what many perceived as potentially campaign-destroying adversity into a strength. For example, he once appeared on the same stage as an opposition Reform (Liberal) candidate in a North Ontario constituency.

“When he mounted the platform, after having taken too much strong drink and being shaken over a rough track on the train,” wrote E.B. Biggar in his book, Anecdotal Life of Sir John A. Macdonald (1891),  “he became sick and vomited on the platform while his opponent was speaking. Such a sight before a large audience disgusted even many of his friends, and the prospects for the Conservative cause that day was not bright.

“The opposing candidate, whom we will call Jones, ceased speaking, and John  A. rose to reply. What could he say, or how could he act to redeem himself and gain respect or attention?

“‘Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, he began, ‘I don’t know how it is, but every time I hear Mr. Jones speak it turns my stomach!’ The conception was so grotesque and so unexpected, that the audience went off in fits of laughter, and disgust was instantly turned into general good humour and sympathy.”

Macdonald ranks among Canada’s greatest prime ministers, despite his occasional lapse into binge drinking. He had a “national dream,” and he carried it out while in power. His greatest accomplishment was linking Canada by rail from the Atlantic to the Pacific, creating a unified nation in the process. But for all his achievements, he still possessed flaws that would effectively prevent him from becoming prime minister today.

There was the occasion when a writer attempted to make a verbatim shorthand report of a speech delivered by Macdonald at a political rally in Kingston. Macdonald looked over the written copy with “pain and surprise,” according to Sir John Willison (Reminiscences Political and Personal, 1919), “and with the mild austerity of a grieving father added, ‘Young man, if you ever again undertake to report the speech of a public man be sure that you keep sober.’”

Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s next prime minister, who berated Macdonald for his overindulgences, was on the hustings attacking the Ontario government as a pawn of Macdonald and the Conservatives during the 1872 election campaign, and said the Grits (Liberals) stood for “correct administration and parliamentary purity” (Dale E. Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie, Clear Grit, 1960).

“Mackenzie told the electors; he and his fellow-campaigners were ‘clear grit in every sense of the word.’ What did it mean? called someone in Strathroy. ‘Clear Grit,’ he replied with an impatient flash of his steely, blue eyes, and an extra rasp of the Scottish brogue, ‘is pure and without a particle of dirt in it.’”

As today, partisan politics was rampant in the early days. Oxford historian Goldwin Smith, who became a Canadian journalist, was attending his first political picnic rally in his adopted nation. “After listening to the speakers harangue their opponents, Smith drew an old farmer aside and asked him what the real difference was between his party and the other (Abraham Rotstein, ed., The Prospect of Change, 1965). The farmer thought long before replying. ‘We say the other fellows are corrupt.’”

But not all politicians could control their message. Campaign-changing errors periodically popped up. Nicholas Flood Davin, known as the “Voice of the North-West” as the Conservative MP for Assiniboia West in Saskatchewan, was enlisted to help Conservative candidates in Ontario. Davin prized his reputation for “ready retorts” (Hector Charlesworth, More Candid Chronicles, 1928), “and was even accused of preparing such retorts beforehand and placing hostile agents in his audiences to ask seemingly embarrassing questions, which would be swiftly and amusingly answered. Next morning the report would read ‘With ready wit, Mr. Davin silenced his questioner, etc., etc.’”

Unfortunately for Davin, his ego got the better of him when he addressed a meeting for a Conservative candidate in Owen Sound. Before leaving Ottawa, he took the precaution of giving the Ottawa Citizen, then a Conservative Party organ, a copy  of his speech. “The copy had the phrase ‘Cheers and applause’ interlarded at appropriate intervals. It was also studded with questions to which the speaker had responded ‘with ready wit.’”

A blizzard struck and Davin could not reach the rally, so he sent a wire to the Citizen editor, “Let the speech go,” meaning not to publish it, but the message was interpreted as giving permission for its printing. “The undelivered speech therefore appeared next morning with ‘cheers and applause,’ ‘ready retorts,’ and other ornaments in their proper place.” Dr. George Landerkin, a Liberal MP, learned the facts and read the undelivered speech as reported in the Ottawa Citizen in the House of Commons to the embarrassment of Davin, “giving diabolical emphasis to the ‘cheers and applause’ and the ‘ready wit,’” wrote Charlesworth.

Politicians of yesteryear risked their careers by engaging the public and appearing in the “raw.” Regardless of his state of inebriation, one can only imagine how Macdonald would have done in a televised debate against today’s three sober hopefuls.  In the end, the three major party leaders are now each wondering if time is on their side, or is it their enemy?