Live & Learn: Hugh Segal

The senator, political strategist and ad executive on Paul Martin and the Harper government.

Born Oct. 13, 1950, in Montreal • Senator, political strategist, advertising executive

Dismantling government is not in the Canadian conservative tradition. We are communitarians. We’re not wild-eyed individuals über alles. The wealthy can’t build empires without setting basic standards about sanitation, clean water, the right to have breaks.

The present government is under severe constraints. It’s a minority government, and it is conservative by Canadian standards, but not terribly conservative overall. I like Dalton Camp’s characterization: the Liberal party is moderately socialist, the NDP is seriously socialist, and the PC is moderate socialist.

There’s a fifth political party in Ottawa, with its own system of hierarchical privilege, and it’s called the civil service.

We have a labour shortage. Meanwhile, two to three million applications for immigration have been in backlog over the past few years. Yet, the database holding those files doesn’t allow us to go in to find those with the skill sets we need in order to fast-track their applications.

When Prime Minister Paul Martin called to ask me if I’d become a senator, I don’t know who was more surprised — him or me. I said to him, “Prime Minister, I’m Hugh Segal, the Tory, remember? I will sit as a Conservative, and I will work every day for the defeat of your government.” He said, “No, you’re the guy I want.” So, I said, “I’m overwhelmed — and speechless.” And he said, “Exactly. I hope you stay that way.”

In the Senate, the average tenure is now 11 years. There is no legislative body in the world, including the Politburo, where tenure could last that long.

Paul Martin had so many priorities that he appeared to have none. On the campaign in January 2006, I told Stephen Harper, If you can’t pick priorities, you are roadkill. I also said we have to play to the mainstream. Don’t play to the edges. I felt Harper’s views about family, hard work and industry-building were constructive.

The wonderful thing about that campaign was that Harper began it with the promise of respecting the voter, and he showed up every day with a thoughtful message. The other side didn’t show up for the first month.

In my day in the 1980s, I remember crafting ads for the Tories. You responded to an attack that evening, but you’d have to wait until the next morning to see the response go out.

Now you can do the entire cycle of responding to an attack within minutes. Ads that go out on the radio can be responded to on the web or on YouTube, literally within an hour.

The Internet has made politics less duplicitous — there’s clarity, because the same information can be in everyone’s hands and published overnight. But it also creates a more frenetic atmosphere and discourages thoughtful debate.

In the 2006 election, blogs were a significant influence on the outcome. People were doing blogs on the campaign bus, then had the campaign up on YouTube. That diminished the party’s ability to manage access.

The Harper organization was young, and great at managing messages using the Internet. These technologies, by definition, are handled well by younger people, who are acutely attuned to their rhythm. What I like is it has made the role of young people in the party much more important. And that’s a good thing.

The election in 1988 was all about the free trade debate. We decided we had to go at the integrity of John Turner’s message, given the difference between the views on free trade he expressed on Bay Street, and his public position.

The conclusion was why not vote for the guy who really believes what he is saying? It was a straight comparison between one leader who walked the walk and talked the talk, and one who didn’t.

Even people who don’t believe in a plan will prefer someone who has one to someone who doesn’t. That explains the Democrats who voted for Reagan, and the Liberals who voted for Mulroney.

Negotiating NAFTA was just being realistic. There should be free trade. So many people completely misunderstood the nature of the beast. Yet, it’s been a net benefit to Canada.

When Brian Mulroney appointed me chief of staff, he said he liked chubby chiefs of staff. I was appointed for my ability to generate shade.