There was a time, not too long ago, when Ontario’s Progressive Conservative political strategists liberally used the term “big blue machine” to describe themselves.
During the era of Premier Bill Davis, experienced backroom boys such as Dalton Camp and Norman Atkins were skilled political operators with sharp wits and keen minds. They kept their boss high in the polls and popular with the Ontario electorate. (There is a certain irony that left-leaning Red Tories controlled this machine, but I digress.)
Yet, as former federal Progressive Conservative member of Parliament J. Patrick Boyer writes in his intriguing new book, The Big Blue Machine: How Tory Campaign Backrooms Changed Canadian Politics Forever, their influential hand stretched much further. The roots of the Camp/Atkins alliance go back to the 1950s and involve several provincial and federal elections. While distinctly Canadian in outlook and style, there were also dashes of British and American influence.
Camp and Atkins had similar upbringings. Camp was a Canadian who grew up in the United States and then returned to New Brunswick as a young adult. Atkins’s parents were American Canadians, both born in the Maritimes. They moved to New Jersey during World War One, where Atkins was born, but the family maintained a close association with Canada, returning to their New Brunswick cottage each summer.
It was during one of those annual excursions that the six-year-old Atkins, trying to pull his wooden toy wagon up a slope, found himself being helped by Camp, then a young Canadian soldier. The meeting turned into a lifelong friendship. As he once described it, Camp would pride himself on the key role he played in turning a “snotty-nosed kid” into a political operator. He went as far to say, “if I’d become a socialist, Norman would have followed me.” Ironically, Camp appeared, for all intents and purposes, to make this shift in later years. Atkins did not follow.
Camp started out his political life as a Liberal. His skills as a writer impressed New Brunswick premier John McNair and Frank Bridges, a member of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet. Camp would become politically active and wrote a column for the party’s political journal, Liberal Review. “Apart from giving his ego a solid boost,” Boyer points out, it “confirmed for Dalton that the writing he most relished was not reporting news, but instead reflecting on events and commenting on what they forewarned.” It was a perfect training ground for Camp’s eventual role as a newspaper columnist for publications such as The Toronto Star, not to mention serving as valuable preparation for his more celebrated role as a political strategist.
Over time, he became disenchanted with the Liberals. While he had originally viewed the party as being guided by the twin philosophies of “charity and compassion,” he came to believe that it had been corrupted by the expediencies of power. Hence, he reached the dramatic conclusion that “Liberalism had become not a faith but a command.”
In 1949 he shifted to the New Brunswick Tories. As a new convert, he quickly became a proponent of an activist line of attack against his former party. “If the [Liberal] machine could intimidate people,” he later recalled, “we had to intimidate the machine” and that meant a need to “fight fear with fear.” It was this determination that made Camp an important player in John Diefenbaker’s rise to political power in 1957. The two men had strikingly similar politics, argues Boyer, and whatever differences there were between them were easily set aside when they were battling their common enemy, the Grits.
It was this same determination that helped Camp go on to build the big blue machine. He was joined on this political journey by Atkins. His younger disciple, who had served in the military, was now connected to Camp by family ties, as Camp had married Atkins’s sister, Linda, in 1943. In Boyer’s words, the two men “complemented rather than overlapped one another, with Norman increasingly absorbed in operational practicalities that held less interest for Dalton.” Together, they created a political institution that became almost completely fused with the Tory party itself—an institution centred within the fabled confines of the Albany Club as well as the office of Camp’s advertising agency.
To be sure, there were mixed opinions about them. Camp’s mighty struggle against Diefenbaker’s leadership did not endear him to a large number of federal and provincial party members, as shown by the fact that Joe Clark opted not to seek his or Atkins’s counsel after becoming federal party leader.
Their association with Bill Davis was more complicated. Davis’s 1971 Ontario PC leadership campaign did not include either Atkins or Camp because of what was seen as Camp’s “enduring toxicity,” but Davis and the powerful duo patched things up and formed a highly effective alliance from 1971 to 1985. Atkins would also chair Brian Mulroney’s successful 1983 Tory leadership campaign, thanks to Davis’s recommendation, and helped guide him to two majority governments.
How did the big blue machine achieve its goals?
Canada’s Conservatives traditionally adopted views and practices from their British Tory cousins. In contrast, Camp and Atkins admired American political methods, which they viewed, quite rightly, as being far more applicable in the Canadian context. This orientation was shown by their hiring of an American go-between, Philip Lind, whose job was to build ties with U.S. Republican Party operatives and gain greater insight into their sophisticated polling and communication techniques. It was due to the big blue machine’s adoption of these techniques that they found their way to Canada, first in aid of the federal PCs.
The big blue machine also exhibited an unusual degree of secrecy. During the 1967 federal PC party leadership campaign, for example, machine insiders used code names such as “Mother” (Camp) and “Father” (Robert Stanfield), while perfecting a lingo—including key words such as “research,” “the agency” and “the bunker”—to cloak their tactics and actions.
Its organizational skills were also second to none. This is primarily due to Atkins. Former colleague Dianne Axmith described him as someone who was “big on organization, structure, and job descriptions,” who “lived with flow charts,” and picked “the right people for the responsibilities.” This allowed him to devise political messaging and polling practices and to conduct opposition research in the war room. It was masterful, brilliant—and, above all, way ahead of the curve in our country.
Boyer notes that the big blue machine was hardly unassailable. Camp and Atkins had successes, but also made their share of mistakes. Still, through it all, they were able to road-test political innovations that often kept them ahead of their rivals. At the same time, their organization maintained an impressive corporate memory—which allowed them to make the most of these innovations as they evolved and became more refined over time.
Even if one does not support the Red Toryism that Camp and Atkins espoused, it is hard not to admire how ground-breaking the big blue machine actually was. In many ways, it was the beginning of the Conservative revolution in Canada.