Norm Atkins was the Big Blue Machine

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Sun Media, Friday, October 1, 2010

Norman Atkins, who has died at 76, was the head of the Big Blue Machine and the most successful political organizer in modern Canadian history.

Atkins delivered four consecutive victories for Bill Davis in Ontario, and then played a major role in securing majority governments as campaign director for Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988. He also organized winning campaigns for Richard Hatfield in his adopted home province of New Brunswick, as well as Robert Stanfield in Nova Scotia, Brian Peckford in Newfoundland and Duff Roblin in Manitoba.

Those are hall of fame numbers. “Norman had his innings,” Mulroney said Thursday. “He was in a class by himself.”

Atkins was the first person Mulroney reached out to after winning the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1983. On orders from Davis, the Ontario organization had been idling in neutral in the leadership campaign, but rather than punishing the Davis machine, Mulroney reached out to it.

“Mulroney understood he needed the organization in Ontario,” recalled Harry Near, a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa who was director of operations under Atkins in the 1984 and 1988 elections.

The Big Blue Machine, so named in a book by Jonathan Manthorpe on the Davis team in the 1970s, went national with those two federal majorities in the 1980s. The first election in 1984 resulted in the biggest landslide in Canadian history, 211 Conservative members in what was then a 282-seat House. The second in 1988 was the momentous free-trade election.

Atkins and the Big Blue Machine didn’t just put buses on the road (and Fred Watson has driven every Tory leader from Joe Clark to Stephen Harper). Because of his background in advertising, Atkins was a big believer in polling and advertising. The Big Blue Machine was also a very close group — so tight they had their own tennis tournament, the Inter-Provincial Tennis Classic and Rough-in, which Atkins organized every year.

“Spring or fall, depending on whether there was an election on,” recalled Near. “And nine times out of 10, Norman would win it.”

Atkins’ business, Camp Advertising, did very well by his political activities. Mulroney gave him the biggest plum of all — the federal tourism account. He also put Atkins in the Senate in 1986, a traditional reward for a prime minister’s campaign organizer.

But Atkins wasn’t in it for that. He loved organizing, loved building a team, and he loved to win. Under pressure, he had nerves of ice, and he also knew how to regroup and move on from a campaign’s mistakes.

This was never more evident than in the 1988 campaign, in which John Turner touched a sensitive chord when he told Mulroney in the leaders’ debate that he had “sold us out” to the United States over free trade. After the Tory numbers cratered overnight, Mulroney went back on the road and, as Near has said, “carried the whole campaign on his back for two weeks,” while Atkins and his team got the advertising air wars turned around. The result was only the second consecutive Conservative majority since Sir John A. Macdonald.

At the end of his life, Atkins was slowed by diabetes, which was a complicating factor in his death of a heart attack on Tuesday. But he lived to see the Conservatives returned to power with a sweep of his beloved New Brunswick on Monday. How he must have enjoyed that.

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