Coming Federal Elections to Be Fought Dirty

Fighting the last war is supposed to be bad military strategy.

Coming Federal Elections to Be Fought Dirty

Fighting the last war is supposed to be bad military strategy. But what if the last war was only last year, and the combatants and the battlefields are all but unchanged? That's the situation federal political parties find themselves in during the current flurry of pre-election positioning and posturing. With spring 2004's campaign so fresh in their memories, their tacticians can hardly be faulted for looking back at it as they brace for the rematch that opposition leaders are scheming to trigger in early January, and the Prime Minister is hoping to put off until late February. In fact, the hard lessons of the election in which Paul MARTIN eked out his present minority are inevitably dominating all their strategies for next time out. And the biggest one that the Liberals and Conservatives learned, according to key advisers to both parties' leaders, is that playing rough works - especially when it comes to election advertising.

Top strategists leave little doubt about the main thing they took to heart concerning voter behaviour last time around, and it doesn't have much to do with democracy's uplifting side. "Voters just didn't respond to positive messages, but they had a hunger for negative ads," said one senior Liberal, who asked not to be named. An influential Tory election planner agreed, and said the key strategic question for Stephen HARPER's campaign team is how tough they can risk making their own ads in the face of the expected Liberal onslaught. Some Conservatives want to counterpunch as hard as possible, but others are warning they must be careful not to come across as angry right-wingers. "We've put a lot of effort into the way Stephen talks and acts to minimize this angry-guy thing that gets laid on him, and on the whole party," said the Tory insider.

No wonder Jack LAYTON, while claiming to be in the driver's seat last week, looked like he was worried about being run off the road. He has to be concerned that any NDP campaign pitch might be lost in the din of a clash between the big parties as they amplify the harshest notes of the last campaign. Still, Layton took centre stage, at least briefly, with his proposal for an unorthodox ousting of the Martin minority: the three opposition parties would vote on Nov. 24, not to defeat the Liberal government immediately, but to let it linger until after Christmas, setting an early January start for the campaign. Not surprisingly, Martin declined to meekly allow his government to become a mouse to be worried by three cats until they are ready to dispatch it at a time of their choosing.

Liberals said Layton's unusual plan was outside parliamentary rules, and Martin all but dared the NDP, Tories and Bloc to gang up and vote him out with a conventional non-confidence motion. "If the opposition doesn't want us to govern, then they have mechanisms they can use," he said. "And I think they should stop the games they are playing." Clearly, Martin is hoping they blink at the prospect of annoying voters by forcing holiday campaigning. That might allow him to call the election himself, as he has promised to do, no more than a month after Justice John Gomery's second report on the sponsorship scandal, which is due on Feb. 1. Gomery will be making a raft of proposals for government reforms aimed at preventing future scandals - reforms Martin will almost certainly embrace, giving his Liberals the chance to claim that the abuses of the affair have been permanently washed out of Ottawa's system.

Predicting with any certainty how the parliamentary manoeuvring over timing will play out is impossible. But while the parties feud publicly about just about everything, in not-for-attribution interviews their campaign thinkers were largely in agreement in their broad predictions about the way the campaign will run. Liberals emphasized their success in targeting ads in key markets, especially ridings around Toronto in the campaign's final days, and in tailoring the content of those surgical strikes to move specific groups of swing voters. "The central factor in shifting voting attitudes was that we put ourselves in a position from a resources standpoint and an operations standpoint where we could rapidly adjust our buy and our content," said one Liberal tactician. "We were in a game of inches. So we would take our inches and then take another set of inches."

A key example of this approach was the airing of a TV ad that linked Harper with former prime minister Brian MULRONEY and former Ontario premier Mike HARRIS. Some outside observers speculated that the aim was to lure back Liberal voters who had switched to the New Democrats. But one senior Liberal said the real target audience was Ontario men between 35 and 50 who were planning to vote Tory, but who harboured lingering misgivings about how Mulroney had left the country with huge deficits, and how Harris's tax cuts were blamed for putting the province in a tough fiscal position. "So you conjure up the image of Mulroney, a residual image, with the more resonant image of Mike Harris," the Liberal said. That ad, which was aired in certain parts of Ontario for four or five days in the crucial dying days of last year's campaign, was regarded as enormously successful by the Liberal brain trust.

Conservatives and New Democrats don't dispute that. As a result, both expect to see more negative Liberal ads designed to push the buttons of particular voters at key moments, in regions that matter. Tories admit that last year, with the election coming soon after Harper won the leadership of their newly united party, they just weren't ready to strike back with similar precision. "We didn't have the kind of experience that we needed on the ad side," said one Conservative aide who is close to Harper. This time, though, the party is far better prepared, he said, partly because it went through a virtual dry run for the campaign last spring when Harper tried to fell the Liberal minority, in the wake of Gomery commission testimony that sent the Liberals temporarily plummeting in the polls.

The Tories vow to be more sophisticated in the coming campaign about where and when they run key ads. But they concede that the Liberals can afford to be more aggressive, because voters and the media may give Liberals more leeway for edgy imagery. The most memorable Liberal ad last year included a series of frightening images, among them a desert battlefield scene, illustrating their charge that Harper would have put Canadian soldiers in Iraq, and a handgun aimed at the viewer, to drive home their claim that Tories are soft on gun control. "If the Conservative party ran an ad with a handgun shooting you in your living room," said one Tory insider, "we'd be reduced to two seats." Last time out, the party tried to lighten its attacks on Liberals with humour, in ads such as the one on government waste featuring a dump truck full of cash. In the coming campaign, however, Conservatives say some of their ads on the theme of corruption will be less amusing, and more direct. One key difference between the two parties: Liberals don't hesitate to vilify Harper, while Conservatives say their ads will tend to attack the Liberal brand rather than Martin himself.

With the Liberals embracing attack ads and the Tories shifting in that direction, where does that leave the other parties? The Bloc is sanguine, believing the Gomery fallout makes its dominance of Quebec all but undisputed. Privately, Liberals don't really dispute that, mapping out a defensive campaign in the province. As for the NDP, its strategists concede that history suggests the party could be in grave danger. Last year, they lost seats in Ontario in the dying days of the campaign as apparently committed NDP supporters fearful of a Conservative victory swung to the Liberals. Previously, election watchers hotly debated whether a significant outbreak of that sort of so-called strategic voting was possible. Now, generating one is a key preoccupation of Liberal insiders. "The idea was that strategic voting doesn't exist, but the thing is, it happened," said one.

New Democrats are looking way past last year's disappointment for cautionary tales. They recall all too vividly how voters effectively punished them for propping up Liberal minorities in the early sixties and seventies. After using their House leverage to influence policy, New Democrats watched the Liberals bounce back at their expense. Could Layton's success last spring in reshaping the Liberal budget similarly fail to boost his party's ballot box clout? Jamie Heath, Layton's communications director, admits that is a real possibility. And an even more sustained negative Liberal campaign, designed to stoke voter fears about the Conservatives, seems to heighten the prospect of the NDP losing visibility in a highly polarized race. "It's consistent with the Liberal Party of Canada's approach over many years," Heath said.

Nobody is hoping the NDP avoids that fate more than the Conservatives. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Tory strategy is what the party's strategists hope Harper will not have to do - if Layton plays the role they hope he will. "A dream campaign for us is if the NDP can stay consistent - and, Lord, please help them - in attacking the Liberals every day on health care," said one senior Conservative. "We'll take care of attacking them on Gomery." The idea is that Layton has credibility when it comes to defending public health, which Harper lacks - especially with Alberta's Tory government making untimely noises about health reforms that would shift toward more private care.

Sustained NDP salvos on health and Tory assaults on ethics might create an opposition pincer movement against the Liberals. Martin will counter with a classic bid to vilify the Conservatives, creating a climate of fear to drain off NDP support in the key theatres like suburban Ontario and urban British Columbia. For Liberals, the task is to create a campaign from the outset that echoes their last-ditch, hard-hitting rally last year. For the Tories and NDP, the challenge is to prevent the Liberals from playing them off against each other. One thing all parties share is a grim, no-nonsense view of the task at hand. Whenever it comes, get ready for a contest that's more about invective than inspiration - with the Liberals as tough as they can be, the Tories as tough as they dare be, and the NDP just trying to tough it out.

Maclean's November 21, 2005