The Liberal attack ads aimed at B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins show that Christy Clark was wise to ditch the idea of a fall election.
Because if the campaign matched the ads for sleazy, self-destructive incompetence, the Liberals would be routed.
The Liberals launched the attack last week with radio ads, a website and news releases, with Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak, apparently because of her conservative credentials, charged with leading the attack.
The radio ads capture the tone. A man and a woman are talking about Cummins.
“He opposed Christy’s minimum wage increase but takes a $100,000 pension from taxpayers,” the snarky woman says. “Another unprincipled politician,” the guy responds.
“He says he quote ‘owes it to his offspring,’” the woman snipes. You can’t trust Cummins, they conclude. (The quote about accepting the pension for the sake of his children is 16 years old.)
It’s a fair criticism, but not from the Liberals. They ran on a promise to get rid of MLA pensions, then brought in a rich pension plan that would be the envy of anyone in the private sector. Gordon Campbell will actually be eligible to collect a higher provincial pension — around $125,000 while still on the federal government payroll as high commissioner to London.
In the other ad, the couple grumble that Cummins, who says he voted NDP in the last provincial election, isn’t a real Conservative.
“A joke,” the guy grumps.
“So Cummins pretends he's a Conservative, then votes NDP,” the woman says. “Just what we need, another unprincipled politician."
“How can you trust a politician like Cummins who says one thing and does another?”
Challenging Cummins conservative credentials is ludicrous. He was elected as a Reform MP in 1993, then as a Canadian Alliance member and a Conservative. He’s a strong social and fiscal conservative. (Probably too strong for many B.C. voters.)
His NDP vote just illustrates his disdain for the provincial Liberals.
And how could Clark and company have been so tone deaf as to include the line criticizing politicians who say one thing and do another?
They’ve just been slapped for doing exactly that with the HST. Then there are the promises not to sell B.C. Rail, rip up contracts or expand gambling, all examples of politicians who say one thing and do another.
Cummins has the Liberals in a panic. They are concerned, rightly, that the Conservatives could attract enough of their support to allow an NDP victory. In 1996, Reform took just nine per cent of the vote, and the New Democrats won. The Conservatives were at 18 per cent support in a May Mustel Group poll.
But the ads were a gift to Cummins, who remains unknown in much of the province. The Liberals brought media attention, largely positive, to their nemesis. It was remarkably dumb.
The radio ads, and the anti-Cummins website with the standard attack ad creepy photo and allegations, also tie Clark to dishonest, sleazy, American-style attack ads — hardly a good thing for someone promising a new style of politics.
The ads sometimes work. The federal Conservatives attacked Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff relentlessly with slimy ads, and succeeded in defining them in negative ways.
But they are fundamentally dishonest and destructive to democracy and public life, encouraging mindless division and contempt for all politicians.
There are lots of reasons to criticize Cummins and the Conservatives and their policy positions. But these ads are about smearing a person, and presenting him not just as wrong, but as corrupt and “a joke.”
That should concern anyone who hopes for a functioning democracy.
And Liberals should also be concerned that the party has spent money on an amateurish smear campaign that does more damage to its own cause than the target.
Footnote: Cummins is a challenge for the Liberals. He’s skilled and quick — almost two decades in federal politics will do that — and has a reputation for speaking his mind and representing his constituents’ interests. He’s too extreme for many voters, but offers an alternative for people who would never vote NDP, but are angry at the Liberals, as well as voters who sat out the last few elections because they didn’t see a credible party that represented them.