Thursday, January 12, 2006

Thanks, Liberals for discrediting sleazy attack ads

VICTORIA - The Liberals deserve some credit for exploding an irritating myth about negative attack ads.
Savvy political types smile smugly at critics of negative campaigning. Voters may claim to dislike the ads, but they work, the operatives claim.
Not always, as the stumbling Paul Martin campaign showed this week. If the ads are extreme enough, and stupid enough, and so ridiculous that they insult voters' intelligence, they don't work. They backfire.
And that's especially true when the attacking party has gone through a month of campaigning without establishing strong clear positive reasons why people should vote for them.
I have no real problem with negative advertising. It's fair to drag out your opponents' past comments - like Stephen Harper's apparent support for Canadian involvement in Iraq - and demand that they explain them. (Though it becomes ludicrous when carried to extremes; a Liberal candidate in Ontario is being badgered about a comment he made in 1974 as a student.)
And it's legitimate to draw voters' attention to the flaws of your rivals as part of your overall campaign.
But the Liberals have shown that voters will turn on the attackers if the ads are seen as dishonest or unfair.
The lesson isn't new. The Conservatives were hammered in 1993 when, in an effort to salvage Kim Campbell's doomed campaign, the party ran an ad that mocked Jean Chretien's tilted smile, a a product of facial paralysis that struck in childhood.
It shouldn't be hard to know when the ads have crossed the line.
DIshonesty is fatal. One of the Liberal ads claims Harper "admits he'll have to either raise taxes, or run a deficit" to deliver his campaign promises. That is simply untrue, the Liberals have admitted, although the ad continues to run. The :Liberals don't think the Conservative fiscal plan works, but Harper didn't say any such thing. Another ad suggests Harper's rise was funded by powerful U.S. right-wing interests. The Liberals admit they have not a shred of evidence.
Sleaze is also self-destructive. The famous ad that implies jack-booted soldiers will soon be ordering Canadians around at gunpoint fails the sleaze test. The fact that the ad didn't run makes little difference; the party paid for the ad and posted it on its web site along with the others. It can't pretend it doesn't exist.
What Harper actually proposed during a Courtenay campaign stop two weeks ago was to set up army units of 100 soldiers in big cities where there is no military presence. to improve emergency response. It may not be a good policy, but it isn't a step toward a police state.
Attack ads, in this media savvy age, also can't be transparently manipulative. Both parties have stumbled into that trap, using a sinister looking photo of their opponents' leader as the backdrop to their ads.
And the effectiveness of negative ads depends on the public's attitude toward the attacking party. If voters like you, you can get away with more. If they don't, the ads will be seen as desperate efforts to snatch an election after the party has blown its chance to win legitimately.
At this point in the campaign the polls show the public has grown increasingly disenchanted with Paul Martin. That increases the risk that the ads will be seen as unfair and dishonest.
The big losers are Liberal candidates in close races - people like David Mulroney and Sheila Orr and Keith Martin.
Martin, for example, is battling to hold his seat in Esquimalt, which includes a large naval base. It was damaging to have his party paint members of the Canadian military as menacing oppressors. He says the ad was released by "some idiot" within the party. The party isn't sleazy, just incompetent, he's arguing, a troubling position with one week left in the campaign.
The Liberals could have run effective attack ads. A series of quotes from Conservative hopefuls, for example, on abortion, same sex marriage and First Nations, followed with a question about whether voters can believe Harper, or his candidates. Accurate, negative and acceptable.
The ads are bad news for the Liberals, but perhaps good news for the political process. The public reaction has demonstrated to all parties that voters' tolerance for attack ads is limited, and that parties veering into dishonesty or sleaze will pay a price.
Footnote: Some pundits have wondered if the Liberals intended the controversy, especially over the military ad. Perhaps it was a ploy to allow them to have the ad seen on newscasts while still being able to deny any intent to air it, they speculate. Anyone who has talked to furious Liberal candidates would laugh at the conspiracy theory.


Anonymous said...

A fellow who happens to be in the Canadian navy lives close to us.We were talking about the last time armed guys were at the ready was during the FLQ event. We ended up hauling the whole airborne regiment down there for that thing.

So if Harper was to put some guys in larger towns sort of like a garrison has anyone figured what that would cost? Where would they sleep and what would it prove. Remember Mel Laxmon( sp) the Toronto mayor who called in the army and they ended up shovelling snow. Some towns would be trying to use the guys as paid by somebody else workers.
But the real important question which had no answer was. Where would they get the people as the forces are short staffed now? The government closed that army base in Victoria years ago and moved them to Chilliwack which they closed shortly after that.The army has some sort of a presence in nanaimo years ago but the land is new set aside as a possible treaty land deal. A standing army costs money and nobody wants to pay for it. What forces we have now are pretty busy and cutting them into small groups wouod be of no benefit .

I'm no Liberal but by gosh Martin was right, the right winger mused about the idea so it was fair game as far as I can see. I did put 22 years at the call of the Queen and I sure don't feel offended by the answers the PM gave on that issue.

This country is sort of large but aircraft going east or west do so pretty quickly and take their stuff with them. Martin used the add to remind the Quebec citizens of the bad old days of the war Measures Act in my view. But for lots of other issues I would fight hard to not have them happen

RossK said...

Re: the Footnote.

Do any of those furious Liberal Candidates have any say in the running of the National Campaign