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.

NDP picks up Southern Interior seat from Tories

OK, that's a little premature.
But Stephen Harper's reasonable decision to dump candidate Derek Zeisman should hand the riding to New Democrat Alex Atamanenko.
The race was already expected to be close.
But then came the news that Zeisman is charged with attempting to smuggle a used Mercedes and alcohol into Canada, and hadn't told the party about his legal problems. Harper said it's too late to drop Zeisman as a candidate, but he won't be allowed to sit as a Conservative if he's elected.
Not much chance of that.
Score a gain for the New Democrats.

Beware the experts in the campaign's last days (Not me, of course, those other guys)

VICTORIA - Most of the experts telling you what's going on in this election are likely no more astute than the average lab rat.
That's the conclusion - perhaps slightly overstated - of an American book that looks at the performance of political commentators, and it's an important thing to remember as the campaign enters its final days. People who plan to vote strategically to block a Liberal or Conservative government are likely relying on the experts' analysis, if only to assess the closeness of the local and national races. Other voters may be interested in pundits' predictions on how the parties would behave if elected.
But Philip Tetlock's' book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It, shows those voters could be led badly astray. (I haven't read the book, just a fine review by Louis Menand in the New Yorker. At least I confess my knowledge gaps.)
Tetlock, from the University of California, has spent 20 years studying the accuracy and quality of experts' opinions. He's tracked the pronouncements of the academics and pundits who show up on the news offering their analysis - or write columns like this.
The experts are no more insightful or accurate than the average citizen, he found. In fact the more well-known they are, and the more frequently quoted, the less likely their predictions and judgments are to be accurate.
Tetlock set up experiments to test the insight and acumen of 284 experts over a long period, asking for predictions on topics within their areas. Then he measured their success, and found you would do better by writing the options on a wall and throwing a dart blindfolded.
So why do these smart people, paid for their insight and expertise, get it so wrong?
A bunch of reasons. Experts feel pressure to come up with predictions and opinions that are clever and somewhat surprising. You don't get invited back to a TV panel or asked to write more newspaper op-ed pieces if you state the obvious. I do radio and TV commentary from time to time. Often the interviewer winds up the interview by asking what's going to happen next on the topic of the day, and I sense disappointment if I say I have no idea, or state the obvious. No one likes to disappoint.
So experts look for obscure angles, or complicated ideas that are novel, interesting and reinforce their status as smart observers. Because they've studied the issues, they can grab bits of information to support their view. The problem is that the most obvious analysis is often the right one.
That's why lab rats can be better at making predictions. Tetlock writes about a Yale study where rats were placed in a T-shaped maze, with food at the end of one of the arms. The food placement appeared random, but it was placed at the end of the left arm 60 per cent of the time. The rats figured that out, and started going left most often, playing the percentages. Yale students were asked to observe the experiment, and say where they thought the food would be each time. They looked for patterns, and trends, and did worse than the rats at predicting because they ignored the obvious in favour of complex theories.
And experts, once they develop those theories, tend to stick to them and bend the facts to fit their views.
None of this means experts are irrelevant. It simply reminds us to be skeptical, to test the analysis and predictions against our own knowledge as well as the comments of others. It's a good time for that reminder. Many voters will be making complex calculations over the next few days, about the likely outcome of the election and the real agendas of the parties. It's reasonable to look for the experts for help.
But it's important to remember that they are quite likely to be wrong.
Footnote: The other trend is the emergence of the psuedo-expert, the pundits with close ties to each of the parties who gather to engage in predictable partisan bickering under the guise of commentary. The panels have become a media staple, even though they add little fresh or original to the public debate.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Skeena Liberal hopeful stomps out of all-candidates meeting over corruption charges

From the always interesting Smithers Interior News, we learn one Liberal candidate has an unusual way of dealing with the corruption question.
Liberal Gordon Stamp-Vincent has no chance of winning the riding. But his unusual approach to all-candidates' meetings could still matter. The NDP hopes Nathan Cullen can hold the huge riding; the Conservatives have hopes for Mike Scott, a two-term Reform MP for Skeena. Stamp-Vincent's outburst could shift potential Liberal supporters to the NDP.
Be interesting, given his demand for civil debate, to hear how he feels about the Liberal attack TV ads that accuse Harper of being funded by U.S. right-wing extremists and plotting some sort of military coup.

Liberal unapologetic for storming out of Houston meeting
By Thomas Barker
Smithers Interior News
HOUSTON — Skeena-Bulkley Valley Liberal candidate Gordon Stamp-Vincent stormed out of the all candidates forum at the Community Hall in Houston Monday night shortly after the candidates had finished their opening remarks.
The political rookie from Prince Rupert used his rebuttal card after a media question to Green Party candidate Phil Brienese to demand an apology from Conservative Mike Scott for allegations of Liberal corruption.
Stamp-Vincent said the allegations were insulting to him personally and many other honest hard-working people who belong to or work for the Liberal Party.
"I will have an apology, sir," Stamp Vincent said handing Scott the microphone.
Debate moderator Arnold Amonson intervened before Scott could reply but after the very next question, Scott used his rebuttal card to respond.
Scott requested a show of hands from the audience of how many people did not think the Liberal Party is corrupt to which only a few people responded.
"Are you going to demand an apology from all of these people too, Mr. Stamp-Vincent," Scott asked.
Stamp-Vincent immediately stood up and left the hall saying: "I do not have to take that, certainly not from you, sir."
All of the other candidates were dismayed by the disrespect the display represented to Houston voters.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," said NDP-incumbent Nathan Cullen.
On Tuesday, Stamp-Vincent stood by his behaviour.
"I felt I had to make more than a statement, I had to take an action," he said.
"I've knocked on over a thousand doors and most of the people I've talked to are disgusted with the negative campaigning."
During closing remarks, Scott used part of his two minutes to assure the audience that his corruption allegations were directed at the Liberal Party and not at Stamp-Vincent personally.
"I hope you all know that," Scott said. "I hope [Stamp-Vincent] knows that."
Stamp-Vincent, however, was not appeased.
"[The accusation] was directed at Liberals, I'm a Liberal as are many other honest Canadians," he said.
"It's a tactic to broadly smear a group based on the actions of four people.
"Sorry, that's not acceptable and there's a little more explaining to be done."

Monday, January 09, 2006

Martin stumbles, and a Conservative government looms

VICTORIA - Paul Martin was terrible in the leaders' debate Monday, and the question now is what that means for the last two weeks of this campaign.
I'm writing this minutes after the leaders have delivered their well-rehearsed closing statements. There is always the chance that I got it all wrong as I scribbled notes for two hours.
But Martin's performance looked sadly desperate and floundering. He appeared to be mentally searching through the key talking points his handlers had insisted he memorize, only to find them all jumbled and somehow wrong, and blurting out some barely relevant line. An actor auditioning, once again, for a role he needed terribly but probably wasn't going to get.
Partly Martin is the victim of expectations. He's been doing this job for almost 20 years, and working towards being prime minister most of that time. That creates an expectation of some skill, and perhaps a performance that could pull a faltering Liberal campaign back on track.
That didn't happen. Martin was semicoherent, off-topic, slightly crabby, offering a stream of obviously pat answers and rehearsed ad libs. There was no sense of the man, what he cared about or what he really would do in the next few years.
And he seemed desperate, among the most unattractive qualities in anyone seeking our love or affection.
Suddenly, from nowhere, Martin proposed changing the Canadian constitution. The federal government should never be able, even in extraordinary circumstances, to use the nothwithstanding clause to override the charter of rights, he said.
It's an obviously clunky effort to get same sex marriage back on the agenda. Maybe, Martin was suggesting, Harper would break his promise not to use the notwithstanding clause to ban gay marriages.
I'm an extremist on individual rights and freedoms.
But this is reckless. In Martin's new world, everything would be left to the courts and Parliament would have no recourse as judges interpreted the charter of rights.
And since Martin has not said one word about this major constitutional change before this week, it also looks terrible. The Liberals are prepared to mess around with the constitution to score a few political points.
The ploy was also ineffective. Stephen Harper brushed off the attack, saying he thought the current constitutional balance between Parliament and the courts was reasonable. He positioned himself as the man in the middle.
Harper and Jack Layton were not brilliant, but they consistently did better than Martin.
Harper's job was to avoid frightening people, and he succeeded. I'm not sure people who watched the debate ended up liking him better, but I don't think they would be scared. Harper seemed a slightly too smart policy wonk, but not terrifying. ("My strengths are not spin, or passion, and you know that," he said.)
Layton and the NDP should be much energized by the debate. He did fine, but that's not the news. Martin's collapse means a Conservative minority government is now looking very likely. Potential New Democrat supporters who were prepared to vote Liberal in order to block Harper can now return to the fold. The New Democrats had faced being caught in a squeeze between the two main parties. Now they can hope for four or five more seats in British Columbia.
We're in a complicated feedback loop now. If the Conservatives look sure to win - a good bet after the debate - will some people who just wanted to the Liberals a lesson have second thoughts? Where they will go?
But people who watched the debate saw the end of Martin's political career. It's strange in many ways. Canadians are working, the economy is strong, the government is paying down debt, yet Martin couldn't make that part of the debate.
Momentum does matter in politics. As the campaign winds down, and on election day, the party with the keenest volunteers will have an advantage.
Today, that is not much likely to be the Liberals.
Footnote: It was a long two hours for viewers looking for B.C. issues. Layton raised raw log exports, and Martin talked about the advantages of having Pacific ports. But that was it in terms of the province's special issues.