Musings —04.06.2013 07:58 AM—
The news that the Conservatives are planning attack ads against Justin Trudeau isn’t news. It’s what Stephen Harper’s party does, and they do it well.
If the Harper Conservatives are to be remembered for anything, it will be their brutal efficiency in dispatching Liberal opponents. In 2006, 2008 and 2011, the Conservatives haven’t won as much as they have beaten Liberals. It’s a critical distinction.
While each of the Conservatives’ anti-Liberal ad campaigns are qualitatively different in some way, there is a thread that runs through all of them. It is the notion that Harper is the Tim Hortons-loving hockey dad, the everyman.
While his Liberal adversaries are out-of-touch elitists and (quite literally, in one case) aliens.
Paul Martin? Conservative campaign advertising suggested Martin, a multi-millionaire who owned ships flying Liberian flags, was indifferent to serial scandals, and — most critically — wasn’t at all “like them.”
Stephane Dion? Martin’s successor was a weakling and “not worth the risk.” (The fact he possessed French citizenship, and an inability to speak English well, was an unexpected bonus.)
Michael Ignatieff? A geeky foreigner. The Conservative barrage reminded viewers that Ignatieff, like Dion, was a pointy-headed academic — and that he had spent decades abroad and was “just visiting” Canada. “He didn’t come back for you,” either, they hissed.
Past political behaviour is the best predictor of future political behaviour. If it worked once, it could work again. So we can reasonably expect the forthcoming anti-Trudeau smears will focus on his other-worldliness: His privileged background, his perceived dilettantism, his unfamiliarity with the everyday lives of everyday Canadians.
The “not like you” theme is as simple as it is effective. Thus, Conservatives have been busily scrutinizing focus group data for months, zeroing in on one or two things about Justin Trudeau’s personality that can be exaggerated into gaping fatal flaws.
But two can play that game. If the Trudeau Liberals are smart — and if they figure out how to get Trudeau to rescind his recent foolish “no negative ads” pledge — they will quickly familiarize themselves with the Conservative advertising playbook.
Developing a campaign that suggests Harper isn’t an all-Canadian regular guy is a waste of time.
After nearly a decade, Harper’s persona is familiar to millions of Canadians. They feel he is the leader most likely to understand their lives.
But that doesn’t mean they like him, however. Polls reveal vulnerabilities in the Conservative leader’s populist armour. A recent Angus Reid poll, for instance, found nearly 70% of all Canadians still feel he has a hidden agenda.
An earlier Angus Reid poll found that almost a third of Canadians feel he has been the worst prime minister in decades, and fully half of them “dislike” Harper.
An Ipsos poll at the start of the year found that, outside Alberta, most Canadians do not feel a kinship with Harper’s values. Indeed, the same poll found about 60% of them don’t even want him to run again in 2015. On the policy front, Harper is vulnerable on the economy, taxes, the environment and (particularly) health care.
Successive polls have shown Canadians feel their lives have worsened during Harper’s reign – and that he harbours a not-so-secret desire to gut the environment and privatize health care.
To offset the coming anti-Trudeau torrent, then, the Liberals need to put together ads that turn the tables on Harper. He, in fact, is the one who is “just visiting” — he’s angry, he’s aloof and his values are un-Canadian. And, however much he runs the country, he still does not seem to like the country.
The Conservative attack ads are coming. Will Justin Trudeau turn the other cheek, or respond in kind?
If they are to have any hope at all, Liberals should pray it’s the latter.