Can it be only four years ago that Ed Stelmach was loudly bemoaning the incivility of those notoriously unsuccessful anti-Tory attack ads, the ones that whispered how the premier of the day had "No Plan, No Plan"?
Alert readers will recall how the province's commentariat was unanimous in the view Albertans just wouldn't stand for that sort of thing.
Well, never mind the "Albertans for Change" campaign of 2008. That was then and this is now.
Today, Alberta's election "phoney war" is over and dirty attack advertisements, the kind that caused such hysterical hyperventilation when they were paid for by a coalition of unions, have officially gone mainstream.
For the first time anyone can remember in the 41-year reign of Alberta's Natural Governing Party, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford has gone deeply negative with the release today of radio attack ads targeting the Wildrose Party of Danielle Smith.
What's different with the Tory "air war" now, of course, is that in 2008 the PCs under Stelmach faced no serious contenders -- nor did they in most of the years under premiers Ralph Klein, Don Getty or Peter Lougheed -- so they could afford to project a certain confident bonhomie and campaign with dignity from on high.
Today, even with the popular Redford at the helm, Smith's Wildrose Party is a well-organized and well-financed opposition party clearly favoured by some of the PCs' traditional corporate bagmen. Redford and her election brain trust have obviously identified the Wildrosers as their principal threat, at least in the Calgary area where these first negative radio ads will run.
So with that, all the PC party's traditional restraint and self-righteousness about advertising negativity has gone the way of chivalry and the age of steam.
In fairness, the Wildrosers went negative first in this election cycle with some harsh video spots about Redford late in 2011. But that sort of thing's almost expected most places from opposition parties faced with the challenge of taking on a popular and experienced governing party.
The new ads, which clearly wear the strategic fingerprints of Redford's political strategists and former chief of staff, Stephen Carter, are tough -- they essentially accuse former Fraser Institute apparatchik Smith and her fellow Wildrosers of being in favour of drunk driving and enabling the mayhem it causes.
"Premier Alison Redford is making our streets safer by getting tough on impaired drivers," a grim voice intones in the 30-second radio spot, which refers to Bill 26, the Traffic Safety Amendment Act, a law that would impose "administrative penalties" on drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration above .05, which is lower than the .08 reading set out as legally impaired in the Canadian Criminal Code. The bill has been passed by the Legislature, but has not yet come into force.
"Since 1998, 300 Albertans have been killed by drivers who blew point zero-eight or less," an equally stern female voice picks up. "But Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith says the new rules could 'ensnare couple on a date night'? Let's tell the Wildrose that real leadership is about making decisions to save lives, because 300 Albertans will never have another date night."
The male voice resumes: "Danielle Smith and the Wildrose … not worth the risk."
One interesting aspect of this fight is that Smith and the Wildrosers and Redford and the Tories have been clearly looking at similar research about what makes Albertans tick and have come to startlingly different conclusions about whom to pitch.
Smith and her strategists quickly identified the .05 limit proposed by the Conservatives as a point of vulnerability with traditionally minded Albertans, especially in rural districts. These voters are shown by plenty of polling research to think of themselves as independent minded and resistant to regulation, the kind of people who resent having to wear a seatbelt let alone restrict themselves to a couple of drinks on a date night. Smith has promised if elected to repeal the bill.
Redford and her strategists have identified "soccer moms" -- just the kind of voters who are going to worry about their kids' safety from even slightly intoxicated drivers -- as the constituency that matters.
Well, on an issue like this, only one of them can be right!
As for negative ads, however, get used to them, because they're not going away.
They're not going away because they work -- as, notwithstanding its lack of success on voting day, the Albertans for Change campaign weirdly proved by leaving Stelmach stuck in the minds of Albertans as the premier who had no plan. That perception eventually sunk him.
As for the oft-repeated claim that Albertans hate negative advertising, it is said here that the reaction to the Tories' Danielle-enables-drunk-drivers ads will prove that Albertan commentators only go crazy about negative advertising when non-conservatives pay for it.
This post also appears on David CLimenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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