'Trust me, I'm lying': The dark side of election 2015

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As the Official Opposition, Tom Mulcair and the NDP caucus did a great job in undermining the credibility of the Harper government; then Justin Trudeau reaped the rewards by sowing doubts about "Tom Mulcair's NDP" throughout election 2015.

Trust Me, I'm Lying is the title of a popular book about public relations in the online age, where image trumps substance and perception is everything.

Campaign managers want to know what is effective, what resonates, what works to activate voters. That is where political truth gets confused with dirty politics.

Party backrooms use opposition research -- dirt dug up on opponents -- to create the controversy media like to present as campaign coverage.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair was singled out. A clip of him as Quebec Liberal environment minister supporting bulk water exports to the U.S. was made available to the media. His videotaped statements in the Quebec National Assembly praising Margaret Thatcher got widely covered.

The Liberals wanted to kneecap Mulcair, but so did Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe. "He says one thing in English and another in French" was a Liberal talking point picked up by the Bloc leader, and repeated constantly with effect. This kind of accusation (made about Mulcair on Energy East and Quebec nationalism) is virtually impossible to refute, and no proof is required to make it stick. Having people hear it repeated is enough.

In Quebec, where $7-a-day child care is in place, the main NDP platform promise of $15-a-day child care did not carry much weight. If this was not obvious to NDP insiders before the campaign, it was to the Liberals who countered it with a plan to provide additional cash to lower-income families.

In a major upset, the Liberals won 40 Quebec seats. During the campaign, the NDP slipped from a commanding lead of nearly 50 per cent in Quebec to half that by election day. It fell to 16 seats compared to 59 won in 2011, losing nine seats to the Bloc and six to the Conservatives.

In a campaign where talking points dominated the airwaves, Liberal messaging came out on top. As Althia Raj shows in her Huffington Post essay, the Liberals were able to counter the two years of negative advertising by the Conservatives with timely, creative, campaign TV spots.

Election 2015 turned out not to be a fair fight. The Liberals ran Dad Justin, against Granddad Tom, using youth and energy to advantage.

On economic policy, the Liberals gathered together some credible brainpower and finely tuned what was common economic knowledge to great advantage.

The NDP decided to play against media typecasting, by pledging to balance the budget. The party may have gotten CBC At Issue panelist Andrew Coyne to vote for them, but it gave away the ballot question to the Liberals.

Who best represents a change from the Conservatives meant who was willing to do things differently from the Conservatives, not who was willing to be fiscally conservative like the Harper government. 

Losing credibility on the economy loses a government the election. In the run-up to October 19, the Canadian economy went into recession, spelling trouble for the Harper Conservatives.

An external shock, a steep fall in the price of oil, was the proximate cause. The economic slowdown was widely felt across Canada, and not just in Alberta.

As Tom Mulcair suggested, the Conservatives had put all the eggs in one basket, then dropped the basket.

Liberal advisers suggested borrowing money and investing in public works, responding to the external shock with infrastructure investment. Trudeau called it investing in Canada's future.

For no obvious reason given the serious economic problems facing Canada (that go far beyond the falling oil price), the NDP campaign decided to contrast NDP success in balancing budgets in Saskatchewan with the deficits run by Ottawa Conservatives. Structural problems with Canadian manufacturing, the falling dollar, the external deficit, foreign control of the economy, or corporate tax evasion, all got short shrift.

Former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Andrew Thomson was recruited to run against federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver in his Toronto riding. His successive provincial surplus budgets were supposed to show that the NDP understood the economy and should be entrusted with power.

Thomson became a major voice in Toronto and nationally, speaking on the NDP talking point: why balanced budgets made good economic sense.

The main problem with this claim is that it is wrong. Budget deficits occur when the economy is weak; a strong economy produces surpluses. Trying to balance the budget in a weak economy makes things worse.

The 17 straight Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) budget surpluses under Tommy Douglas -- a favourite NDP campaign factoid -- took place in an economy growing after the Second World War.

As NDP finance critic, in 2007 Tom Mulcair (along with the Liberals) urged the Harper government to go into deficit to fight the serious downturn. The minority Conservatives agreed in order to stay in power.

After the unfortunate Andrew Thomson had explained how the NDP was going to balance the budget, days later the Liberals came out with their "Real Change" platform: borrowing to create wealth, taking a risk to improve the Canadian quality of life.

The Liberal pledge to do deficit financing turned out to be the game changer. The public-private partnership component of their plan -- what Liberals would do with the borrowed money -- was kept under wraps and is still largely unnoticed.

Conveniently for the Liberals, Statistics Canada figures showed the Canadian economy in recession. Strangely, the NDP did not pivot to address it.

The NDP won 13.6 per cent of the vote in Toronto. Thompson got six per cent in his riding, where the Conservative finance minister lost to a Liberal -- the Liberals won all 46 Toronto seats behind their pledge to act now to stimulate the economy.

Someone has to take responsibility for the NDP campaign failure.

More importantly, party problems talking about the economy have to be addressed. The NDP needs to have a carefully researched and artfully presented economic plan to offer Canadians that addresses real issues of politics: jobs and incomes in the age of climate change.

The time to start is now by having the party create a jobs and justice task force to tour Canada listening to Canadians and drawing up a policy paper for discussion at the riding level in advance of the April 2016 party convention.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: La Belle Province/flickr

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