Michael Ignatieff has responded to the Conservative attack ads now airing on television across Canada. Speaking to Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador he challenged Prime Minister Harper “you mess with me and I will mess with you until I’m done.”
Conventional thinking says negative ads work well, especially when they attack someone not well known to the voting public. The Conservative ads are aimed at that portion of the Canadian electorate that does not follow politics closely. The idea is to have the Conservatives introduce Ignatieff, rather than allow the Liberal leader to introduce himself.
The ads present Ignatieff as an interloper, a carpetbagger, who only came back to Canada in search of power. Ignatieff wants to raise taxes, specifically the GST, and bring in a carbon tax. The Liberal leader is a Harvard man, and ready to go back; he prefers the company of the international intellectual elite to his fellow citizens. Ignatieff has even identified himself as an American (one ad has a clip with him saying American “just like me”).
The Conservatives were very successful in defining Stéphane Dion for the public. Why should these ads not work?
Those who think the ads will fail say the timing is wrong. Canada faces a serious economic crisis. In bad times, partisan attacks are inappropriate, and beside the point. The Canadian public understands the motivation of the Conservatives ad campaign is to diminish the Liberals leader, and will discount the message.
The best way to evaluate negative advertising is to watch it. Very well done, clever ads work effectively: they leave a lasting impression. Weak ads are forgotten.
The four “just visiting” ads running on television are strong and devious. The main one accuses the Liberals of launching attack ads (a pro-Liberal YouTube campaign from the Grit Girl has been running ads attacking the Conservatives.) It claims (rightly) that Ignatieff has no plan for the economy. Overall the treatment of the Liberal leader highlights his lack of Canadian experience. The linking theme is “after 34 years” he is back in Canada. He is “just visiting.”
An eventual Liberal election campaign will feature a call for change. It will focus on the Harper economic failures: rising unemployment, and inadequate employment insurance. For it to work, the Liberals have to hang the recession on the Conservatives, make Harper wear it.
The Liberals will also be expected to reveal what they would do differently. The ads have an important point: the Liberals do need an economic plan.
This past week, it was reported, the TD Bank president and two former deputy ministers of finance under the Liberals were invited to dine at the official opposition leader’s residence.
Does the Liberal leader expect bold new economic thinking from them? The Liberals would like nothing better than to bring Ontario Conservative voters over to Ignatieff, using bad economic news as a wedge. Ensuring that big business is on side is thought to be one way to help win back the 51 Ontario seats held by Harper. Holding on to those seats is what motivates the Conservative attack ads.
Prior to the opening of the Oliphant inquiry, Ignatieff made a display of telephoning to former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on his birthday. A Conservative party edict to avoid Mulroney has had some Conservatives angry, and Ignatieff was trying to appeal to the kind of old style Progressive Conservatives who would think poorly of spending party money on negative advertising.
Following the Mulroney testimony, where he revealed he had withheld crucial information from an earlier enquiry, and only paid tax (six years later) on one-half of the money he received in brown envelopes, Harper looks to have been the better judge of the situation than Ignatieff.
While Ignatieff tries to fire up the Liberals (and raise needed money) by reacting verbally to the Conservative attack ads, the Conservatives will be evaluating the success of their ad campaign. If Conservatives find they are not getting the right response from the ads, expect them to try again with different themes. If they find the just visiting ads are working, expect to see them run often.
Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.