The Cowardly Lion from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.
The Cowardly Lion from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There was definitely a whiff of panic in the United Conservative Party (UCP)’s announcement last week that they’d now be going after Naheed Nenshi, for sure, big time, no mercy, now that the former three-term Calgary mayor had been chosen as the leader of the NDP.

The UCP strategic brain trust chose the always reliable Rick Bell’s Postmedia column as the main venue for its warning shot at the new NDP leader.

“He can run but he can’t hide,” Bell began, channelling the UCP Caucus and Cabinet. 

“When UCP big shots said they couldn’t wait to get their hands on Naheed Nenshi once he became Alberta NDP leader they were talking straight,” the Calgary-based columnist warned anyone who was listening. 

“Premier Danielle Smith’s UCP are now ready to drop the gloves,” he continued. “When? Now.”

“Bombs away! Smith’s UCP launches full scale attack on Nenshi,” shouted the headline. 

And, indeed, some online advertising that looked a lot like it was cobbled together in an almighty hurry soon started to appear on social media, amplified by a swarm of bots buzzing “Commie!” “Trudeau’s pal!” “Worse than Notley!” “WEF! WEF!”

One can’t help but be reminded of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz: “Put ’em up! Put ’em up! Which one of you first? I’ll fight you both together if you want. I’ll fight you with one paw tied behind my back. I’ll fight you standing on one foot. I’ll fight you with my eyes closed…”

The lion, as readers of a certain age will recall, turned out to be a scaredy cat. 

This isn’t a full scale attack on Nenshi, though, as much as it’s a full-scale panic attack. 

Getting in early and clearly defining your opponent in a way that serves your interests isn’t a bad strategy, of course. Indeed, it’s a necessity in politics in the digital age. 

It’s obviously something Nenshi understands, and is good at. Readers will recall that almost the first thing he said about his old college debating club challenger Smith and her party was that “all they do is pick fights and waste money.”

It doesn’t hurt that it’s basically true. But back in early March, Nenshi’s opening gambit was a classic example of what the UCP is vowing to do only now, and what Bell was announcing for them. 

The thing is, though, that telegraphing your punches like this is evidence of panic, not strategy. 

And panic, dear readers, is not a strategy. It’s not a very good tactic either.

In his Bombs Away! column, Bell portrayed Jason Nixon, the former finance minister who is nowadays the minister of seniors, community, social services, and literally the biggest guy in cabinet, as getting ready to take a metaphorical swing at Nenshi.

But on the social media application previously known as Twitter, Nixon quotes the column describing the former mayor as “Premier Nenshi.” This also suggests a lack of planning. I wonder how many readers thought, hmmm, sounds OK to me?

For his part, Nenshi responded smoothly, although not without a not-so-gentle smack of his own. 

“It seems like the UCP are scared of something … weird,” he tweeted. “While they’re out there attacking me, I’ll be here with my @albertaNDP colleagues focusing on how to make Alberta better for you.”

The little video attached was priceless. 

“You know what? They are nothing if not predictable,” he chuckles in the video. “I said for a long time that Danielle Smith and the UCP government only know how to do two things. They know how to pick fights and they know how to waste money. …” (That still resonates, doesn’t it?) “And now here they are, pickin’ a fight with me and wasting big bucks on ads, doing so.”

“What do you think they’re so scared of?”

“When I was mayor of Calgary for 11 years,” Nenshi observes later in the video, “we were consistently named one of the best cities in the word in which to live. And I will put up my public record and my record of public service up against Danielle Smith any day of the week and twice on Sundays.” … Then, with another chuckle: “Bring. It. On.”

It’s good. It works.

And guess what? On Wednesday, the day before Bell’s column was published, The Economist Intelligence Unit published its list of the world’s 10 most liveable cities.

Calgary was No. 5, up from No. 7 last year. This year the No. 7 spot was occupied by the only other North American city on the list, Vancouver. Calgary’s been on the list since 2013, the year Nenshi was elected to his second term. 

Now many of us are skeptical of such lists. Most of us want to argue with them when we see them. 

But you’d think the UCP might have wanted to think about the timing of their campaign about how horrible Nenshi supposedly was for Calgary, before rolling out hours after the research and analysis wing of the company that publishes The Economist declared it to be the fifth best place to live in the world. 

Easy to overlook, though, when you’re panicking.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...