Saturday, September 06, 2008

A new kind of ad

It didn't take long after the NDP announced its ad strategy for the first ad to be made public. And so far, the reviews have been nothing but positive. But let's look at a few of the ways where future ads can likely improve on the first appearance of the New Kind of Strong theme:

Now, the mere fact that the NDP has launched the first strike among the opposition parties and won praise from across partisan lines would tend to signal that the ad has served its purpose and more. But there's still reason to think there's some room for further development as the campaign progresses.

After all, while it's a huge plus to have launched the first shot across Harper's bow, the current success in winning exposure through the blogosphere looks to be based mostly on a novelty factor among political wonks, rather than any "cheeky and irreverent" entertainment value which would make the ad spread among members of the general public. Which means that it'll be tough even to get this first ad heard far beyond political mavens without a heavy TV buy - and even tougher for any more ads in the same vein to earn free exposure.

So I'll be hoping that future ads will add more entertainment without sacrificing too much of the strong push against Harper. But even within the pure political attack genre, I would think there's at least some room for improvement.

For one thing, the ad doesn't draw a direct visual connection between Harper and the problems he's associated with, making it relatively unlikely that anybody paying casual attention will link the two together as closely could be done with some minor alterations. Likewise, the transition between different issues could seemingly be made a lot smoother - particularly in the health care/oil sands split screen that was chosen as the featured screen shot. And some of the areas of attack themselves seem to leave loads of room for refinement: while images of the tar sands may make for a great backdrop to an environmental message, surely there's more to the problem to be dealt with (and pinned on Harper) than "Oil Sands" alone.

Now, none of the above is to disagree with the consensus that the ad is generally a good one - in rallying Canadians against Harper, in placing Layton and the New Democrats front and centre in that battle, and in setting the stage for the campaign to come. But considering that the NDP is facing the challenge of defining a leader who's had the entire resources of the Canadian government at his disposal and whose party additionally has more cash than it can apparently spend during a campaign, I'll be hoping for even these kinds of minor issues to be worked out quickly as future ads get rolled out.

Strategic considerations

Following up on this post about the New Democrats' 2008 election strategy, let's note a couple more interesting developments over the past few days.

First, there's the Globe and Mail's report on the NDP's advertising plan - which not only offers a well-placed association between the NDP and its award-winning advertising firm, but also signals what kind of ads are likely in the works:
Cheeky and irreverent?

Not the definition that quickly comes to mind when one thinks Campaign '08.

We think, thus far, of a Prime Minister in a sweater vest and many images of snapping flags.

All that is about to change with the news that Zig, the feisty, award-winning Toronto-based ad shop, has taken the lead for the NDP's advertising campaign. The agency is perhaps best known for its work for Ikea (the hyper shopper who yells “Start the car!” and more recent commercials featuring a young couple who “pop” as they place Ikea furnishings about their apartment). Other clients include Molson Canadian, Best Buy and Virgin Mobile.

Next up: the branding of NDP Leader Jack Layton.

“I can tell you we are in fact working with the NDP,” says Zig partner Andy Macaulay, who confirms that the Zig crew have taken the lead on the creative work. “Lots of people in our place are working on it.” Mr. Macaulay won't say when the firm was handed the assignment. “I can't tell you that because the election hasn't been called.”
Needless to say, it'll be very interesting to see what Zig and the party can come up with in the "cheeky and irreverent" department. And for a party looking to maximize the upside of its national election spending, it makes all the sense in the world to put money into ads which will be entertaining enough to spread (with positive reviews) through news reports and online distribution, rather than putting together a Con-style set of schlock which relies almost entirely on paid distribution channels.

Mind you, there does figure to be a difficult balance between creating ads which are entertaining enough to go viral, and ones which are politically-oriented enough to sway opinions toward Layton and the NDP. But there's still plenty of reason to look forward to seeing what the NDP can do to combine the two.

The second key development, and primarily a follow-up point from my earlier point, is Brad Lavigne's clarification about how the NDP plans to deal with the other opposition parties:
"If you apply for a job, you don't normally talk about the other applicants," the New Democratic Party leader said yesterday, when asked why he had delivered an entire campaign-style speech without once saying the Liberal leader's name or bringing up his carbon tax.

NDP strategist Brad Lavigne confirmed Layton will focus on Harper rather than Dion, but the election campaign will respond to any perceived misinformation put out by the Liberals or other parties.
Now, it's certainly for the best that Layton isn't planning to let Lib attacks go unanswered. But the strategy now seems to be phrased almost as a challenge to the other opposition parties to focus primarily on Harper as well.

As I noted in my earlier post, the Libs' best strategy in responding to the NDP's statement that it won't target them is likely to adopt a similar policy in an effort to cut the NDP out of a two-party debate. And that doesn't figure to change based on the clarification.

But the declaration that the NDP will indeed attack "perceived misinformation" may lead to just the opposite result for the Greens. Having never been shy about spreading misinformation about the NDP in an effort to try to poach environmental and protest votes, they may only be encouraged to ramp up their attacks knowing that the NDP will take the effort to respond defensively without attacking in kind.

Which means that the NDP's now-telegraphed strategy may effectively put to the test the Greens' claims to want to focus on Harper and do politics differently. But based on Elizabeth May's track record, it's a risky bet for the NDP to be banking on the Greens following through on their rhetoric. And if Layton ends up having to spend a substantial amount of the campaign either answering more spurious Green attacks or being accused of accepting their misinformation based on the party's declaration that it'll refute any false assertions, then the downside of the NDP's effort to aim high may become all too clear.

Expensive highlights

There's been plenty of attention paid to the Cons' pre-election spending spree. But while most of the focus has been on the Canadian Taxpayer Federation's number covering the whole summer (amounting, as Alison points out, to nearly $4 million per hour), the NDP notes that the spending over the last week has been even more appalling:
Only seven days ago, Stephen Harper met with Jack Layton to say he intended to quit his job as Prime Minister.

But in the week since he’s met with Jack Layton, Harper and his Conservative team have fanned out all over Canada to make over $6 billion in flashy pre-election announcements -- $892 million a day.
Or, for those who prefer the per-hour baseline, the Cons are now spending $37 million in public funds every hour in an effort to buy votes in advance of the upcoming election. And the massive change even from the numbers for the rest of the summer should easily put to rest the Cons' claims that the announcements have anything to do with effective government rather than pre-election posturing.

As the NDP also points out, Harper himself observed that similar giveaways from the former Lib government only served to "highlight their own failure". And in this case as in so many others related to government responsibility and accountability, Harper in government has done nothing but embrace and perpetuate the same failed patronage politics that he used to decry in opposition.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Simple answers to simple questions: gimme edition

Boris asks: Must (Conservatives) lie about everything?

Yes. In fact, it's in the fine print of their party guidelines.

Picking fights

What's perhaps most interesting about the Cons' decision to bypass the usual selection process and nominate Justice Cromwell for the Supreme Court of Canada just days before calling an election is the boost it'll give to the anti-Con push coming from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Granted, Danny Williams certainly didn't figure to be anything but a thorn in Harper's side no matter what happened (or didn't happen) with the Supreme Court vacancy. But it's still noteworthy that Harper seems to have gone out of his way to further anger a provincial government which been lobbying for its first-ever Supreme Court appointment. And the most recent snub, combined with Loyola Hearn's decision to step down, may make it all the more likely that the Cons will get completely wiped out in the province - not to mention giving Williams another reason to take his grievances national.

On response time

A couple of days ago, I noted that despite all the concerns about the Cons delaying their court proceedings against Elections Canada to move the deadline for a response brief past the expected federal election date, it's still open to Elections Canada to file its response before the initial deadline. With that in mind, let's take the argument a step further and discuss why Elections Canada should do so.

From the outset, it should be clear that Elections Canada's decision-making needs to be based on the public interest rather than any sense of strategic advantage or animus toward the Cons. Which means that while a desire to see the Cons face what's coming to them late in a campaign may be a strong reason why I'd like to see the response filed before election day, it shouldn't be a factor for Elections Canada.

But there's still a strong case to be made that a response before the initial deadline would be entirely appropriate, if not downright necessary to ensure fairness for all parties in this fall's election.

After all, it's the Cons who started the litigation against Elections Canada as a pre-emptive strike - both within the legal system and in the court of public opinion - against the investigation that they surely knew was in progress. Which means that Elections Canada's response strategy also has to address both of those media, not merely the deadlines set by the court.

Moreover, it seems beyond doubt that the Cons' argument and/or accompanying media strategy will include yet another inflammatory set of accusations toward Elections Canada. In order to both maintain public confidence in the ongoing electoral process and provide a level playing field for all the other parties who haven't gone out of their way to create an excuse to attack Elections Canada, those can't be allowed to go unanswered during the course of the campaign.

Of course, those needs will shape the content of any response as well. And just as Elections Canada has been scrupulously fair toward the Cons to date, there's little doubt that any final argument will similarly deal only with correcting the factual record and presenting Elections Canada's interpretation of the Canada Elections Act - rather than showing even a trace of the contempt which the Cons have showered on independent institutions who dare to hold Harper and company accountable for their actions.

But while Elections Canada can't sink to the Cons' level, it can - and should - set an example that it's possible to do more than the bare minimum to meet its responsibilities. And in this case, that means completing and filing its response in time to ensure both sides of the lawsuit are heard before the end of the election campaign.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A need for clash

It's undoubtedly a plus to see the NDP setting its sights on positioning Jack Layton as the leading alternative to Stephen Harper and his band of merry sockpuppets. But I have to wonder if an apparent strategy of laying off the Libs entirely will make things tougher for the New Democrats as an election progresses - and along lines which may be all too familiar:
(W)e are told that when Jack Layton kicks off the NDP campaign, he will all but ignore both Dion and the Liberals' much-touted "green shift" plan for a carbon tax.

In fact, NDP communications director Brad Lavigne says Layton's opening stump-speech is now into its 14th draft, and still there isn't so much as a mention of the Liberal leader...

Instead, Lavigne says, the Dippers will be immediately launching "a direct and focused campaign against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

"Our message will be: Whom do you want as leader: Harper or Layton?"...

The theory is that attacking Harper will solidify the NDP base of party faithful against the PM lefties love to hate.

At the same time, the Dips are hoping their Harper-bashing will attract Liberal voters turned off by Dion, and by the Grits' abysmal failure to mount any kind of effective legislative opposition to the Conservatives since the last election.

NDP strategist Lavigne: "We want to get the message across that we are better at taking on Harper than Dion is."
As I've said before, though, the NDP's path to power depends on the public answering two questions the right way: first, whether the Cons deserve to stay in power, and second, who they want to see as the replacement. And the NDP strategy looks to be completely leaving out the second half of the equation.

Now, it could be that the current plan relies on Dion to crash and burn on his own. But surely some contrast against the Libs, particularly with their weak leadership and train-wreck of a policy centrepiece, would improve the NDP's chances of actually reinforcing the results of any Lib collapse. And that shouldn't be difficult to add into any stump speech: would it require any great amount of effort to postscript any criticism of Harper with "propped up by Stephane Dion"?

Moreover, it's not as if the NDP shouldn't have some institutional memory of the dangers of trying to make an election about its leader while the Libs and Cons take a campaign in a different direction.

After all, it was just 20 years ago that the NDP's attempt to frame a campaign around Ed Broadbent and a series of friendly issues largely ignored by the other parties went awry when the Cons and Libs both made free trade the central point of debate. And while the 1988 result featured the NDP's top federal seat total ever, it still left the party further from overtaking the Libs than it had been four years earlier.

It remains to be seen how the strategy will play out in practice. But laying off the Libs seems all too likely to lead the NDP off public radar when it most needs to get its message heard.

A closer examination

Impolitical and Dave have already covered a couple of the interesting angles from Stephen Harper's Cadscam cross-examination. But let's note two more points which figure to undercut both Harper's position in the ongoing lawsuit, and his ability to claim any competence or responsibility in managing his party.

First, even in testimony dealing specifically with a motion to suppress Tom Zytaruk's taped conversation based on alleged doctoring, Harper still doesn't seem to have even a hint of explanation of what he thinks was altered. From the CP:
Though Mr. Harper has not taken any legal action against Mr. Zytaruk, he has contended since June that a tape of the interview Mr. Zytaruk conducted with him outside Dona Cadman's home was doctored.

Mr. Zytaruk is heard asking Mr. Harper about the life insurance policy. Mr. Harper is heard saying he did not know the details but was aware party representatives had approached Mr. Cadman with an offer of "financial considerations" in case of a snap election.

Mr. Harper has since said the financial considerations included campaign expenses and support, but added more detail during the cross-examination...

Mr. Paliare also questioned Mr. Harper over his assertion that the Zytaruk tape had been doctored and Mr. Harper said several times he believed Mr. Zytaruk himself altered the tape.
Now, if Harper wanted to successfully challenge the tape as an inaccurate depiction of his answer at the time, one would expect him to be able to offer at least some idea what he would have actually said which was shifted out of context.

But nothing in the media reports currently available suggests that even Harper's cross-examination turned up any example of inaccuracy in how the tape portrays the conversation. And indeed, the fact that Harper seems to have spent much of his time explaining exactly what he meant on the tape suggests that he recognizes the tape's content as sufficiently accurate to provide useful evidence of what he said at the time.

Second, there's once again the matter of Harper turning a blind eye to the possibility of wrongdoing in his party. From Canwest's coverage:
Mr. Harper said that when Mrs. Cadman first asked him in September 2005 if he knew anything about Conservative representatives offering her husband a $1-million life insurance policy, he did not know her husband had told her about it and did not ask where she heard that. He thought it was a product of the rumour mill on Parliament Hill.

"My first reaction to the story was it sounded preposterous to me," Mr. Harper said. "I couldn't understand how or why anyone would offer a man with cancer a life insurance policy. It didn't make a lot of sense to me. It didn't sound like a believable story."
Once again, this signals the continued disconnect between Harper's apparent trust in Dona Cadman as the Cons' candidate in Surrey North, and his complete disregard for everything she's had to say about the offers to her husband.

But let's assume that Harper could reasonably have figured that the one person closest to Chuck Cadman throughout the entire relevant time period was more likely relying on Parliament Hill gossip than on, say, what she'd heard from her husband. (And let's go a step further and assume there was no need for Harper to follow up with Dona Cadman directly to clarify the source of her suspicions.)

Even then, wouldn't a responsible party leader want to make sure that his first impression was right, if the alternative was that unknown party members were going around making illegal offers without authorization?

Ultimately, Harper's testimony serves up another indication of his eagerness to ignore the possibility of wrongdoing within his party. And whatever details emerge (or not) about any other offer, that can only offer a signal to Cons and Canadians alike that as long as Harper's in charge, he and his minions won't ever be held responsible for anything they do.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

On timing

There's no doubt that the Cons' delays in their litigation against Elections Canada do seem awfully conveniently timed to try to avoid having any response heard before the planned general election. But it's worth noting that it's far from a sure thing that such a plan will work.

Here's the rough timeline as described by the CP:
The Conservatives were scheduled to submit their final briefs last Friday, with Elections Canada originally scheduled to respond by Oct. 11. That date has been delayed to Oct. 21.
What's worth noting is that the word "scheduled" doesn't figure to be entirely accurate in context. Neither party is required to make any submission only on the day in question; instead, the listed days figure to be the deadlines for any submission.

So if Elections Canada had been planning all along to complete its written submissions by October 11, there's no reason why it can't still do so - particularly if the materials filed by the Cons don't raise any major surprises.

As a result, the Cons may merely have raised some uncertainty for themselves. Rather than knowing that the Elections Canada response was coming during the campaign, they now have to be ready for it without having any idea whether or not it'll arrive before voting day. And it would make for just desserts if the Cons end up spending the last couple of days of the campaign bleating about the unfairness of Elections Canada actually being prepared to respond to their arguments before the last minute.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Missing the point

Memo to Elizabeth May: when people suggest that a party can reinforce its outsider credentials by promising to deal with lobbyists, this probably isn't what they have in mind.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A warm reception

It's remarkable enough that Jack Layton is outpacing Stephane Dion as the public's choice for prime minister in every region of the country in the latest Ipsos Reid poll - ranking tops among all leaders in Atlantic Canada, and even managing to stay ahead of Dion in the Libs' Ontario stronghold. But what's perhaps most amazing is that even on Dion's signature issue, he manages to rank well behind Layton:
Layton beat the Liberal and Conservative leaders as being the most "sincerely committed to dealing with global warming," with 38 per cent support, compared with 30 per cent for Dion and 27 per cent for Harper.

Bricker said that shows that Dion's Green Shift carbon tax proposal is not resonating with Canadians.

"His strength as being an advocate for the environment is clearly not cutting it at this stage."
Mind you, the poll isn't quite as complete as one would like: having finally added Layton into the mix in assessing public attitudes toward the leaders, it does still omit Elizabeth May and Gilles Duceppe. But considering that the Dion/May tag-team has been most prominent in messaging about the carbon tax, it's hard to see how including May on the environment issue in particular would do much but siphon off even more respondents from Dion's totals.

Meanwhile, Layton's strong numbers may only be the beginning for the NDP, as the issues considered most important by respondents seem to be leaning far into the party's longtime comfort zone:
In addition, the Ipsos Reid survey found that no big campaign issue has emerged, with the environment (28 per cent), health care (28 per cent) and the economy (26 per cent) in a virtual tie.
Even assuming that the NDP doesn't have enough time and messaging capability to point out that its historical record of budget management is better than that of the other parties, the economy looks likely to be close to a saw-off between the Cons and Libs. Which leaves one main issue of concern where Layton is well out in front of his competitors, and another area with some strong NDP associations which the Libs and Cons have essentially avoided since the 2006 election.

Of course, there's still a long way to go for the NDP to translate a well-respected leader and obvious issue potential into increased party support. But those areas do offer an ideal starting point for the NDP to start moving soft party support numbers and making its case for a turn in government.

Crash course

Pogge points out another example of how both the Cons and Libs have eliminated the capacity of federal regulatory, this time when it comes to air travel safety. But it's worth noting that the aviation example has already progressed a step further toward complete non-regulation:
(A)n internal memo from November 2006 casts some doubt on the vigilance with which the department will monitor the industry. In his paper, The Role of the Judiciary in Aviation Safety, Moshansky sums up that memo: "Transport Canada instructed its aviation inspectors not to initiate any further enforcement investigations into regulatory contraventions and to close all open cases against SMS certificate holders."
In other words, even while the Cons' spokespuppets try to claim that having federal regulators monitor paperwork rather than carrying out actual inspections will allow for better enforcement, they've simultaneously ordered their staff not to do anything even if the paperwork does show a problem.

Now, this is hardly the first example of the Cons instructing federal regulators not to do their job. After all, it took the Cons only a couple of months in office before they shut down any attempt to require provincial compliance with the Canada Health Act. And of course, it was the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's stubborn insistence on actually addressing nuclear safety that led to Linda Keen being fired.

But today's revelations about the civil aviation industry look to be perhaps the most dangerous example yet of the federal government completely abrogating its regulatory role. And from the fact that at least part of the change was an internal Con policy decision which was never made public, now would appear to be the time for plenty more questions as to whether the Cons have similarly ordered the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and other regulators to stop doing their jobs.

Definitely in issue

Shorter Gerry Ritz:
Sure, an incumbent government has to run on its record. But wouldn't it be far more sporting if we whited out the part where unsuspecting members of the public died from tainted food?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Speaking of party over country...

The Cons add another glaring example to their ever-growing list of misuses of public resources, as ministerial offices have been ordered to drop everything else in order to provide the Conservative Party with issue responses and talking points:
To finalize its campaign preparations for the upcoming federal election, the Prime Minister's Office has instructed all the Cabinet minister's offices to put together binders pertaining to their portfolios, which outline anticipated opposition attacks during the course of the campaign and how to respond, Conservative sources told The Hill Times last week.

"All ministers' offices have been told to prepare binders for the campaign ... This is just summarizing all of the anticipated lines of criticism, what we've done, and so the people on the campaign have [all the material before the writ is dropped]. It's basically so that the people on the campaign, when something arises, they don't need to go to the minister's offices [for a response]. They want to have all the material on hand," a Conservative source told The Hill Times last week, adding that ministerial offices have been instructed to submit the information by this week.
It's obvious enough that the primary purpose of a federal department is supposed to be to actually take care of its public responsibilities - not to hand over information to the Cons for their use in an election. And it's just another signal of the Cons' belief that the federal government is nothing but a source of resources for their own party that they figure their own partisan interests come first even in offices which are dealing with issues like the food safety crisis.

But the problems with this particular action may not end with the blurring of lines between government business and Con party operations. Instead, it's also worth asking how departments may "anticipate" what attacks are expected and from whom.

Presumably, meeting the terms of the request would involve informing both the PMO (and in turn the Cons' party apparatus) of who's been asking what questions and reviewing what information. But that could only be seen as an even larger-scale version of the mini-scandal that emerged a couple of years ago when word came out that the Cons were sharing the names of Access to Information applicants among various departments. And the strong implication of this latest demand from Harper is that anybody who's asked questions or expressed concerns about the Cons will be catalogued within the Cons' party apparatus.

In other words, the Cons' latest attempt to turn the federal government to partisan ends doesn't only figure to result in their wrongfully using public resources, but also to serve as one of the key steps in the creation of the Cons' own internal enemies list. And the fact that the Cons are publicly gloating about that kind of step only offers another indication of why it's long past time to remove them from office.

First things first

Shorter John McCain:
It turns out that I and my campaign have been pretending to value "America First" while actually putting partisanship above all else (including the country's interests). But now that I've declared America Firster: This Time With Hats, I actually mean it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


In the wake of the Green's acceptance of an MP deemed unfit for office by the Libs in an effort to elbow their way into leaders' debates, one of the main talking points from Green backers (see the comments at pogge has been that even if the move reeks of cynical political calculation, it's a necessary response to an unfair electoral system. While I fully agree that the current system needs fixing, though, it's worth noting that the new talking point only serves as a reminder of how empty the Greens' last major publicity stunt proved to be.

Here's my commentary from the aftermath of the Red Green deal - at a time when the Greens claimed to have secured a commitment from Stephane Dion to work with them toward electoral reform, even as Dion's words and actions suggested otherwise:
(T)here's plenty of reason to be skeptical about Dion's personal interest in electoral reform. And today's announcement doesn't do anything to suggest that the Greens have managed to change that fact.

Which isn't to say that today's announcement can't be the start of a genuine sea change. But the next necessary step is for Dion to prove to Canadians that he actually values the possibility of electoral reform - by speaking out about it personally, making sure it receives prominent placement in the Libs' next party platform, and taking on the inertia within his party head-on. And if that doesn't happen, then today's words can only be seen an attempt to fool the Greens' base, rather than the first step toward anything positive.
Well, we now have a year and a half worth of evidence as to what the supposed agreement about electoral reform was worth. So can anybody remember the numerous times when Dion has followed up on what May claimed to be an important area of agreement by making electoral reform a top priority and inspiring his followers to support the cause? Me neither.

Now, if May actually believed she'd won some meaningful commitment from Dion on electoral reform, she would seem to have ample reason to call him out for failing to live up to the deal. But there too, there's been nothing but the sound of crickets chirping.

Yet having already been misled into thinking May had won some ground in pushing for a more fair electoral system, her supporters are now using May's failure as justification for her abandoning the Greens' supposed commitment to ethics in politics.

Once again, May's presence has only served to reinforce the problems with politics as usual rather than to provide any break from them. Which offers yet another reason why voters looking for a change from the same old cynical politics won't get it from E-Me and her home for wayward MPs.