Monday, May 11, 2015

Speaking of Elizabeth May ...

Given all the chatter over Green Party leader Elizabeth May's "sleep deprived" antics at the recent Ottawa Press Gallery event, I thought I'd pile on a bit and reproduce a column I wrote which appeared a few years ago in the Ottawa Citizen

Green Party Needs a New NameIt’s time Green Party leader Elizabeth May changed the name of her party so that it more accurately reflect its true purpose.

I’m thinking of something like: “We will do Everything we can to Help the Liberal Party Even if it Means Undermining our own Environmental Cause Party.”

OK that moniker might be a bit difficult to fit on a ballot, but it sure fits the Green Party’s current raison d’etre.

After all, ever since May became Green Party leader, her chief political goal has been less about promoting Green ideology and more about helping Liberals get elected.

Recall, for example, that in the 2008 federal election she decided not to run a Green candidate against then Liberal leader Stephan Dion.

And in doing so, she effectively endorsed Dion for prime minister.

This was an odd decision since if May really thought Dion would make a great prime minister, why was she even running?

And don’t tell me May endorsed Dion because she believed he was some kind of green activist.

That theory doesn’t hold water because the Liberals at the time didn’t exactly have a sparkling “green” record.

In fact, the Liberal government, of which Dion was part, had done precious little to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions or to implement the Kyoto Accord.

That’s why Jamey Heath, an environmental activist and onetime NDP advisor, called May’s Dion endorsement “incredibly self-defeating”.
He was right.

Also seemingly self-defeating was May’s bizarre call during the 2008 federal election for strategic voting, in which she actually urged Canadians not to vote for a Green candidate if another candidate (i.e. a Liberal) had a better chance at defeating a Conservative.

With a friend like May, Green Party candidates didn’t need enemies.

And even though the Liberals have fallen into third place, May has still not given up promoting their electoral cause.

Most recently, she announced the Greens would not be running a candidate in the upcoming Labrador by-election against ex-Conservative cabinet minister, Peter Penashue, and she strongly urged the NDP to follow suit, as this would increase the probability of a Liberal victory.

May’s point is that such electoral co-operation is needed to defeat their common enemy, the Conservatives.

This might be true, but please note May is not asking the Liberals to step aside in the name of electoral co-operation, even though as the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hebert recently pointed out, the provincial NDP is growing in popularity in Newfoundland and Labrador.
  
Clearly, May’s goal isn’t just for the Conservatives to lose; it’s also for the Liberals to win.

If Green Party supporters aren’t angry about all this, then they aren’t paying attention because it’s obvious that May is hurting their cause.

By pulling out of election contests, for instance, May is undermining the party’s ability to get its message out to voters.

Certainly running a Green candidate in the Labrador by-election, which is guaranteed to receive tons of media coverage, would give the Green Party an amazing chance to promote its cause.

But the problem for the Greens goes much deeper than just losing free publicity.

Much deeper.

The more important question is this: if it doesn’t field candidates in elections and if its leader keeps promoting another party, why does the Green Party even exist?

To be blunt, if the Green Party doesn’t want to engage in the political arena as an independent voice, with its own vision and with its own ideals, than it serves no real or useful function.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe changing the name of the Green Party isn’t the best answer.

Maybe it would be more logical and easier if May simply changed parties.

The Liberals are probably looking for a few more MPs.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Harper Faces Frustratingly Fuzzy Future

Note: This column first appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times in September, 2014; I think the analysis still holds.

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper this must be a particularly frustrating time.

And no, what’s frustrating him isn’t the Conservative Party’s consistently poor showing in public polls, or the scandals which have plagued his government or his increasingly toxic relationship with the media.

In fact, none of that stuff would really bother Harper.

What would irk him, however, is the fuzzy nature of Canada’s political future.

Keep in mind that Harper is a meticulous planner and strategist; he’s like a general who won’t commit his troops to battle until he’s accounted and planned for every possible contingency.

In short, he doesn’t like surprises; he doesn’t want to improvise a strategy in the heat of combat.

Yet, whenever Harper scans the political terrain that will serve as the battle ground for the 2015 election, his view is obstructed by dark clouds of uncertainty.

For one thing, no one, including Harper and his strategists, knows how Liberal leader Justin Trudeau will perform once he’s thrown into the lion’s den of a national election campaign.

And Trudeau’s performance will matter because for the past year or so, the Conservatives have been airing TV ads telling us that Trudeau is “in over his head.”

These ads are meant to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of Canadians, seeds the Conservatives hope will bloom during an election, when voters will start to truly focus on the Liberal leader.

If, during the election, Trudeau stumbles, if he commits a series of verbal gaffes, if he performs poorly during the televised leaders’ debate, it will reinforce the Conservative message that he’s not up to the job.

But pinning all your hopes on an opponent making mistakes is always a gamble.
What if Trudeau campaigns like a pro; what if his winning smile charms the electorate?

That’s something Harper needs to consider.

And the “Trudeau factor” is not the only unknown confounding Harper.

He also has to worry about the NDP. More specifically, he must be wondering how the NDP, and its leader Thomas Mulcair, (who like Trudeau has never run a national campaign) will fare against the Liberals.

This is a key question because for Harper to succeed in 2015 he needs the NDP to soak votes away from the Liberals. He especially needs the NDP to keep the Liberals from scoring an electoral breakthrough in Quebec.

Is the NDP up to the job? Can Mulcair put a dent in Trudeau’s popularity? How will Quebeckers react to a Mulcair vs. Trudeau tilt?

Nobody knows. And that puts Harper’s plans in a state of flux.

Then to muddle things up even more, Harper also has to consider that the world itself is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rattling sabers in Eastern Europe; barbaric terrorist organizations are conquering huge swathes of territory in the Middle East; Israel and Hamas are at each other’s throats.

Given all this instability, what will the world look like when Canadians go to the polls a year from now? What will our economy be like? Will there be a war? Will there be a terrorist attack in North America or Europe?

We just don’t know.

And more to the point, Harper doesn’t know.

All these unknowns, all these variables, all these question marks, will make it extremely difficult for Harper to calculate a winning political equation.

Yet, of course, that won’t stop him and his team from trying to craft such a plan.

But just to cover all their bases, they will also have to prepare a Plan “B” and a Plan “C” and maybe even a Plan “D.”

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Merv Lavigne RIP

It saddened me to learn of the recent passing of a great Canadian named Merv Lavigne

I knew Merv way back in the 1980s when he was a community college teacher from Haileybury, a small town in northern Ontario.

And what made Merv a great Canadian, at least to my mind, was his courage and his willingness to fight for what he believed in.

In fact, that’s how Merv and I ended up crossing paths; in 1985 he joined forces with a group I once worked for, the National Citizens Coalition, to fight a legal battle aimed at changing Canada’s labour laws so that union bosses would no longer have the power to use forced dues to subsidize their political propaganda.

Merv, a Liberal activist who had run for federal office, didn’t like the fact that a portion of his dues was being used to subsidize the New Democratic Party and other causes.

So, with the NCC’s moral and financial support, Merv launched what would prove to be an historic court challenge.

Merv’s argument was simple: Forcing him to associate with a political party, through his compelled union dues, violated his freedom of association which was guaranteed in the then newly minted Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And although Merv was just one guy, his challenge scared the bejeezus out of Canada’s entire union movement.

Indeed, just about every big union organization in the country intervened in this case to oppose him.

Alas, it was a David vs Goaliath battle where Goliath ended up winning.

In 1991 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Merv, which is why, by the way, unions today are free to spend millions of dollars in forced union dues on political propaganda campaigns, whether their unionized employees like it or not.

And a lot of them don’t like it.

At any rate, I’ll always remember Merv as a guy who cheerfully and tirelessly endured six years of arduous legal combat.

It was a lot of work for a guy who already had a full time job: He attended fundraising events across the country, spoke to countless organizations, did hundreds of media interviews.

He also, sadly, endured harassment.

But never once did I ever hear him utter a single word of complaint.

One positive by-product of Merv’s hard work, was it significantly raised his profile and made him something of a media star.

The NCC’s own internal polling showed he had incredible favourables. People liked him; they liked his message. And why not? He had proven to be an intelligent and articulate spokesman.

Had he wished to re-enter the political arena, Merv could have easily got himself elected to Parliament and we told him so.

But, having enough of the limelight, he decided to focus on his family and his career.

Mind you, Merv had already accomplished a lot.

He put a key question of individual freedom on the national agenda; he rattled the establishment’s cage, and he fought a good fight for his principles.

That’s a pretty good epitaph.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Five Stages of Justin Trudeaumania


Stage 1. Euphoria

Oh my God! Justin Trudeau, the cutest, most adorable, most charming man in the history of our planet, is now leader of the Liberal Party. Actually, he’s more than a man … he’s a Super Hero!  His looks, his charisma, his pedigree, combined with his magical ability to transform normally apathetic and disengaged young people into disciplined legions of enthusiastic Liberal voters, make him an unstoppable, unbeatable, invincible political juggernaut! His victory is inevitable. 

Stage 2. Gloating

Ha, ha, ha! The Conservatives are using negative ads to attack Justin Trudeau. Don’t they realize that since Trudeau is so adored, so worshipped, so beloved by the masses, such attacks will only make him even more powerful?  Oh well, once Prime Minister Stephen Harper realizes he has zero chance of stopping Trudeau’s soaring popularity he will do the right thing and resign any day.

Stage 3. Confusion

It’s despicable how Harper is using “fear tactics” to curry votes, such as Bill C 51, a law which, while popular, would undoubtedly destroy our civil rights and …wait, what? Trudeau supports Bill C 51? But he's the fun guy! OK forget about that Bill, let's talk about Trudeau’s politically savvy stance on the Niqab issue which will certainly guarantee him a overwhelming victory because only racist, bigoted, rednecks would support Harper’s position that such garments not be worn during citizenship ceremonies … what’s that? A poll shows nearly 90 percent of Canadians side with Harper?! Um … let’s talk about Mike Duffy.

Stage 4. Bargaining

You know what’s really awesome? Coalition governments. All the really cool countries in Europe have these, why not Canada? It’s time we put aside our boring, bland “British” system we’ve been using for the past 150 years or so and embrace the exciting world of politics Italian-style. It’d be fun! Or let’s try implementing other cool democratic reforms, such as mandatory voting or banning negative ads or Rep by Pop. Remember no idea to radically transform our democracy is too ridiculous or too strange, if it helps Trudeau achieve his destiny.

Stage 5. Acceptance

Canada has only one political leader tough enough and smart enough to defeat Harper in the next election: His name is Thomas Mulcair.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Me vs. The Digital Columnist

Sometimes I come across an opinion column about politics that’s so nonsensical, I feel compelled to write a response to it as soon as humanly possible.

But that’s pretty rare.

Usually what happens is I procrastinate until the urge to undertake the actual drudgery of composing articulate thoughts and writing them down slowly fades away.

Then I watch TV.

Yet, for some strange reason the passage of time did not dull my desire to offer a critique of a Bruce Anderson column which appeared in the Globe and Mail, way back at the end of January.

You’ve probably heard of Anderson; he’s a well-known pollster, he appears regularly on CBC's The National’s “At Issue” panel, and he is the Globe’s “digital columnist.”

At any rate, the first thing you need to know about Anderson’s column is that you can make anything sound cool and “cutting edge” simply by modifying it with the word “digital.”

“Hey Joe, hand me that digital monkey wrench” or “The floor looks much cleaner now that I'm using a digital mop.”

 See what I mean?

The second thing you need to know about Anderson’s column is that it passionately decries the nastiness of the Conservative Party, a nastiness which he argues stems from Prime Minister Stephen Harper getting “lousy advice” from the “cynical and jaded.”

This advice, wrote Anderson, has “coarsened our politics, driven away good potential candidates, and caused a steady decline in turnout at elections.”

 Sounds awful!

Although to be fair, Anderson actually offers zero proof that “coarsened” politics is driving away “good” potential candidates or that it’s causing a steady decline in voter turnout.

But let’s set aside that itty bitty objection.

What really struck me about Anderson’s arguments is that they come across as a tad simplistic, and by a “tad simplistic” I mean incredibly, insanely, five-year-old-child simplistic.

To show you what I mean, let’s take apart Anderson’s digital Globe column, digit by digit.

To prove his point about the coarseness of modern politics, Anderson offers us an anecdote from Question Period.

He notes that in answering a question from NDP leader Thomas Mulcair about Canada’s mission in Iraq, Harper said, “I know the opposition thinks it’s a terrible thing that we’re actually standing up to jihadists. I know they think it’s a terrible thing that some of these jihadists got killed when they fired on the Canadian military.”

This response, says Anderson, was “appalling” and “beneath the office of the Prime Minister.”

Then Anderson recounts about how, after dinging Mulcair, Harper tried to hit Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “below the belt”.

What was Harper’s underhanded blow?

Well, writes Anderson, while responding to a question about his proposed income splitting plan, Harper commented, “on the fact that Mr. Trudeau inherited money when his father passed away.”

Oh the horror! Poor Justin, can you imagine such a terrible … wait, really? That’s it? Harper just made an offhand comment about Justin being a rich kid.

Heck, my wife is tougher than that on me when I forget to bring out the garbage.

But Anderson was horrified.

As he put it, “It’s as though the Conservative Party considers receiving an inheritance some sort of character handicap, and that anyone on the receiving end of a bequest should just shut up and let others decide things?”

Now, I’m not privy to the Conservative Party’s communication strategy or anything, but I strongly suspect that Harper’s comments to Mulcair and Trudeau on that day in the House of Commons were more about tactics than about simple rudeness.

But before I get to that, let’s carry on with our examination.

After detailing the chamber of horrors that was Question Period, Anderson puts forward his reasons as to why we can’t “turn things around” and make our public discourse more respectable so that it’s less likely to make Justin Trudeau cry like a baby.

One “newish reason” says Anderson “is the bad chemistry that happens when you mix rabid partisanship and a social media platform like Twitter.”

To make his point, Anderson put its in bone-chilling terms:

But when it comes to politics, Twitter can also create some pretty nasty neighbourhoods. Places where the ultra-cynical come to spit and spew, often hiding behind fake names, making juvenile arguments, and indulging in pathetic name-calling. There are lots who hate Liberals, or New Democrats, and many who hate Conservatives. Some loathe the media.

If you wander into this neighbourhood, you’ll find a seething, stinking place. And it’s getting worse. For people who get up in the morning hoping to insult others, success is about shock value and provocation. Ignore them and they come back with a worse insult. Reveal annoyance and they’ll double down, overjoyed at the thought they’ve drawn blood.

Wow! For a guy who wants to upgrade the quality of debate in this country, Anderson sure knows how to pile up steaming heaps of derogatory rhetoric!

But did Anderson really think social media platforms would be a haven for legions of would be Aristotles and Voltaires? It’s the wild, wild west of commentary!

Still, Anderson does have a valid point. Twitter is a place where partisans go mainly to reinforce their own belief and to attack the other side.

But so what? How does the rabidly partisan nature of Twitter impact the greater political world and make it more difficult to “turn things around”?

Unfortunately, Anderson never backs up his proposition with any logical argument.

So I am forced to surmise that his argument goes something like this: political parties must cater and pander to their partisan bases, which thanks to the ungodly powers of social media are now made up of spitting and spewing mobs of wild-eyed, crazed, fanatics who demand blood!

If that’s true, then logic dictates that banning Twitter and YouTube, Facebook and Instagram would make our politics more civil, wouldn’t it?

Maybe.

But on the other hand, spitting and spewing mobs of wild-eyed, crazed fanatics existed long before anyone ever invented the Internet.

In the days of Ancient Rome they used graffiti to communicate, after the invention of the printing press they used pamphlets, books and newspapers; in the twentieth century they used radio and TV.

And yes, each form of communication listed above, you could argue, helped degrade political communication, making politics more of a rough and tumble business, full of scurrilous attacks, rude language and vicious invectives.

Perhaps then the only true way to create a purer more pristine political world, one that’s full of rainbows and lollipops and where all politicians act like Mother Teresa, is to ban not just social media but all forms of free communication.

They do this in other countries; I understand that politics in North Korea is extremely polite.

But now that I think about it, there might be a downside to living in polite countries that lack freedom.

So maybe allowing a little rude commentary is a small price to pay to live in a democracy.

As the great British Prime Minister Leo Durocher once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government … say it aint so Joe?”

Besides, Anderson’s “Blame it on Twitter” thesis is actually wrong because political parties do more than just communicate with their bases, they must also communicate in a way that wins votes from all those Canadians who don’t care about politics, or ideology or partisanship, which by the way is about 99 percent of the population.

So the partisan cesspool of Twitter is largely irrelevant to a political party’s overall communication strategy. Yes, they want to mobilize their bases, but they must do so in a way that allows them to win over non-aligned voters.

That means for political parties, it’s the wants and dreams and desires of the voting masses that matter.

The other reason Anderson puts forward as to why we can’t turn things around and make politics more of a genteel, courteous exercise is that Prime Minister Harper has consciously chosen a dark path.

He writes:

But as the politician with the biggest podium in the country, he (Harper) has a lot to do with setting the tone and the standard for political discourse. He can deliver an argument with style, wit, incisiveness and impact. But he also knows how to get the blood boiling among the angriest people in his party.

So “to be clear,” as the PM likes to say, it’s a choice.

Then Anderson helpfully offers this tactical advice:

“But what this Conservative Party needs to win re-election isn’t more evidence that it likes to travel on the low road. Or that this Prime Minister is capable of insults.”

So according to Anderson, Harper has a better chance of winning the next election if he sets a new tone, one that’s witty, stylish and positive, and one that didn’t pander to angry Conservatives.

An interesting hypothesis. But could travelling the high road really work for Harper?

Somehow I doubt it.

Remember the children’s fable where the lion decides to lay down with the lamb, and then the lamb hacks off the sleeping lion’s head off with a rusty butcher knife?

The moral from that story is clear: if Harper unilaterally goes positive, it doesn’t mean all his legions of enemies – opposition MPs, big union bosses, small union bosses, left wing media, environmental groups, feminists, Rick Mercer, the United Nations, pro-long form census advocates, the entire country of Russia – who up until now have been doing to Harper what kids at a birthday party do to an overstuffed piƱata, would suddenly cease their attacks.

They’d more than likely continue to hammer away at Harper with even more reckless abandon.

In a sense then, Anderson is advising Harper to unilaterally disarm on the eve of battle.

OK, hold on, I am beginning to sound a little “jaded” and “cynical” here, and I certainly don’t want to offend Anderson’s delicate sensibilities, so in the interest of reasoned debate let’s take a step back.

Instead of arguing back and forth about tactics, let’s review Canadian political history and examine the style, wit and incisiveness of Canada’s most successful prime ministers.

Let’s see how many of them traveled the high road.

Here’s the list:

John A. MacDonald – Canada’s first prime minister and a Father of Confederation
·        Alcoholic
·        Possibly racist
·        Once, likely in an intoxicated state, threw up during a campaign speech.

William Lyon Mackenzie King – Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister
·        Talked to his dead mother

Louis St. Laurent  -- Who?

Pierre Trudeau – Legendary prime minister and subject of CBC bio pic
·        Gave “The finger” to Canadian citizens.
·        Once spoke words resembling “fuddle duddle” in House of Commons
·        Called backbench MPs “nobodies”
·        Desire to experiment with socialism flattened Alberta’s economy
·        Pirouetted behind the Queen
·        Invoked War Measure Act suspending the rights of every Canadian.

Jean Chretien – Won three majorities in a row, now considered Wise Elder Statesman
·        Throttled protester
·        Joked about pepper spraying protestors
·        Allowed staff to mock the religious beliefs of political rival
·        Referred to Albertans as a different “type”.
·        Government linked to scandals too numerous to mention
·        Subject of a book entitled The Friendly Dictatorship
·        Won an election by promising to scrap the GST (Ha, ha, ha.)
·        Regularly accused political opponents of secretly wanting to close orphanages, hospitals and abortion clinics, as part of a plan to impose an “American-style” right-wing, religious theocracy.
·        Engaged in vindictive feud with his own Finance Minister

Hmmm, maybe Harper isn’t all that bad, at least comparatively.

Now to be fair, we should also contrast the above list with a list of all those Canadian politicians who acted in a respectful manner.

Here’s that list:

1.      Stockwell Day – Devout nice guy and former Leader of the Canadian Alliance – (a party which no longer exists)
2.      Um, ….


So clearly, as the historical record makes clear, the road to political power is not paved with clever witticisms and stylish arguments.

If it was, the Harvard educated, successful author and all around intellectual, Michael Ingatieff would be our prime minister.

The fact is in political messaging, simplicity and directness work. If you try to get too complicated and clever and witty you only alienate voters.

So no one should be shocked or surprised that Harper is using simple and direct methods to define the Liberal and NDP leaders before they can define themselves.

When Harper went after Muclair in Question Period on the jihadism issue, he was defining the NDP leader as a guy who is soft on terrorism.

And when he made that crack about Trudeau’s inheritance, Harper was basically saying to Canadians, “Trudeau is a privileged rich kid, who can’t possibly understand the concerns and fears of average middle class Canadians.”

Anderson might find such a defining tactic as “coarse” and appalling and beneath the dignity of a prime minister; and he might believe it’s based on “lousy” advice, but all the same, it’s an extremely effective ploy, one that has worked on innumerable occasions in elections all over the globe.

One of those occasions was in 2011, when the Conservatives won a majority government after they successfully defined then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as an out of touch academic.

And if you think only nasty Conservatives use this approach, allow me to direct your attention to south of border where everybody’s favorite progressively sensitive politician, Barack “Hope and Change” Obama, used devastatingly effective attack ads in the 2012 presidential election to define his Republican opponent Mitt Romney as a cross between Thurston Howell III, Ebenezer Scrooge and Darth Vader.

Other examples: the British Columbia Liberals defined the NDP as Marxist radicals, the Alberta PCs defined Wild Rosers as Bible-thumping crazies, the Ontario Liberals (or more specifically their union allies) skewered the PCs as heartless, right-wing monsters.

These sorts of attacks work because unlike clever witticisms or intellectual arguments, they resonate on an emotional level and it’s our emotions, not our intellects, which motivate us to vote for a certain party.

What’s more, due to a quirk of human nature, negative emotions make a much greater impact on our minds than positive emotions. This is why traumatic events – such as visits to the dentist – stick in our memories for so long.

Keep in mind in too, Harper has all the warmth and cuddliness of Genghis Khan with a hangover, making it difficult if not impossible for him to campaign as Mr. Nice. (Anybody remember those horrendous TV ads where a smiling, sweater-wearing Harper tried to come across as some sort of Mr. Rogers figure?)

So the Conservative political equation is pretty straightforward. Since Harper can’t make himself more likable, his only option is to make Mulcair and especially Trudeau less likable.

And please, don’t tell me Trudeau’s Care Bear persona somehow makes him invincible to attack.

Even the Liberals don’t believe that.

I’m pretty sure, for instance, that it was fear of Conservative attack ads that caused Trudeau (who once believed we could solve the terrorist problem by inviting ISIS to sit around a campfire and sing kumbaya) to support the government’s controversial anti-terrorism bill, and to rethink his opposition to the military mission in Iraq.

The Liberals don’t want to see TV ads airing during the next election that feature a deep-voiced narrator saying something along the lines of: “Justin Trudeau opposed the war on ISIS, he opposed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s anti-terrorism bill. He cares more about protecting the rights of terrorist scum than he does about protecting you. Vote for a strong and safe Canada! Vote Conservative.”

So yeah, just the fear of potential Tory TV attack ads pushed the Liberals to try change Trudeau’s image from adorable puppy to snarling Doberman Pinscher.

By the way, speaking of the Liberals, up until now their marketing plan was to avoid talking about issues and policies and platforms, hoping Canadians would vote for Trudeau solely based on his winning personality, charming smile and famous last name.

Some people (not me) might consider such an “idealess” strategy “cynical” and “jaded.”

Oh and I should note that if  Tory attacks on Trudeau do start to erode his support in the polls, the Liberals will drop their “Our leader is a boy scout” routine faster than you can say “drama teacher” and strike back with attacks of their own.

They’d have no choice; as one time manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Winston Churchill, once said, “Nice guys who don’t respond in kind to effective TV attack ads finish last or else alligators eat them last.”

This is not to say, of course, that Harper’s aggressive communications approach doesn’t entail risks or that it’s guaranteed to work.

My only point is this: in the context of real world politics, as opposed to Anderson’s make believe world of fairies, unicorns and gumdrop lanes, Harper’s tough guy approach makes strategic sense.

Despite what Anderson writes, Harper is not attacking Trudeau and Mulcair because of the nastiness of social media or because he’s by nature a rude person or because of jaded cynical advisors. (OK they might be jaded and cynical but that’s beside the point.)

Harper has simply adopted a strategy that offers his party its best chance of winning.

To paraphrase a guy who was paraphrasing the Bible, election victories don’t always go the side with the best attacks, but that’s the way to bet.

At any rate, that’s my “digital” opinion.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Trudeau Illusion

It was just a little sign, taped to a Liberal Party recruiting booth, but it immediately caught my attention.

It read: “Enter to win a hat signed by Justin Trudeau.”

“Why,” I wondered, “would anybody consider a hat signed by a politician to be a prize?” 

Then I remembered, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is no ordinary politician, he’s much more important than that – he’s a celebrity!

He has a famous, former prime minster father; he has matinee idol good looks; he once pummeled a Conservative Senator in a boxing match, all of which makes him one part handsome prince; one part pop star; one part action hero.

This is why much of the media has bestowed upon Trudeau the kind of fawning coverage usually reserved for visiting royalty (such as Barack Obama) or for Rock stars promoting a trendy “celebrity-backed” plan to end African poverty, a plan usually involving creative Twitter #hashtags.

And make no mistake, celebrity-hood matters politically because in our modern, hi-tech, secular society, celebrities are the closest thing we have left to gods.

We see celebrities as heroic, glamorous, adventurous, beautiful, rich, privileged -- everything we aspire to be.

So we idolize them.

We buy the hemorrhoid products celebrities endorse; we dress (or in some cases undress) like them; we soak up their every word when they lecture us on the finer points of our national energy policy.

We even try to connect to them on some supernatural level by owning items they may have touched or signed, just as our ancestors in medieval times sought out holy relics, which is why people might covet an autographed Trudeau hat.

Part of this worshipping process includes transforming our celebrities into idealized versions of humanity.

After all, what’s the point of paying homage to a regular schmuck?

So it is that Trudeau’s celebrity status also confers upon him the aura of a perfect politician, a leader who is imbued with positivity and idealism, whose motives are completely pure, whose aims are utterly noble, and whose hair has achieved a divine level of flawlessness.

That’s why, unlike regular, run-of-the-mill, non-celebrity politicians, Trudeau doesn’t need policies or platforms or, you know, anything actually resembling a real idea.

Indeed, the implied Liberal “marketing” message is that Trudeau, through a combination of celebrity superpowers and Chinese-communist-style efficiency, will painlessly and effortlessly solve all our problems.

The budget will balance itself; Alberta will develop oil sands in a way that makes the air smell like roses; and once Trudeau discovers the “root causes” of evil, Vladimir Putin and ISIS will turn away from aggression and dedicate themselves to helping homeless puppies.

Who can compete with a narrative like that?  No wonder Trudeau is soaring in the polls.

Of course, somewhere deep in our hearts, we all realize the Trudeau story is really just a nice fairy tale, just as know that Kermit the Frog is really just a piece of felt with buttons for eyes.

But the Trudeau fairy tale is one we desperately want to believe. We want to believe there’s a leader out there who can magically make the country a better place, who can unite us all regardless of race, region or hockey affiliation, who can rise above partisan political bickering, who will let us have our cake and eat it too.

We don’t want to pull back the curtain and see Trudeau for what he really is: a likable but inexperienced, gaffe-prone politician who is probably incapable of uttering anything beyond carefully rehearsed platitudes.

That would force us to face the ugly truth: that no matter who is prime minister, no matter which party is in charge, politics is a messy, tough, cynical, scandal-prone business that offers no clear cut or easy answers.

Who wants to contemplate that harshness when it’s so much easier, so much more satisfying to believe in Trudeau’s rainbows and lollipops agenda?

As Oscar Wilde put it, “illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

Consequently, because it gives us pleasure, Trudeau remains firmly atop his celebrity pedestal, meaning he has a good chance of becoming our next prime minister.

Then, I guess, we will see what happens when illusion confronts reality.

(Spoiler alert: illusion usually doesn’t do so well.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Liberal Ad Not a Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she doesn't like political attack ads, which is why, I suppose, her own political attack ad is so terrible.

In fact, her ad is almost a textbook case of what not to do.

Check it out:




So the spot starts off with Wynne ambling along a bland suburban street explaining why she hates negative ads, which as a viewer sets me up to think she is going to spend the next 30 seconds or so explaining her positive vision for Ontario. But no! Instead, almost in mid-sentence, she goes from saying she hates attack ads to launching an attack of her own against PC leader Tim Hudak. That's a mistake because shifting gears and changing the tone of a message in such an abrupt way can jar a viewer and that's not a good thing. In this case, Wynne risks losing her audience in the crucial first seconds of the ad.

Then, after that odd start, Wynne proceeds to list a litany of "facts", which are supposed to convince voters that Hudak is evil incarnate: he hates labour; he wants to destroy jobs, he wants to eradicate youth employment; he wants to drive down wages; he wantzzzzzzzzzz.

Oops, sorry...  for a second there I dozed off.

But in my defence, this ad's style is conducive to napping. Wynne not only delivers her lines in a dull, boring monotone voice, but her list of Hudak misdeeds seems to go on forever. It's like Lord of the Rings! The average viewer is going to quickly lose interest. For a political spot, anything longer than 30 seconds is too long. (Even 30 seconds is a bit long.)

To be effective, to keep a viewer's attention, a video has to make its points briefly and with some sort of dramatic punch. Equally important, a good spot includes interesting visuals that reinforce the message. Even writing out key words on the screen helps. Just having one shot of a ranting Wynne strolling down a street doesn't cut it.

The biggest problem with this ad, however, is that Wynne herself is doing the attack. That's a major no no. Why? Well, going "negative" has a stigma attached to it, which is why the candidate must always be perceived as being all about rainbows and lollipops. If there's vicious knife work to be done, leave that to your allies in the media or to PR hacks or (most ideally) to Third Parties.

The more distance between negativity and the candidate, the better.

Mind you, what's truly troublesome about this ad is how much time it probably took to produce. I mean, there's always something that will spoil a shot when taping in the great outdoors: a car horn tooting, a dog barking, a plane flying overhead, kids making faces in the background. Plus, I'm sure Wynne, not being a professional actor, flubbed her lines more than once. All that translates into a lot of takes. That means a lot of time. Surely the Premier could have allotted that precious time for more useful government purposes, such as deleting emails. (Note to Liberal legal department: that's just a joke, so please don't sue me!)