Monday, February 27, 2012

Robocall Scandal Likely Won't Hurt the Tories (Yet)

I suspect Prime Minister Harper’s enemies and detractors see the Robcall scandal as the silver bullet that will pierce his government’s Teflon armour.

But will it? I doubt it.

And yes I know all the sordid details about the crank calls, the voter suppression tactics and the damage to our democratic process. I have also heard all the heated reaction.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says these Robocalls contributed to the defeat of Liberal candidates in at least 27 ridings; columnist Michael Den Tandt says the scandal means “the legitimacy of the Tory majority is in question.” Some are even calling it the equivalent of Watergate.

Sounds pretty serious.

So why do I say this won’t hurt the Tories?

Well, you need to consider three important issues, one is logical, one legal, and one political.

Consider the logic. How can Rae or anyone else possibly say the Robocalls contributed to the defeat of Liberal candidates? Where’s the proof? Seems to me the only way to test Rae’s hypothesis is to go back to May 2, 2011 and run the election again without the Robocalls and see how the results change.

But as far as I know no one has access to a time machine.

What about the legal aspect? Well I don’t want to sound like a bleeding heart or anything, but under our system people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. As of yet we have no real evidence as to who was behind those Robocalls. So the rush to judge Harper or his party or some 23 year old kid is premature.

Yet surely just the perception of a Tory scandal will seriously undermine the government’s popular support, right?


And this leads me to the politics of scandals.

The fact is most voters believe all politicians are basically a shady lot. So most scandals don’t really shock them. Indeed, when given a choice between a competent crook or an honest fool, they will pick the crook almost every time because, heck, at least he’s smart.

And voters want smart leaders, leaders for instance, who can manage the economy.

This is why the Tories were not hurt by the “in and out” Elections Canada scandal or by the Bev Oda “Not” scandal or by the Speaker of the House “in contempt” scandal.

But what about the “Adscam scandal”? Didn’t that kill the Liberals?

I’d say no. I’d say what really hurt the Liberals wasn’t the scandal, but former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s over the top reaction to it.  That plus Martin and later Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were basically incompetent politicians.

I suspect that had the crafty and tough Jean Chretien hung around a little longer, the Liberal Party would be in much better shape today.

Now none of this is to say the Robocall scandal will leave the Tories completely unscathed. In fact, it has likely tarnished their brand.

And these scandals could also have a cumulative effect. That is one day voters will remember all this stuff when and if they are looking for reasons not to like Harper.

But right now they are just not looking for reasons.


One thing I never imagined was the Liberals would actually help the Tories off the hook regarding the Robocall scandal.

But that's what's happening.

The Liberals now admit a staff member in their research bureau was responsible for publishing "Vikileaks" which dished out "Dirty Tricks" style attacks on Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

This now gives the Tories a chance to go from defence to offence and will reinforce the notion that all politicians are the same.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Robocalls, Scandals and Politics

The media is abuzz these days with the so-called “Robocall” scandal.

As the whole world knows by now, Elections Canada has traced fraudulent phone calls made during the last federal election to a company with links to the Conservative Party.

According to media reports crank “robocalls” discouraged voting for a particular party, or incorrectly advised electors of changed polling locations.

For their part the Conservatives have denied any role in the phone calls and have denounced such tactics, as they should. Suppressing votes in this manner is about as sleazy as you can get.

Yet Tory denials have not stopped many in the media and elsewhere from blaming such tactics on what they call the Conservative Party’s “ends justifies the means culture”.

And certainly it’s true the Conservative Party is aggressive and as I have argued myself sometimes their aggressiveness needs to be tempered.

But the problem goes beyond any one party. Indeed, the robocall incident is really just a symptom of what’s wrong with politics in general.

Sadly, elections are not about competing visions and may the best idea win. For partisans they are more like a life or death competition where the only thing that matters is winning.

In short, many in politics are guided by one simple principle: “We must beat the other guy no matter what it takes.”

And as long as this “winning at all costs” mentality exists it will inevitably lead to cheating and to “Dirty Tricks.”

This is why political lawn signs are stolen or vandalized; this is why dirt about opposing candidates are dug up; this why opposition phone lines are jammed; and this is why crank robocalls are made. Who cares about ideas?; who cares about right or wrong?

Then when one side does it, the other side figures it must respond in kind.

And please, let’s be honest: all parties from time to time resort to less than savory tactics.

It’s just human nature; it’s just politics.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gerry's Political Maxims

After working in the political communications biz for more than 25 years, I have learned a lot of things.  I just couldn’t help it! Anyway, based on my experience I have come up with a list rules which I call “Gerry’s Political Maxims”. Here are the first 50:
1)      The most powerful emotion in politics is fear.

2)      The second most powerful emotion is hate.

3)      Voters will always prefer a crook to a fool.

4)      When it comes to policy ideas, vagueness works better than clarity.

5)      Get voters to react, not think.

6)      Whenever possible employ the “Us” vs “Them” dynamic

7)      Don’t use attack ads unless you have to, and you usually have to.

8)      The less time you have, the more important money is.

9)      Don’t betray your base.

10)  If you can’t communicate a political message in 15 seconds or less, you’re doing something wrong.

11)   Never get defensive, always attack.

12)  Stay on message.

13)  If you fight with the media do it for strategic reasons, not out of anger.

14)  Always get the facts right.

15)  Voters don’t care what you think; they care what they think.

16)  Read public polls with a lot salt on hand.

17)   Never repeat an attack

18)   Never talk about money

19)  Mistakes will always happen, just move on.

20)  The media is obsessed with the “Politics of politics”

21)   If you can’t get people to like you, get them to agree with you

22)   Every message must reflect and advance your strategic objective

23)   Don’t trust anyone in politics

24)   No plan survives contact with the enemy; be prepared to adapt

25)   Three of the most important things in politics are money, money and money.

26)  What really matters in a political poll are the crosstabs.

27)  Most voters don’t care about ideology, they care about values.

28)  When you can’t avoid it; embrace it.

29)  Having the right enemies is just as important as having the right friends.

30)   Use your best ads last.

31)   Define or be defined.

32)   No matter how bad things get, always keep cool

33)  Don’t worry about media bias, they are out to get you, but they are also out to get everybody else.

34)  Your opponent runs “negative ads” your ads are always “comparative” or “truthful.”

35)  The principle of politics are like the principles of physics – they apply everywhere.

36)  Perception is reality.

37)   All politics is tribal

38)  If you don’t like a question, don’t answer it.

39)  Resist the urge to improvise

40)  Use humour with care.

41)  Repetition of a good message is good, really, really good.

42)  Don’t underestimate the importance of luck.

43)  If it’s stupid but works, then it isn’t stupid
44)   If you want a quick agreement among a disparate group, find a common enemy.

45)   When your opponent falls to his knees … kick him again.

46)  When speaking to Partisans  beware of “applause lines”

47)  In every campaign somebody will panic.

48)   If you really want to get nasty, use mail not TV

49)  Never speculate in public

50)  Idealism and politics don’t mix.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dirty Tricks and the Internet

Ok, there has been lots of discussion and outrage about the “Vikileaks” Twitter campaign directed against Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

But what does it all mean?

Well first off, there is no question this was a nasty “Dirty Tricks” attack. It was personal, it was vicious, it was mean-spirited.

Which is why it’s getting so much attention.

But setting aside the ethics involved, you have to concede this enterprise was also a masterstroke of political insurgency warfare.

Without spending any money, and with only a little research, the creator of the Vikileaks Twitter account managed to inflict a serious wound on a federal cabinet minister.

And make no mistake, this did hurt Toews. Overnight he became a national laughing stock.

It also likely helped to focus public attention on the government’s controversial bill on Internet surveillance.

That’s pretty impressive.

And, of course, now the Conservatives are screaming “Dirty Tricks” and accusing the NDP of being behind the attack, without any real evidence.

This is not surprising. According to the standard Political Manual, whenever you get hit with some kind of damaging smear attack, it’s good strategy to feign outrage and pin the blame on your opponent, regardless of the facts.

At any rate, whoever pulled this stunt had better be good at covering his or her tracks, because the Tories would love to dump a train load of hurt on the perpetrator.

Mind you, what’s interesting about this attack isn’t the Dirty Tricks aspect. Like it or not, Dirty Tricks campaigns have been around as long as politics. That's not a pleasant thought, but it's reality.

In fact, I am pretty sure somebody in Ancient Rome handed out anonymously-written papyrus parchments containing embarrassing details about Julius Caesar.

What makes the Vikileaks campaign so fascinating is the medium it employed, i.e. Social Media.

Again, using just a free, simple Twitter account, somebody managed to rock the government and entrance the media. So in other words, anonymous mudslinging has never been easier!

What this means is we better get used to more of this cyber style Dirty Tricks politics in the future.

Yep, we are heading for a nasty new world.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Harper's China Policy Explained, Sort of.

If you’re reading the news these days you know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks China is very important.

That’s why he only takes it out when special guests visit for dinner.

But that’s beside the point.

More important is that Prime Minister Harper has had a big change of heart when it comes to China the country.

At one time, not so long ago, the Prime Minister had a “right wingy” take on the Red Chinese. They were Commies, they abused human rights, they abused Tibet, they abused the Dalai Lama.

But that was before he considered the crucial, geo-political strategic ramifications otherwise known as  Chinese money.

So after carefully considering the issue, the Prime Minister came to see China as less of a Red Menace and more as a good business partner.

That means, it’s Goodbye human rights; Goodbye Tibet, and, of course, Goodbye Dolly, …I mean Dalai.

And while this might upset some “conservative purists”, it’s really just good politics.

To see why, just consider his current trip to China, a trip that saw Harper score three impressive foreign policy goals:

  1. He carried out the extremely important task of posing for photo ops in exotic locations with adorable Panda bears.

  2. He signed several key business deals meaning it will be easier for China to steal Canada’s closely guarded trade secrets, such as Tim Horton’s new coffee cup sizes.

  3. The Prime Minister sent a direct diplomatic message to American President Barack Obama. And that message went something like this: “Hey Barack. I am in a country with 1 billion frickin people. And guess what? Not one of them is a tree hugging, Hollywood celebrity. They want our oil. So suck on that!”

Now let me admit, all these ideas on China and Harper may or may not be accurate, but they sure made sense when I dreamed them up while waiting for my order at the Chinese restaurant.

Friday, February 03, 2012

My Earey Experience

The job of being a TV pundit really isn’t all that hard; you usually just smile into a camera and answer questions with what you hope are plausible-sounding answers.

But when things go wrong, televised punditry can turn into the stuff of nightmares.

Recently, for instance, I endured just such a trauma while appearing on one of those pundit TV panels.

It all started in typical fashion. About 15 minutes before I was to go on the air a producer took me to a small little room in the studio.

After hooking me up with a lapel mike and an earpiece the producer left me on my own, sitting at one of those newsroom-style desks. The camera I was to look at was remote controlled, so there was not even a cameraman to keep me company. I was truly alone.

There was nothing to do but wait. So I took advantage of my alone time to focus on preparing for my upcoming interview – I sat up straight, made sure my tie wasn’t crooked and most importantly I started to imagine all the things that could go wrong.

Would I blurt out something stupid on the air, would I mangle my words, would I get upstaged by a fellow panelist ….or would my ear piece pop out?

As I pondered this last possibility, I decided just to be on the safe side to cram the plastic little doohickey deeper and deeper into my ear canal.  

As I pressed it in, I could hear the reassuring feed from the show, my only contact with the outside world …. but then suddenly the sound abruptly stopped. I was for all intents and purposes, deaf.

I realized with horror that thanks to my fidgeting with the earpiece it had become disconnected from its wire. I had broken it! And I was going to be on live TV in just a few short minutes, unable to hear the host or anybody else. There was nobody to help me.

Disaster loomed.

Fortunately, as a veteran of countless TV appearances, I knew exactly what to do under these circumstances: I panicked.

I frantically dug out the plastic earpiece, fearing all the time that I would suddenly appear on TV with my index finger stuck in the side of my head.

Luckily I managed to retrieve it before the red light on the camera lit up. But time was running out. I quickly re-attached the wire, and once again I could hear the show.


Or at least partial success. My repair job was delicate to say the least. After re-inserting the earpiece, I quickly realized that if I made any slight movement of my head the wire would once again detach.

To keep everything in place, I had to keep perfectly still.

Before I could fret about it too much, I was on the air.

They say the secret to appearing on TV is to look relaxed. Well I must have looked about as relaxed as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Instead of focusing on coming up with witty comments about possible reforms to old age pensions, all I was thinking was: “Please little sound wire, don’t come loose.”

And the wire did stay in, but unfortunately near the end of my segment, while answering a question on the future prospects of the NDP, the whole earpiece plopped out.

So as gracefully and nonchalantly as possible I placed it back trying all the while not to look like a complete dork.

In my mind, it was a humiliating catastrophe.

In fact, I am sure when my on-air segment was over, the viewers saw me not as a political genius, but as a grim-faced, stiff-necked, nervous-looking guy who had a piece of plastic fall out of his ear.

But on the bright side, I was still on TV!