Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reviewing the Year in Politics (Sort of)

Whenever a New Year approaches, I like to take my eyes off the road ahead and stare intently for a long period of time at the rear view mirror of history.

Yes, metaphorically-speaking, it’s reckless driving, but it’s also the only way to gather the facts needed for my annual “Year in Review” column, which highlights the key political events of the past twelve months.

And this year’s review of 2013 is chock-full of exciting highlights. Check it out:

(Please note: Nothing you read from here on is meant to be taken seriously and is for entertainment purposes only.)

* Idle No More movement leader, Chief Theresa Spence, threatens to “bring Canada’s economy down to its knees.” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair immediately objects saying: “Hey, bringing the economy down to its knees is my job!”

* NDP says a "bare” majority enough for Quebec to separate from Canada; nudists rejoice.

* Taking a cue from the Idle No More movement, the groundhog refuses to look for his shadow unless the Governor-General is present.

* The federal Liberals face lawsuits when their “imaginative” TV leadership debate format bores several viewers to death.

* During a speech before the House of Commons, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty admits the Conservative government’s entire budgetary plan consists of “putting up a bunch of Economic Action Plan billboards all over the place.”

* Justin Trudeau is elected leader of the Liberal Party, finishing ahead of Liberal MP Joyce Murray who wanted to co-operate with the NDP, proving once again that in politics having no ideas is much better than having bad ideas.

* The NDP holds a policy convention at which it drops the word “socialism” from its constitution and replaces it with the Canadian equivalent of socialism: “Economic Action Planning.”

* Toronto Mayor Rob Ford starts clever PR campaign, which successfully puts his city on the map.

* The Conservative Party, which had already adopted Liberal-style economic policies, decides to also adopt Liberal-style scandals. Enter Senator Mike Duffy.

* Prime Minister Harper leaves for Europe saying his visit will result in several key photo opportunities.

* Worried about its worsening image the Senate takes a pre-emptive step: it passes a resolution to abolish the NDP.

* Controversy erupts when it’s learned Liberal leader Trudeau received pay for speaking at charity events, leading many Canadians to voice a key question: why in the world would anyone pay money to hear a politician speak?

* Prime Minister Harper denounces those who say he is making government too partisan. Later that day Canada Day is officially renamed “Harper Day.”

* The media becomes completely obsessed with the "royal child," or as he’s otherwise known, Justin Trudeau.

* Absolutely nothing happens.

* After watching Russian President Vladimir Putin out maneuver President Barack Obama over the Syrian chemical weapon crisis, Prime Minister Harper asks Putin to negotiate the Keystone pipeline deal.

* Senator Mike Duffy stuns the country when he reveals that he taped the infamous Mayor Rob Ford “crack video.”

* The RCMP says it will investigate the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff for possible illegal activity, causing Harper to boast that his “law and order agenda is clearly working.”


* Conservative MP Michael Chong introduces a Bill to give backbench MPs more power; as a reward, he is quickly named Canada’s ambassador to Siberia.

So as you can see, 2013 was an extremely interesting year. And 2014 promises to provide us more of the same.

Oh well, try and have a Happy New Year anyway.

(This article originally appeared in the Hill Times.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tory fundraising Pitch Suffers from Blandness

Given that for the past ten years or so, the Conservative Party has been something of a fundraising juggernaut, I’m hesitant to criticize their methods.

Clearly, whatever they are doing is working.

Yet, a recent Tory fundraising appeal, which somehow made its way into my email inbox, leaves me cold. (Mind you, it’s possible my coldness might be due to the wind chill.)

At any rate, here’s the Conservative missive:


The success of our Party over the last 10 years has been a result of our ability to consistently raise more money than our opposition.  And as one of our key supporters you've been a critical part of that success.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have made fundraising their top priority, and they are working hard to close the gap.

We cannot let that happen.

Our Party can only win the next election if we keep our fundraising advantage and the 2015 election is right around the corner. If we want to win, we need to get ready now.

That's why we are launching the Seize the Moment campaign to raise $2 million by the end of the year.

This is an ambitious goal for our Party, but I know that you, my fellow members, donors and supporters will stand with us. I am asking you today – will you donate $5 or whatever you can afford today to help us reach our $2 million goal?

Make your $5 gift today and help us Seize the Moment – we're counting on you.


John Walsh
President, Conservative Party of Canada

So what’s wrong with this message?

Plenty, if you ask me. (Which admittedly, nobody did.)

In my mind, a successful fundraising letter has to make some sort of emotional connection with the donor while at the same time creating a sense of urgency.

This appeal does neither.

Instead, the Tories offer what I’d call a bland “structural” pitch, i.e. they are essentially saying give us money because: a) you are a Conservative, and b) we are the Conservative Party.

The only hook beyond that basic message is: “We can’t let the other team out fundraise us”.

That’s not exactly a rallying cry to political activists, who are seldom motivated by cold financial calculations and who don’t necessarily see politics as a fundraising competition.

They donate money because they want to advance an ideological agenda or because they want to defend their values or more bluntly they do it for primal emotional reasons: they are afraid, or angry or hopeful.

Asking them to “Seize the moment” so that the Tory balance sheet looks good might motivate accountants, but it will likely underwhelm a large chunk of the donor base.

Plus there has to be a sense that their support is needed right away, that they can’t put off signing that cheque or making that online donation.

But this Tory pitch is about amassing money in a bank vault for the 2015 election, which is more than a year off and I’m sorry that’s not “right around the corner.”

A better approach for the Tories would have been to say something like this:


As you know the left wing media has been unfairly attacking our party and our leader.

What’s more the Liberal Party has been inundating the TV airwaves with advertisements, promoting their new leader Justin Trudeau.

We need to fight back! We need to get our message out so that Canadians know what’s at stake.

That’s why our party has been running a series of our own TV ads to warn Canadians that Trudeau is “in over his head,” that he lacks the experience and expertise it will take to manage Canada’s economy.

We think our ads will work but they cost a lot of money.

In fact, the bills are landing on my desk right now.

I am hoping that I can count on your generous financial support so that we can pay for these ads and continue to stand up against those who want bigger government and higher taxes.

Only the Conservatives can provide the good government you deserve and Canada needs.

Please make a donation today.

OK that’s just a rough draft, but you get the idea.

To energize donors you need a little more punch, you need to give them something beyond an abstract far off goal.

All that said, this message will still garner the Tories lots of dough.

But they are also likely leaving a lot of money on the table.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Is Santa a Tory?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's recent comment about Santa Claus being a Canadian reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago, concerning a David Suzuki fundraising campaign that exploited Saint Nick.

So given its sudden relevance and its seasonal theme, I thought I'd reproduce it below:

Santa vs Suzuki

Canada’s famed environmentalist David Suzuki had better watch out, he better not pout and he better not cry and I am telling you why.

Santa Claus is coming to town and he is not a happy camper.

That’s right, reliable sources say the Jolly Old Elf is not at all jolly about Suzuki’s latest fear- mongering fundraising ploy

You may have heard about it. Suzuki’s Foundation has set up a website which claims Santa Claus needs to be relocated on account of all the North Pole ice has melted thanks to industrial-induced climate change.

And, of course, the only way to save Santa Claus is to send the Suzuki Foundation lots and lots of cash.

It’s not clear how Suzuki came up with this tawdry idea. Perhaps he imbibed too much eggnog, or maybe he suffered a concussion while engaged in Christmas combat shopping, or maybe his heart is just three sizes too small.

But in the end it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that Suzuki’s propaganda stunt has apparently enraged the world’s most beloved Christmas icon.

And why shouldn’t Santa Claus be angry? First off, Suzuki is cutting Santa and his elves out of the action. They won’t get a single dime out of whatever money the “Let’s save Santa” campaign raises. The same thing happened, by the way, when Santa didn’t receive any royalties from the classic book, T’was the Night Before Christmas.

Secondly, it probably never occurred to Suzuki that Santa might actually welcome a little global warming in the North Pole. I mean let’s face it, Santa’s frigid village makes Winnipeg look like a tropical paradise.

Thirdly, Santa is probably no lover of the green movement. I am sure, for instance, those “clean energy” giant wind turbines, which green power advocates love so much, have cut to pieces more than one unwary reindeer flying too low on Christmas Eve.

And lastly, I bet Santa Claus is actually a strong supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He does, after all, fit the Tory voter demographic to a tee: white, older male who lives in a non-urban environment. In fact, my theory is he moved to the North Pole either to escape high taxes or because he didn’t want to register his firearms.

This is why I fully suspect Santa Claus will hit back at Suzuki and his Foundation by doing everything he can to help the Conservative government achieve its agenda.

For instance, rather than riding on military helicopters, Defence Minister Peter MacKay will now get free lifts whenever he needs it on Santa’s sleigh with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer leading the way.

And the next time tree-hugging American celebrities amass inWashington DC to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, watch for Santa Claus to air drop a battalion of hungry man-eating polar bears into their ranks.

Then just to stick it to the green crowd even more, I can envision Santa’s elves starting up a new business: selling melted glacier water in non-renewable plastic bottles. They will call it “Ethical Water.”

Plus Santa Claus will also likely offer the Tories invaluable political intelligence. His “Naughty or Nice” list (which contains much more data than the old mandatory long form census) could provide a lot of useful ammunition for the next round of Conservative Party attack ads, if you get my drift.

But what about Suzuki himself? Will he suffer any repercussions personally because of his ill-advised fundraising campaign?

Well, let’s put it this way. On Christmas morning Suzuki will almost certainly find his stocking stuffed with Alberta tar sands.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times)

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Why I'm Not Excited about the Reform Act

Solon’s laws for Athens, the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, all key milestones in the history of democracy which pale into insignificance when compared to Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Great Reform Act of 2013.

Or so says the hype emanating from that alternate reality dimension known as the “Ottawa Bubble”.

Ottawa Bubblonians -- columnists, pundits, editorial writers  -- are gleefully extolling Chong’s bill -- which would “empower” backbench MPs by, among other things, making it easier for them to dispatch their leaders -- because they love the idea of returning to a purer 19th century-style British parliamentary democracy.

Ha just kidding!

Of course, they really love this Bill for a more basic reason: they believe it’s embarrassing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

So what do I think about Chong’s bill?

Well, even though I love 19th century political conventions as much as the next guy, I really can’t work up too much excitement about a bill that simply shifts the balance of power on Parliament Hill.

By the way, I suspect it’s the same for most non-Ottawa Bubblonian Canadians.

I doubt very much, for instance, that people get up in the morning saying, “Forget about the economy and the threat of nuclear war, if only we could restore our ancient Westminster British Parliamentary traditions so that my MP could have more power.”

Not that such indifference matters to the Ottawa Bubblonians who would argue that if Canadians only stopped watching mindless TV and spent more time reading Hansard, they would also love Chong’s bill because it would loosen the iron grip of party leaders on their MPs and thus usher in a Golden Age of Good Government.

And even if it doesn’t usher in a Golden Age, Chong’s Bill might at least encourage more MPs to openly defy their leaders and speak their mind, which would undeniably strengthen the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s democratic right to write more juicy and gossipy stories.   

Yet, even those powerful arguments don’t move me.

For one thing, I doubt Chong’s Bill, even if passed without amendments, would do much in practical terms to weaken party leaders. After all, it was more than 40 years ago that then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau mocked backbench MPs as nobodies and ever since then political power has been inexorably centralized in the leader’s office.

And I’m sorry, but one parliamentary bill isn’t going to reverse that flow of power, the parliamentary toothpaste is out of the tube -- like it or not, for a whole bunch of reasons, our system has evolved so that party leaders are the undisputed “Kings of the Hill.”

But even if the pro-Reform Act enthusiasts are correct, even if this bill would empower MPs and reduce the leader’s clout, I’d still ask that most important of all questions:  “So what?”

Why should anybody who lives outside the Ottawa Bubble really care if the power dynamic on Parliament Hill has been altered?

Certainly, Chong’s proposed changes won’t make our system any more democratic, unless you call giving a small cabal of disgruntled MPs the power to “fire” a prime minister -- who was elected to the job by millions of people -- democratic.

(OK, I realize Canadians don’t directly elect the prime minister, but let’s be honest, when most people vote it’s usually not the local guy they are thinking about when they write down their X on the ballot. They are really voting for the party leader they like best.)

At the very least, allowing a small group of MPs to undo a democratic decision is an idea that runs counter to the Reformist-populist ideal of devolving power to the grassroots.

Traditionalists, of course, might contend that making MPs more powerful is actually good for democracy because it means they will act as a bulwark against tyranny.

The idea is that if some future prime minister starts getting all Julius Ceasary, the Reform Act will give MPs the power to grab metaphorical daggers so they can quickly and efficiently strike a blow for liberty.

And that’s a great argument, except that it overlooks one key fact: MPs are first and foremost politicians, which is to say they are usually guided by their own political self-interest, meaning the only time they will go all “Ides of March” on a leader will be when they reckon he or she has become an electoral liability and thus a threat to their own future.

To put it another way, when MPs decide whether or not to depose their leader, things like principles and democracy and liberty, will be less important to their calculations than the most recent polling numbers. Indeed, it’s possible we could see a prime minister deposed simply because he or she is enacting necessary but unpopular measures.

So when you boil it down to its basics, all Chong’s Bill will do is make it easier for jittery MPs to save their own electoral skins.

To that I say, “Big whooping deal!”

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one meaningful way to reform government power – and that’s to reduce it

Asking me to get excited about the Reform Act is like asking a deer to get excited because a pack of wolves has come up with an easier way to replace its dominant male..

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner -  John F. Kennedy

Even though Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, his almost mystical status as a legendary leader continues to survive, as evidenced by the massive coverage networks both in Canada and in the United States dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of his untimely death. Mind you, perhaps as the boomer generation fades away, so too will Kennedy's aura.

Loser  - Prime Minister Stephen Harper

For a while there it looked like the Senate scandal, which had been bubbling away for 6 months or so, was starting to subside.  Even the scandal hungry media began to focus on more important issues, such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's sex life. Then the RCMP released a "bombshell"  (the media's favorite word when discussing the Senate scandal) of an affidavit that put the whole sordid mess back on the front pages. Once again, the Prime Minister had to deny, deny, deny. And as they say in the communications business, when your denying, you're dying.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner -- The Conservative Party

Imagine this: An entire week went by with no real mention of Mike Duffy or Pamela Wallin or Senate scandals! This gave the Conservative government a chance to unveil its "Economic Update" which was packed full with good news items -- budget soon to be balanced, tax cuts on the horizon, strong economy. The Tories, in other words, were back on message.

Loser -- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

This is the third time in a row Ford has claimed the "loser of the week" title. I might have to create a special category just for him! At any rate, this past week Ford once again made international headlines for all the wrong reasons when allegations surfaced connecting the Mayor to prostitutes and drunk driving. In response Ford used language cruder than anything you'd ever hear on HBO comedy specials. Later, the Toronto City Council stripped Ford of some of his mayoralty  powers. Surely the Mayor (and I know this is tempting fate) has officially hit rock bottom.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner: The Guys Who Write Conservative Attack Ads

With his idiotic comment about admiring the efficiency of China's communist dictatorship, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has provided Conservatives with enough fodder for their next ten TV attack ads, not to mention a few fundraising letters.  Indeed, his odd view on China only reinforces the ongoing Conservative narrative that Trudeau is "In over his head." Good job Justin!

Loser: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

Earlier this week, after months of denying it, Mayor Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine, probably while in a "drunken stupor."  The ensuing media feeding frenzy was not a pretty sight. In fact, watching the Ford saga unfold is like watching an animal get tortured. This has now gone beyond communication crisis or scandal, we are now watching a human being facing serious problems implode in a bizarre real time tragic soap opera. For the sake of his health, I hope Ford gets the help he needs and gets it soon.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Deconstructing Trudeau's China "Joke"

American writer E. B. White once said, “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

Maybe that's why I can't get anyone to explain to me the humour of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's so called "joke" about admiring the efficiency of communist China -- no one wants to kill it. 

But I'm a little more callous so I've decided to dissect this joke myself, just so I can find out what makes this Trudeau knee slapper supposedly funny. 

Call me overly curious, but I really want to know why so many media types believe Trudeau's comment about expressing admiration for a brutal dictatorship was meant to be hilariously comical.

To be honest, I just don't see it and believe me, I want in on the joke because laughing is fun!

Now before I pick up my scalpel (don't worry since I'm cutting into a joke it's a just wacky clown scalpel) let's give a little background to the story.

Earlier this week, Trudeau was speaking about how much he loved the "middle class" to a group of upper class Toronto women.

At one point during the proceedings this question was asked: “Besides Canada, which nation’s administration do you most admire, and why?”

That question triggered the "joke" Trudeau's apologists assure us was intended to be a side-splitting zinger.

Here's what he said:

"You know, there’s a level of of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.’ I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted that I find quite interesting..

OK, let's get to the gory part and start slicing this quip into separate pieces to see what makes it tick.

Here again is the first line: "You know, there's a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say `we need to go green fastest ... we need to start investing in solar"

So you laughing yet? 

Me neither. Nothing in this statement is even remotely funny. All it is is a guy talking about how dictators have an easier time of getting stuff done. And they do. That's because they don't have to worry about picky little things like democracy or human rights or the rule of law. Anyway, it's odd that a party leader would say something like that, but jocular? Sorry, it doesn't even make me giggle. (Mind you, I do concede the idea of investing in solar power is somewhat amusing.)

So let's move on the last line, which, since the first line was so dull, must contain the full power of Trudeau's whimsy: "I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted that I find quite interesting."

Ha, ha, ha, that's hilarious ...wait it's actually just confusing. 

Help me out here, what does Trudeau mean with this statement? Is he saying Harper wants dictatorial power like they have in China? I guess so, but if that's the joke, Trudeau's previous line makes no sense. I mean, he just got done saying he admired China's system, so where's the punchline in saying Harper might admire it too? 

I'm no (old guy alert) Bob Hope, but shouldn't the joke have gone a little something like this: 

"China's regime is brutal, repressive and anti-democratic, it reminds me a lot of the Harper government!"

OK so that's not exactly comedy gold, but at least it has a logical construction: a set up line and a pay off punchline, which is more than you can say for Trudeau's comment.

In fact, my analysis seems to prove that Trudeau's joke doesn't seem to be a joke at all.

And to be fair, it's the media, not Trudeau, which is using  the "It's just a joke defence"  which suggests the Liberal leader really does admire the Chinese dictatorship.

To me that's funny, but not ha ha funny.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Negative Review for a Positive Trudeau Ad

Well, it looks like Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was serious when he promised to stay "positive."

The Liberal Party's recent TV ad, starring Justin, amazingly doesn't even mention the Senate scandal swirling around Ottawa.

To a lot of people that might seem counter-intuitive, but if you're ahead in the polls it actually might be a wise strategy to stay on the moral high road. (So long as you can count on your non-party allies or on the NDP to throw some dirt.) Besides which, for better or for worse, Trudeau has made being positive an essential part of his brand.

Yet, positive or not, I have some problems with this ad that have more to do with its style and content than with its tone.

First off, the ad starts with Trudeau telling viewers the Conservatives are saying he doesn't have the right priorities.

That doesn't make sense to me.

I mean, why repeat a Conservative attack?

Imagine a car company airing a TV ad that began: "Our competitors say our car is unsafe, but let us tell you..."

It's just a bad move.

What if I had never even heard that Tory criticism? Now suddenly the idea that Trudeau doesn't have the right priorities is planted in my mind, thanks to a Liberal ad.

Next, Trudeau utters a series of negative statements: He won't be indifferent to retired people, he won't shrug at unemployment, he won't shrug off lower middle class wages.

This is a mistake because, simply put, it's bad communication strategy to state ideas in the negative. When you say, "I'm not a crook"  the primitive subconscious mind, which doesn't do well with negatives, only hears, "I'm a crook."

So in a sense Trudeau is unwittingly saying, "I'm indifferent to retired people".

Better for him to state his positions in a positive way, i.e. "I care about retired people, I care about the unemployed and the poor, etc."

But the worst thing about the ad is that its only strong visual, a graph, actually shows the viewer that  both economic growth and middle class wages are going up!

Is that really the message Trudeau wants to promote, that the Tories are doing a great job with the economy?

OK, I realize, of course, that his point is that middle class wages are lagging behind, but his graph doesn't really reinforce the bleakness he is trying to project.

He needs a graph, in other words, with an arrow going down.

Finally, I don't like 60 second TV spots. For one thing the viewer usually tunes out after 20 or so seconds meaning a large chunk of your money is wasted, secondly and more  importantly, 30 second spots can run more often meaning you get more message repetition.

I guess the lesson from all this is that just because a political ad is positive, doesn't necessarily mean its good.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Once again, after careful analysis and research I announce the winner and loser of the week.

Winner  -- Senator Mike Duffy
Duffy managed to twist the knife just a little bit more into the Harper government this week when he announced that, not only did the Conservatives pay him more than 90K to cover his disputed expenses, but they also gave him more than 13K to cover his legal bills (Poor guy!). In the process, the embattled Senator changed the media narrative. Instead of talking about his possible misdeeds, discussion once again focused on the PMO's competence. Plus, Duffy seems to be having such a great time throwing monkey wrenches in the Tory machinery, you got to give him points for style.

Loser -- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
When Mayor Ford publicly denied the existence of the infamous "crack video" he gambled it would never turn up. He lost. The Toronto police chief confirmed this week the tape's reality. So now the Mayor finds himself facing a communications nightmare. Not only must he explain the video, he must now also explain why he misled the public for so long. Making his road  even more difficult is that many of his staunchest allies have abandoned him, with some calling for his resignation. Ford is in a deep, deep hole. And he's the guy who dug it.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

What Makes for an Effective Political Billboard Ad

Call me old fashioned but in this day and age of fancy, smancy, high tech communication, I still have a soft spot for billboard ads.

Yes, I know, many people regard them as urban blight, but to me  good billboard ads are like art- they are creative, they generate an emotional reaction and they can be a fun way to get out a political message.

So what makes for a good billboard ad?

Well, one way to answer that question is to look at a bad ad.

Here's a billboard the National Citizens Coalition, a free market advocacy group, recently put up to generate public anger against the Ontario Liberal government's fiscally irresponsible policies.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work on any level.

First off, what's its take away message?

All a passer by would see when looking at this billboard is a bunch of big numbers.

 And yes I know the implied message here is these are examples of Liberal misspending. But as a casual observer, how am I supposed to know that? Maybe I have never heard of the "Green Energy Act". Or maybe I think  "green energy" is a good thing? And what does "annual interest on the debt" mean? What "debt" are you referring to? Federal? Provincial? What is debt? In short, the message is lost in a sea of numerical vagueness.

Plus you can't expect people to get upset by astronomical numbers because astronomical numbers are really just an abstraction. What's the difference between $1 billion and $100 billion? To the mind: nothing. They are just two large numbers.Numbers alone don't move us.

My point is nothing in the copy of this ad does the job of generating anger at the Liberals. Confusion maybe but not anger. It lacks the punch needed to generate an emotional response.

Nor does the format or layout of the billboard help.

It's supposed to be a "Ontario Taxpayers' Trust" credit card. At least that's my guess, because it doesn't really look like any credit card I've ever seen. Anyway, whatever it is, the visual is weak and does nothing to reinforce the ad's main message. If anything it only adds to the confusion. I mean what's that graphic supposed to be in the left hand upper corner? A credit card chip? Who knows? Who cares?

Finally, the billboard's call to action "Stopping the Liberal Government? Priceless," is supposed to be a cute take off on those ubiquitous Master Card ads. And I suppose it would be cute, had not that "priceless" line been parodied about a million times over the past ten years or so. Using it now is trite and unimaginative.

Also, why make your call to action statement a question? That weakens the ad's impact; your action call should be assertive and clear, i.e.: "Let's stop the Liberals!".

What's worse, nothing in the copy connects the Liberal government to the numbers cited in the ad. It rests on the observer to make that connection. That's a big mistake. You can't count on a viewer to understand what you mean. That's why a good billboard ad (or any political ad for that matter) hammers you over the head with its message. There's no room for subtlety.

After all, when it comes to billboards you only have a few seconds to  make your case before a honking horn or a good-looking pedestrian distracts the viewer.

The bottom line, in other words, is a billboard ad needs to convey information that people can absorb with just a glance.

Yes, I know that isn't easy. But it can be done.

For one thing a billboard ad needs to have a strong visual that attracts attention and it needs to have concise to the point wording. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, a billboard ad should have no more than eight or nine words.

To show you what I mean,  here's a billboard ad I created back in the mid 1990s as part of a media campaign designed to oppose then Ontario Premier Bob Rae's economic policies.

 It's simple; it's direct; it's even a little funny. The point is anybody walking by this billboard would get the message. (As an aside, this billboard attracted lots of media attention precisely because it was so effective, which helped to generate even more news about our cause.)

Here's another billboard I created as part of a campaign opposing the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly.

Again simple message, complemented with an interesting visual.

"Goodale" by the way referred to Ralph Goodale, who at the time this billboard came out was the Liberal cabinet minister in charge of the Wheat Board. He was a high-profile minister and well known in Regina, where this ad appeared, so people seeing the ad would likely know the name.

Anyway, my point is billboards can be an effective communication tool for an advocacy group, and I would urge the NCC to do more of them.

They just need to do a better job of it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Pretty easy selection this week:

Winner: News Media

The stunning testimonies offered up this past week in the Senate by the infamous “Gang of Three” – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau – provided the news media with what it really and truly lives for: great theatre. And the testimonies were indeed high drama at its best.  One part tragedy, one part farce, the narrative flowing from the never-ending Senate scandals showcased complex characters, bizarre plot twists and intriguing motivations, all spiced up with dark themes of revenge, greed and hubris. Compared to what happened in the Senate, Macbeth looks like a kindergarten play. At any rate, for the media, who are essentially story tellers at heart, it was a captivating, compelling and exhilarating performance for the ages, a performance which will inspire their reporting for years to come. Certainly, it beats writing about the economic impact of cheese quotas.

Loser: The Senate: 

Since Canadians have traditionally held such a low opinion of the Senate, I used to think there was nothing our Senators could do to tarnish their image even further. This week they proved me wrong.   

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Winner and Loser in the Past Week of Politics

Winner: Stephen Harper

The big winner of the week has to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. No matter how the slice it, his negotiated trade deal with the European Union is a major political victory. Not only does it highlight his diplomatic skill, not only does it open up major new markets to Canadian business, but it also reinforces the Conservative Party's main re-election narrative: "Only we can be trusted to create jobs and manage the economy." As an added bonus, it will mobilize his base and  perhaps divide his opponents.

Loser: Elizabeth May

During the recent Throne when the Governor-General  announced the government’s plan to build a “Memorial to the Victims of Communism, to remember the millions who suffered under tyranny,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May took it as an opportunity to tweet this clever line: “No mention of monument to victims of capitalism. :)"  Ha, ha, nothing funnier than trivializing Soviet atrocities!!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What the NCC Taught Stephen Harper

When I worked at the National Citizens Coalition, I thought it was an organization solely dedicated to fighting for economic and political freedom.

However, it turns out the NCC was also something else: a training ground for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Or so says journalist Susan Delacourt in her excellent new book, Shopping for Votes: How politicians Chooseus and How we Choose Them, which details the history of political marketing in Canada.

In the book Delacourt writes the prime minister’s “stint with the National Citizens Coalition from 1997 to 2001 had taught Harper a thing or two about how to lob political ideas into the marketplace. From its humble beginnings as Colin Brown’s protest against government spending in the 1970s, the NCC had grown to be a powerful grassroots ally to conservative politicians in Canada.”

She also quotes former Conservative marketing expert Patrick Muttart as saying, “Throughout my time with him he would personally reference (NCC) campaigns that he ran. He ran an organization that was in the business of erecting billboards, running direct-mail campaigns. So I don’t think we’ve ever had a prime minister who had direct personal experience being a marketer.”

Muttart added this marketing skill was a crucial difference between Harper and his predecessors.

And I have to say, I agree with this assessment.

When Harper was at the NCC, the organization was a political marketing machine without equal.

Although a relatively small group – we had at our height about 40,000 supporters – the NCC managed to raise millions of dollars to fund both national multi-media advertising campaigns and high-profile constitutional court challenges.

What’s more, we also knew how to attract media attention and how to craft a message so that it resonated with the public.

Of course, none of this was easy; it took a lot of hard work and lot of dedicated people to make it happen.

It also took leaders with vision.

In fact, the NCC’s success was largely the result of two men: David Somerville and Arthur Finkelstein.

David was Harper’s predecessor as NCC president and a man of incredible energy and drive, who almost single-handedly turned the NCC from basically a “hobby gone berserk” into a professional organization.

And the smartest move David ever made was to hire Arthur Finkelstein, a tough-as-nails, American political consultant, who also happened to be a genius. (Arthur was recently inducted into the political consultantHall of Fame.)

It was Arthur who taught us how to write effective grassroots direct mail fundraising letters, how to deal with an often hostile media, how to write catchy political ads, and how to wage war against politicians and union bosses.

So given all this, it’s not surprising that Harper picked up a trick or two while at the NCC.

Maybe we should have billed him for the lessons!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

John Dobson RIP

I was greatly saddened to learn of the passing of John Dobson.

He was a great man and a true champion of freedom.

A successful entrepreneur, John could have comfortably spent his life concentrating on his various business ventures.

But he chose not to do so.

He understood the importance of promoting and protecting the values and principles that underpin the free market system.

And so throughout his life, he generously and tirelessly supported efforts across the country to foster Canada's entrepreneurial spirit and to defend free market ideals.

It's hard to think of a better legacy.

With his passing the business world has lost a leader; free marketers have lost an ally, and I have lost a good friend.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Protecting Public Safety One Smashed Door at a Time

In this increasingly dangerous world, it’s nice to know Canadians can rest secure in the knowledge that RCMP officers are out there,  patrolling our streets, ready on a moment’s notice to break into our homes and steal our property.

In fact, the RCMP recently performed a little break and entry action in High River, Alberta, a town which had been evacuated due to massive flooding.

It seems some of the town’s gun owners had left their firearms in what police call “unsecure locations,” such as inside their securely locked homes.

Now you might ask, what’s so bad about that? The town is evacuated; the guns are out of sight, behind locked doors. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Ha, only a “gun nut” would say that!

As any rational and reasonable person knows that leaving guns in an empty locked house, situated in an empty town, is an invitation to anarchy!

Imagine, for instance, if militant household pests, like termites or carpenter ants, decided to arm themselves with those unguarded weapons.

Just think of what that would do to your extermination bills!

Luckily, however, before anything horrible like that could happen, the RCMP – official motto: “Private property rights? Never heard of ‘em” – forcibly broke into several High River homes, where they proceeded to grab guns as if they were donuts.

This, of course, was done in the name of preserving what the police like to call “public safety.”

Yes, some bleeding hearts bemoaned the RCMP action as heavy-handed, others even called it an “act of aggression” against gun owners, but if you ask me, we need more of this kind of aggressive, pre-emptive police work.

After all, there are probably millions of locked homes all across the country jam packed with privately owned, so-called “legal” items that, if they ever fell into the wrong hands, i.e. law-abiding citizens, could potentially threaten civilization as we know it.

Indeed, given the seriousness of this locked home issue, perhaps it’s time to create specially trained police squads whose only job will be to ransack arbitrarily selected homes, in order to find  any “public safety” threatening dangers.

And believe me, when the government puts its mind to it, it can find lots of things that threaten our public safety.

Indeed, here’s just a preliminary list of things the L.P.S. (Looting Police Squads) would be on the look out for as they root through people’s closets, kitchens and bedrooms:

  • Bottled water (Don’t let the benign appearance of bottled water fool you. According to environmentalists, water bottles, if left unchecked, could end human life on earth, leading to our planet being ruled by mutants, super intelligent robots or perhaps by apes.)

  • Bicycles – (These would be returned to owners, but only if they can provide proof they own government-certified bicycle helmets.)

  • Dogs that in anyway resemble a pit bull.

  • All unhealthy or “junk” food items that contains such things as trans-fat, starchy carbohydrates, sodium or glucose. (And God help the person found harboring a Happy Meal Toy!)

  • Cigarettes left within twenty meters of a match.

  • All books and magazines written by non-Canadian authors (a threat to our cultural sovereignty.)

  • Sporting equipment that could also double as weapons, i.e. baseball bats, darts, hockey sticks and, of course, most dangerous of all – dodge balls.

Admittedly, all this might seem like a little bit of an infringement on our Charter guaranteed rights and freedoms, but let’s face it, if the government and the police won’t infringe on our rights to protect us from ourselves, who will?

It’s like I always say … sorry. ..I have to go … somebody’s battering down my front door. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ontario PCs Need to Keep Message Simple

Given that Ontario is in a tense minority government situation these days, we can expect constant, low level partisan warfare to take place between the three main political parties.

And sometimes not so low level.

In fact, the Ontario PCs have launched a pretty big salvo against Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in the form of a new TV “attack” ad.

Of course, this has the Liberals all in a huff and they are denouncing the Tory ad as “negative”, but, truth be told, they really have no need for concern.

The fact is, while the Tory spot is making a lot of noise in media circles, it won’t do the Liberals much harm.

That's because while the ad is right strategically, it’s wrong stylistically.

Now before we get to the ad in question, let’s consider what message the Tories need to get out.

I suspect their own internal polls are telling the PCs that Ontario voters are ready for a change in government and that they don’t like former Premier Dalton McGuinty.

That means the formula for a Tory ad should look something like this: Wynne=McGuinty & Wynne ≠ Change.

And yes, that’s basically the message the Tories are getting out in their new ad, which declares in the first few seconds “Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne: Nothing has changed.”

However, the big problem with this ad is it crams way too much information into a 30 second spot.

Just consider what it tells us in the span of half a minute:

  • Wynne co-chaired McGuinty’s campaign
  • Wynne oversaw staff who called the shots on the power plant cancellation
  • Wynne signed a document authorizing the cancellation
  • Wynne claimed the cost of the cancellation was $40 million
  • Wynne knew the cost would be higher
  • Wynne will mean reckless spending and higher taxes
That’s a lot of stuff to absorb! Too much. You need a scorecard to keep track of it all! Consequently, the Tories risk overwhelming and confusing viewers; there’s just nothing really for people to latch onto.

Plus the ad lacks context. Other than saying the gas plant cancellation cost more than expected, it doesn’t really explain why this should make voters angry. You can’t assume voters are up on the story. You need to lay it out.

In short, the PCs are on the right strategic track with this spot, but they need to develop a more focused message, with a lot less clutter.

Good ads are simple ads.
Indeed, the best part of the current spot are the last three seconds, which feature a picture of Wynne and McGuinty together, while the words “No Change” are stamped on the screen.

That’s all the Tories really need to say, over and over again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Scandals are Non-Partisan

If the Duffy/Wright/Senate controversy has proven one thing, it’s that scandals are a non-partisan affair.

This news might shock many Conservative Party partisans who were certain that greed and arrogance were traits that formed part of the Liberal Party's DNA.

Indeed, Conservative Party dogma was that only Tories, free as they were of Liberal taint, could provide honest and accountable government.

Well, the Duffy affair has blown that theory to smithereens.

And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

To paraphrase Friedrich Hayek, honesty and integrity in government are not a function of which party is in power but of the power over economic decisions possessed
by those in government.

In other words the Liberals had corruption problems while in power, not because they were Liberals but because they succumbed to the corrupting influence of government.

That same influence has now infected the Conservatives.

My point is, when it comes to corruption, the real bad guy is government, or rather the power of government.

As long as government has the power to influence and direct our economy, corruption will be inevitable.

It doesn’t matter who is in power.

That’s why Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stern warning in response to the Duffy controversy, that “anyone who wishes to use and have public office for their own benefit should change their plans or better yet, leave this room” is simply empty rhetoric.

Decrees and rules and regulations won’t halt those in government from wrong doing.

The only true way to bring about cleaner government is to reduce its scope and its power.

The less influence government has over our lives, the less temptation there will be to do wrong.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In Defence of (internal) Polls

Canada’s political pollsters got it spectacularly wrong in British Columbia and in Alberta.

And so now many pundits and media types are questioning the credibility of the polling industry.

But before anybody relegates the science of polling to the same category as astrology, it should be pointed out that there’s a huge difference between the free public domain polls the media likes to cite and internal, private polling.

The fact is, the public polls we read about in newspapers usually only tell a superficial and partial story; they reflect what people are saying, but not necessarily what they are thinking.

I know that sounds odd, so to illustrate my point consider this imaginary dialogue between a pollster and a Mr. Smith:

Pollster: Do TV ads have any influence on your buying behavior?

Mr. Smith: No. TV ads do not influence me in anyway.

Pollster: What brand of toothpaste do you buy?

Mr. Smith: I always buy Colgate toothpaste.

Pollster: Why?

Mr. Smith: Because everybody knows it’s the number one toothpaste recommended by dentists.

So Mr. Smith says ads don’t influence him, but clearly they do.

Yes, this is a made up example, but it demonstrates the problem pollsters face: people often hold contradictory or confusing attitudes, especially when it comes to politics.

This is because the vast majority of voters don’t follow the political scene all that closely, hence their political views are often tentative and subject to change.

For instance, back in 1988 when I was working for the National Citizens Coalition, we commissioned a poll which showed that a significant number of Canadians supported then NDP leader Ed Broadbent, enough support that he could actually get elected Prime Minister.

Voters, the poll told us, liked Broadbent because they saw him as more “honest” than the other leaders.

To us -- the NCC is a pro-free market group -- this was bad news.

Of course, this is the kind of information you get in a public poll.

However, our internal poll also revealed Broadbent’s potential Achilles heel: many of the respondents who said they supported Broadbent, also opposed the NDP’s socialist policies.

In other words there was a disconnect; voters liked Broadbent, but they didn’t like his platform; they didn’t even know his platform.

Thanks to our poll, we were able to craft a strategy to undermine Broadbent’s support.

We simply pointed out to Canadians that while Broadbent might be a nice guy, he’s also promoting a dangerous and “scary” left-wing agenda.

By the way, that’s exactly the same strategy the BC Liberals used to successfully degrade the BC NDP, which had been riding high in the polls.

And I’m sure, like us, the BC Liberals adopted this strategy based on internal polling data.

My point is, understanding and analyzing a political poll is a complicated business. It’s more than just asking Canadians who they think will make the best Prime Minister.

To adequately study a single poll means investigating how respondents answered 30 questions or more, which means going over hundreds of pages of cross tabs.

And this is where pollsters earn their money; they wade through a morass of data to find that issue or attitude their clients can successfully exploit.

In short, despite its bad rap, the statistical science which underpins opinion polling works, which is why political parties will continue to rely on their own internal polls.

Public opinion polls, on the other hand, should be taken with a grain of salt.

That’s the true lesson of British Columbia and Alberta.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Are Intellectuals at War with Reality?

Canadian left-wing intellectuals have a habit of saying the darndest things.

And most of the darndest things they say are associated with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

Some intellectuals, for instance, like to suggest Harper is on the verge of establishing a reactionary Star Wars-style military dictatorship, while others fear he will turn Canada into an Evangelical Theocracy, where citizens will be forced to worship an Alberta-spawned deity carved out of oil sands.

But that’s not the worst of it.

What really seems to get their collective academic knickers in a knot, is their growing belief that Harper is “anti-science.”

What’s the left wing intellectual proof for this charge?

Has Harper burned astronomers at the stake? Has he banned technology? Has he imprisoned Bill Nye “The Science Guy”?


It seems one of Harper’s main crimes against science is he has cut back funding to certain government-sponsored research projects.

Now before you lose any sleep over this, it should be pointed out that reducing government funding for “science” will not necessarily plunge Canada into a Dark Age of superstition and ignorance.

In fact, lots of scientific progress actually occurred on our planet before government funding for academics was even invented.

Important technological advances for civilization like the wheel, the telephone, the light bulb, the airplane, the steam engine and Playstation 3, were all created without government handouts.

That’s not to say government funded research isn’t important. After all, thanks to government money we were able to create a useful gadget that’s made the world a much better and happier place. It’s called the Atom Bomb.

Still many academics are concerned that Harper’s cutbacks will hurt the environment.

They pine for the days, I suppose, when the Jean Chretien Liberals poured unlimited amounts of money on scientists, while allowing them to dictate government policy.

Indeed, I’m sure it was Canada’s top scientists who came up with the brilliant idea for the Chretien government’s main environmental initiative known as the “One Tonne Challenge” program.

This program, which surely must have been based on “evidence-based” research and rigorous scientific analysis, concluded the best way to reduce Canada’s “greenhouse gas emissions” was to pay CBC comedian Rick Mercer lots of tax dollars to star in Kyoto Accord TV ads.

Anyway, in an effort to restore those glory days of scientific reason intellectuals are starting to emerge from their Ivory Towers to convince the unwashed masses (those who lack post-graduate degrees) that more taxes must be spent on science.

Just recently, in fact, close to one hundred intellectuals made their case in a letter to the editor to the Montreal Gazette.

And what a letter!

It paints a scary portrait of what a “dark” place Canada would become if the government doesn’t immediately divert tax dollars from things like health care and national defence so they can used to subsidize academic pursuits like history, literary criticism, philosophy, political science, anthropology, critical legal studies, political economy and feminist studies.

How dark would Canada become if these “sciences” are not properly funded?

Well get this: we would be unable, says the letter, to confirm things like Canada’s “long-standing colonialism in dealing with the First Nations” or the “patriarchal dividend” in employment or the “scapegoating of racialized immigrants.”

(Note: You probably have to be a government funded intellectual to understand what “patriarchal dividend” or “racialized immigrants”actually means.)

But wait there’s more. Harper’s war on science, the letter writers warn us, will also mean Canadians won’t have access to “data-based interpretations … that document elite, corporate, European and male abuse.”

Darn those elite corporate European males!

The letter also suggests the cutting of science funding will cause widespread “de-gendering”, which I must admit sounds awfully painful.

And finally, the letter writers bewail how the Harper government is embracing “reactionary commemorative practices, to militarize patriotic mythology.”

I’m not certain, but I think they are referring to all those War of 1812 events … you know the ones where middle aged guys in redcoats shoot muskets into the air.

At any rate, the bottom line for these intellectuals is that “in face of global capitalism’s mounting crisis, critical interrogation of social phenomena, causes and consequences is urgently needed.”

Translation: Only a massive influx of government cash will cure Canada’s drastically dangerous shortage of literary criticism

Clearly, a lot of superior intellectual brain-power went into writing this letter to the editor, yet I somehow doubt it will generate much public support for a social “science” crusade.

I suspect Canadians are more worried about how they will pay for their mortgages and about the price of groceries than they are about “patriarchal dividends”.

If anything, this letter might cause Canadians to demand these guys get even less money.

But then again, maybe I’m suffering from de-gendering at the hands of Canada’s elite, corporate, European males.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is the Media a Bully?

There's a bible verse that asks, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

That's a good question for all those media types wringing their hands over those Conservative Party ads and flyers which target Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

We keep hearing from columnists, reporters and editorial writers about how the campaign is an awful outrage.

A recent news story, for instance, wondered out loud if the Conservative campaign was actually designed to subconsciously plant doubts in the minds of voters about Trudeau’s manliness.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest the Tory attack is “bullying.”

Now I am not going to defend or try to explain the Tory strategy; instead I’d like to point out how the media isn't exactly as pure as the driven snow when it comes to attacking a politician’s masculinity or looks.

In fact, if anything, the media is often obsessed with a politician’s image.

Just consider how media types totally embraced Trudeau after he thrashed Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in a boxing match.

It was Trudeau’s toughness, his martial appearance, his talent with his fists that made him a media star, not his policy ideas.

Indeed, for the media that boxing match has achieved an almost mythic status.

The Huffington Post’s Althia Raj even made that fight the defining narrative of her Trudeau biography.

And just in case anyone missed the point, the cover of her ebook features a cartoon drawing of a heroic looking Trudeau wearing boxing gloves.

One might wonder if the media is trying to subconsciously plant the idea in the minds of voters that Trudeau is an alpha-male?

Certainly that would help the Liberal leader politically, since martial prowess appeals to that primitive part of our brain which still thinks its living in a prehistoric world, a world that needs physically strong leaders to protect us from marauding raiders and hungry saber tooth tigers.

But more to my point is that just as the media will paint politicians they like as warriors, they will also paint  politicians they don’t like as wimps.

Think of how, during the 1972 federal election, the media published an unflattering photo of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield dropping a football.

Many consider it one of the top “gaffes” in Canadian political history.

But was it also a case of the media subconsciously planting doubts in the minds of voters as to Stanfield’s masculinity?

If he can’t catch a football he must be a nerd, nerds are weak, weak people are bad leaders.

Or how about the time the CBC’s Rick Mercer launched a petition during the 2000 federal election to get Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day to change his first name to “Doris?

Was that funny or was it bullying? Was the subtext of Mercer's "joke" that Day was something less than a man?

Certainly it got voters laughing at Day.

Nor is Prime Minister Stephen Harper immune. Remember the mockery over his cowboy outfit? And the Huffington Post and journalists on Twitter once got a real “chuckle” over how Harper wore a hat.

Isn't that like school yard bullies picking on a kid because of  his or her clothing? I might even suggest the subtext of such attacks is that people who wear funny clothes are oddballs and thus are unfit to be our leaders.

And more recently, the media has taken to openly mocking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford because of his weight.

The Toronto Star, for instance, once posted a video on its site of a woman laughing at Ford as he ordered a meal at a KFC restaurant.

Is that cyber-bullying? Is it right to mock a man because he doesn't have Trudeau’s physical appearance? Does obesity make you less of a leader?

So it seems the media is more than willing to mock and degrade a person if it suits their purpose.

Now none of this is to suggest we should feel sorry for Ford or Day or Stanfield or Harper. Like it or not, mockery and attacks have always been a part of democratic politics; that’s why it’s not a business for people with thin skins.

Yet if those who work in the media are going to throw stones at negativity in politics, they should at least realize they live in a glass house.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Coyne, Negative ads and Freedom

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has consistently (and rightly) castigated the Conservative government for discarding its conservative ideals.

Yet Coyne himself is passionately advancing a cause which would ultimately undermine those very same principles.

I am talking about his stance against so-called negative political ads, which Coyne despises with something akin to religious fervor. 

In a recent column, for instance, he declared that negative ads “pollute debate and coarsen the culture,” which ironically is an awfully negative way for him to make his point.

At any rate, although Coyne doubts these ads actually change people’s minds, he nevertheless wants to impose government regulations to discourage their use.


Because he doesn’t like their inflammatory “tone.”

As a result, he favours forcing political party leaders to narrate their ads.

The theory behind this idea is that a leader would be reluctant to voice negativity.

As Coyne put it, “If any of this filth came out of their own mouths, they’d have to be accountable for it. Their public standing would suffer. Indeed, they’d sound ridiculous.”

Coyne also asserts such a provision would not limit free speech, since politicians “Could still say what they liked. They’d just have to own it.”

Me, I’m not so sure about that. After all, having the government decide who can narrate an  ad is, in my view at least, an infringement on free expression.

What's more, it would give one party an advantage over the other depending on which leader has the better voice.

Can you imagine Jean Chretien narrating an ad?

But let's set such issues aside.

Would this result in our election debates getting more positive and more reasoned?

Don’t bet on it.

For one thing, political parties would just intensify their negative attacks through avenues besides TV and radio. They would, for instance, send out more nasty messages via emails, direct mail pieces, and robo-calls.

And by the way, such “under the radar” attacks are usually far more vicious than the TV variety.

Also Coyne’s plan would not stop “Third Parties” from running their own negative ads between elections on behalf of political parties.

Would any of this lead Coyne to argue for restrictions on partisan groups and for limiting other forms of political communication?

I am not sure it would, but it illustrates the danger of even minor infractions on freedom; when they don’t work, they often lead to more draconian measures down the road.

Indeed, Green Party leader Elizabeth May is already arguing for a complete ban on all political advertising during elections.

Now let me say, I fully understand that May and Coyne’s views on negativity are shared by many.

But we should also remember that democracy works best when there is a free market place of competing ideas and arguments.

And any attempt to restrict or muzzle or control free speech distorts that market and undermines democratic debate.

That’s why it’s better, in my view, to allow negativity than to censor or regulate opinion.

Besides, why do we need to control or ban political ads, when we can simply let the free market decide?
If negative ads are “corrosive”, then Canadians won’t buy their messages and political parties won’t use them.

It’s that simple.

In fact, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has vowed to stay positive because he says Canadians are sick and tired of negativity.

So why do we need nanny-state-style laws to control politicians or to protect voters?

In the meantime, people like Coyne who object to negative ads on aesthetic grounds, already have a way to deal with them.

Whenever they see one on TV, they can just turn the channel.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Is Trudeau Anti-Fragile?

There’s an odd thing about political columnists.

Although they are usually bright people with highly informed views about politics, they generally tend to have a blind spot when it comes to negative attack ads.

Not only do they generally dislike such ads (National Post columnist Andrew Coyne calls them pollution) but they also don’t understand what makes them effective.

A case in point is the recently released Conservative Partyads which feature clips of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau performing a mock striptease and executing a dramatic operatic bow.

These ads opened to almost universally poor reviews.

National Post editor Jon Kay called them “disappointing;” Post Media columnist Michael Den Tandt said the ads marked a “new low” and that they were “mean-spirited, dishonest and incompetent”; while the Toronto Star’s Tim Harper predicted the Conservatives won’t “find any traction in mocking Justin Trudeau’s pretend striptease.”

At the root of their criticism is the idea that Trudeau, to use the Nicholas Taleb’s term, is “anti-fragile”, that is Conservative attacks will only make him stronger.

As Den Tandt put it, “Trudeau has further branded himself as a ‘positive’ force, adopting the mantle of democratic reformer and someone who intends to ‘do politics differently.’ The more savagely his opponents attack him, the more he will point to their tactics as proof of the truth of his narrative.”

And the Star’s Tim Harper noted, “Every time he is criticized for being a celebrity, his political stock is sure to rise.”

Now if Den Tandt and Harper are correct then the Conservatives and the New Democrats are indeed in trouble; a politician who only grows stronger from attacks would be a formidable opponent.

And yes, politicians can be “anti-fragile”. Take Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The more the left-leaning Toronto Star attacked him during the last mayoralty campaign, the more it mobilized and energized his base.

Yet, it’s also true that every politician has a weakness and every weakness can be exploited.

The way I see it, Trudeau has three main weaknesses: a) he lacks political savvy, b) he is inexperienced at the leadership level, and c) he is known more for his dramatic flair than for his intellect.

The Conservative ads not only masterfully exploit each of these weaknesses, they also manage to do so with strong visuals and just as importantly with humor, meaning it doesn’t come across as a typical nasty political ad.

In the process the Conservatives are planting in the minds of voters the idea that Trudeau is “in over his head,” and that he just doesn’t have what it takes to run a government.

They make him, in short, look silly.

And for the life of me, I can’t see how such an attack would make Trudeau stronger.

Voters will forgive a lot of flaws in a politician, but one thing they won’t forgive in their potential leaders is incompetence and it doesn’t matter if the inept politician is likable or positive or a celebrity.

That means if Canadians start to view Trudeau as a clown, he’s finished

And given Trudeau’s lack of a resume, his lack of experience, his tendency to say ill-considered remarks, there’s a good chance the Conservatives’ branding of Trudeau will resonate.

Plus any rookie mistakes Trudeau makes in the upcoming weeks and months will only serve to reinforce the Conservative narrative.

I suspect, for instance, that Trudeau “bleeding heart” comments in the wake of the Boston bombing about needing to seek out the “root cause” of terrorism, will provide fodder for the next round of Tory attack ads.

So despite what the columnists are saying, the Tory attacks should concern the Liberals.