You say goodbye, I say ’Yoo hoo’: Was Oily the Splot meant to damage Dion, or just do damage control?

Last week, Stephen Taylor published a behind-the-scenes account of the life and death of Oily the Splot, the now-silenced spokestain for the Conservative Party’s anti-carbon tax campaign. In it, he suggests that the decision to release Oily into the wild was a deliberate attempt to get out ahead of the Liberals – who were still dillydallying over the launch of the plan – by pre-defining Dion’s “green shift” as a “permanent tax on everything” – a simplistic, cartoon-like approach to a substantial policy debate; but one that, they hoped, would poison the waters before the Liberal plan had even been announced:

Conservative insiders heard that Mr. Dion was set to unveil his carbon tax plan next Wednesday, just prior to the House rising after the spring session. In doing so, the professorial Liberal leader could define his plan outside of Parliament on the – ironic perhaps – propane-fueled BBQ circuit that politicians often take during the summer recess.

In focus groups and telephone-based market research, Conservative planners came to understand that a carbon tax in the abstract is a well-received concept to most Canadians. What they also found, however, that when the details of achieving such a policy objective are understood, a broad majority of Canadians don’t think of it as feasible. Words like “tax-shifting” and “revenue neutral” were panned and uncomfortably rejected by focus groups when polled and the general distrust of politicians regarding new tax became a palatable conclusion for Conservative strategists. Conservative-Liberal switchers, a group that holds victory for either party, was found to have a distrust for any politician with a plan for creative tax manipulation.

As they did before, the Conservatives moved to define the Liberal leader, however this time on his carbon tax, before Dion could do it himself. The party faced two decisions. On one hand, they could engage the Liberals in a debate on their carbon tax proposal, and on the other they could tap into the public’s well-grounded suspicion in creative tax schemes proposed by politicians. The Conservatives chose the latter […]

From alluding to the then-promised temporary measure of income taxation to pay for the First World War to the recent McGuinty health premiums, Conservative messaging sought to enhance Canadian skepticism in Dion’s plan yet to be unveiled. Warning tape was streamed at the “” website the party built to compliment the campaign and scores of volunteers donned yellow shirts – yellow being the colour of warning or caution – to alert Canadians to what Conservatives claim would be Dion’s “tax on everything”. Indeed, the primary message of the campaign was caution underscored by the primary catchphrase “don’t be tricked”.

Although largely based on non-attributed interviews with various party insiders, Taylor’s post provided a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the pre-pre-election war room born of the so-called ‘permanent campaign’, with Oily as the posterblot for the sort of cutting-edge strategy for which the Conservatives have, deservedly or not, become so feared and admired within the Canadian political arena. Although reporters may have made fun of Oily, Taylor suggests, he did his job by throwing Dion on the defensive.

This morning, however, the Globe and Mail’s Brian Laghi tells a very different story of the origins of the Oily campaign — one that contradicts sharply with Taylor’s – or, more specifically, Taylor’s inside sources’ – version of events:

The federal Tories moved up the release of their aggressive ad campaign against Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax plan to remove the focus from their own flagging performance, sources told The Globe and Mail.

One senior Conservative official said some Tory officials also wanted to spook the Liberals so they would not topple the government as it experienced one of its most difficult periods since taking power in 2006.

The ad campaign had been produced and the Tories were awaiting the release of the Liberal green plan before broadcasting the attacks. But a senior Conservative familiar with the campaign said one of the Prime Minister’s chief political aides, Patrick Muttart, told officials the ads had been released earlier to try to blunt bad publicity over the resignation of former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier.

“PMO wanted to get out and do some defining again – set the agenda,” said the source. “After a few weeks of the Bernier mess, enough was enough.”

Although the Globe doesn’t provide nearly as much detail on the frantic focus group testing and message massaging that Taylor describes, it’s worth noting that Oily showed up just a week after the Zytaruk “doctored” tape debacle – another, even less successful attempt by the Conservative Party to pour water on a still simmering scandal. That would seem to lend credence to the notion that Oily may have wound up an inadvertent sacrifice on the altar of the Attack is the Best Defence school of political game theory.

Whatever the motivation behind the campaign, it doesn’t appear to be working. A poll conducted for the Hill Times last week by Innovative Research found that the Oily ads “are effective with Conservative voters, and that those who do not vote Conservative say they reacted negatively to them”:

“Overall, the ads seem to have worked well with the Conservative base but have not worked with anyone else,” said an Innovative Research summary of the poll results. “Conservative voters are left with a more positive impression of the ads than anyone else and say they are now more likely to vote for the Conservative party.”

According to the Innovative poll, of those who were aware of the ads, 60 per cent said they were left with a negative impression of them, and 20 per cent said they were left with a positive impression, while 18 per cent said neither.

Impressions of the ads did not seem to lend a significant advantage to either the Tories or the Liberals, however. Thirty-one per cent of respondents said they were more likely to vote Liberal as a result of the ads, 33 per cent said less likely, and 36 per cent said neither. For the Conservatives, 22 per cent of respondents said they were more likely to vote Tory as a result of the ads, 51 per cent said they were less likely, and 25 per cent said neither.