The new Conservative ads

Paul Wells on why they're not the opening volley in an election campaign

It’s hard to say much about the new Conservative ad campaign until the party begins broadcasting the ads. If it even does. Political parties often announce ads they don’t pay to broadcast. All they need is the “free media” that comes from newspaper and TV coverage, and bloggers putting hyperlinks on the words “new Conservative ad campaign.”

Conversely, parties sometimes pay for ads they don’t announce, when they want everyone except Ottawa reporters to see their message. The current raft of ads (look down the page; there are five in English) is, I’m sure, aimed at different stations at different times. The very upbeat don’t-switch-horses-in-midstream first ad, with Stephen Harper working late in his office, might help cut into the gender gap the Conservatives have permitted to re-open, to their disadvantage, among female voters. The nastier ones could be for another audience. For now that’s just a guess.

In general, however, a few conclusions suggest themselves already.

First, this is not meant to be the opening volley in an election campaign. It is meant to scare the opposition parties — especially the Liberals, who have believed themselves readiest for a campaign — away from one.

As always, Harper prefers to avoid an election. (He called one in 2008 only after calling all three opposition leaders to 24 Sussex and confirming that they meant to defeat him at the next confidence vote.) His method this time is to remind his principal opponents what a campaign is like. Harper has not campaigned hard against the opposition for a while, and they have convinced themselves an election campaign would be like a five-week bus tour where the only crowds are the ones that want to hear Michael Ignatieff and the only message is one of sadness at Conservative mismanagement. Harper is reminding his opponents that he gets to campaign too.

The Liberals will be very upset about the ads, but there are ways to stop them. The surest is to force an election. That’s not quite the same as saying it’s the easiest. Other new Conservative ads also target the NDP and the Bloc (there’s much to be said, another day, about the latter); all three parties will have to get over their jitters if they are to bring the government down. If they do, they will be operating in a climate of public opinion. Another objective of the Conservative ads is to prepare that climate by reminding voters of the last time the NDP, Liberals and Bloc worked together.

Why do I say the surest way to stop these ads is to force an election? First, because Conservative ads during the 2006 and 2008 writ periods tended to be less of a one-note attack on their opponents. Harper spent those campaigns seeking to close the deal with a broader electorate, some of it averse to hard partisanship. So if the Liberals were thinking only about ads, they would face a stark choice: five weeks of nice Conservative ads about Stephen Harper, or another year of brutal Conservative ads about Michael Ignatieff, followed by five weeks of nice Conservative ads about Stephen Harper.

But a real campaign would be even more definitive than that. When it’s over, either Harper will still be prime minister, or Ignatieff will have unseated him. Either way there will be no need for any more ads about Michael Ignatieff.

So the choice facing the Liberals, indeed all the opposition parties, is clear enough: take your beating or take a chance.

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