Mudslinging: Alberta’s latest growth industry

The dearth of attack ads in recent Alberta politics is testimony to its one-party nature

Behold: the first-ever extramural attack ad from an Alberta Conservative government. Don Braid says it’s the first, anyway, and if I didn’t know whether it was the first, he might be the person I’d ask.

Maybe it goes without saying, but the dearth of attack ads in recent Alberta politics is not special testimony to the politeness of those politics. It’s testimony to Alberta’s one-party nature. The Conservatives took over from Social Credit in 1971, in a youth-driven power shift: Peter Lougheed, in pushing aside a government that had delivered prosperity but was increasingly behind the times socially, was so civil and restrained and all-around decent about it that the whupped Socreds practically said “Please, sir, may I have another?” The federal Liberals and the radical ’70s NDP obligingly kept Lougheed in power for another decade and a half, and as Braid notes, the premier never so much as referred to the existence of other parties. Why would it have been in his interest to do so?

But even after Lougheed left the scene, the Tories didn’t turn to attack ads—not even in the 1993 election, when they were in a lot more trouble than they objectively seem to be in now. So why are Alison Redford and her team going nuclear in 2012, even if it’s only battlefield-nuclear? Certainly negative advertising is a more appropriate strategy, and a greater temptation, when you need to emphasize the distinctions between yourself and a rival party that’s culturally and ideologically similar to yours. But Conservative strategists might also be aware of gremlins hiding behind the very favourable top-line polling data. (These data have held steady, even in the face of fairly firm evidence of pervasive corruption and illegality on the part of PC MLAs.)

In fact, their fear doesn’t have to be data-driven. (They’re not much of a data-driven party, compared to the federal Tories and their robodialing quant monsters.) They might just be afraid of what will happen when Alison Redford gets on a stage with Danielle Smith and has to start answering direct questions about her flip-flops and her party’s prior record. The natural defence is a “safe hands” strategy that emphasizes the value of experience and continuity. And Redford doesn’t really have much choice, having kept around every Stelmach power broker who didn’t flee her caucus for the safety and comfort of a Unabomber cabin.

The anti-Wildrose radio ad is a “safe hands” ad. Like most such ads, it insults the listener’s intelligence all but openly. “Premier Alison Redford is making our streets safer by getting tougher on impaired drivers,” it declares right out of the gate. In fact, the point of Redford’s drunk-driving law, Bill 26, is to allow the police to slap existing on-the-spot administrative penalties onto drivers with a .05 blood-alcohol level—drivers who aren’t impaired by the Criminal Code definition (.08) and who are only questionably impaired by a common-sense one. Meanwhile, the Wildrose response has been to oppose turning cops into roadside judges, while explicitly favouring “stiffer sanctions for convicted impaired drivers.”

The comic aspect of this is that the scientific evidence, on balance, supports the idea that quickie nuisance penalties for drivers in the .05-.08 range may help reduce the numbers of people on the road driving at above .08. This is an indirect approach to the core problem of drunk driving—a case where illiberal sanctions against innocent driver X do appear, in studies from several countries, to have the effect of discouraging dangerous and culpable driver Y. This, I hasten to add, does not necessarily make it proper to punish X. (We could reduce drunk-driving deaths to pretty near zero by the simple expedient of outlawing the internal combustion engine.)

Nonetheless, the PCs do have an empirical case that Bill 26 will make the roads safer. (The main problem with their evidence is that interventions involving a lower blood-alcohol limit are usually conjoined with publicity drives against drunk driving. So when the lower limits succeed, it is hard to be certain that they’re responsible for the observed road-safety improvements.) Alberta’s electorate, ideally, would be left to weigh the possible safety gains intelligently against the chisel-like impact on civil liberties.

The Tories have instead revealed their colours by making a Toewsian argument that opponents are standing with drunken murderers; by misdirecting less-informed voters about who Bill 26 is “getting tougher” on; and by waving a bloody shirt, happily supplied by Robert Remington, that adds up all of those killed in accidents involving sub-impaired drivers and assumes that none of those accidents would have happened without the presence of booze. Sorry, folks. It’s going to be that kind of election.