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Rob Shaw: The dirty secret in politics has always been that negative advertising works. In the last week of a tight federal election, you’re about to see lots of it.

There’s slightly more than a week left in Canada’s federal election, and it’s clear the country is in for a particularly close, and nasty, end to the campaign.

Polls continue to predict a virtual tie between the federal Conservatives and Liberals, with Justin Trudeau holding perhaps a slim lead in seat projections but with Erin O’Toole within serious striking distance.

It comes after an English leaders’ debate in which there were no clear victors, except for Green leader Annamie Paul’s impressive showing (likely rendered inconsequential due to the party’s infighting and limited slate of candidates).

What will happen next is as predictable as the rising sun: The parties will close their campaigns with a blitz of negative advertising in an attempt to cajole, convince, and scare voters into supporting their brand at the risk of a catastrophic result for the country if the other guy wins.

The dirty secret in politics has always been that negative advertising works. Voters pretend not to like it, and maybe deep down they don’t, but it reliably generates a response by galvanizing their emotions, and playing on their anxieties and fears.

The federal NDP, with a consistently solid advertising campaign built around labelling Trudeau as “all talk” and fails to deliver, are already going hard with a new ad in which a man and a woman walk through a park while the man explains how billionaires have made even more money during the pandemic.

“And Trudeau still voted against taxing them,” the man says.

“Of course he did,” sighs the woman, exasperated. A bright red lamborghini sports car pulls up in front of them and begins to peel out of the parking lot while burning rubber, as the woman looks at it and then the man.

“They’re his people,” she says.

It’s a great ad.

The dirty secret in politics has always been that negative advertising works. Voters pretend not to like it, and maybe deep down they don’t, but it reliably generates a response.

The federal NDP has once again dipped into the well of class warfare and it has been particularly effective at a time when affordability is a top issue. The BC NDP enjoyed great success with this framing in the 2017 and 2020 provincial elections, portraying the BC Liberals as representing the rich elites profiting at the expense of a working class buffeted on all sides by rising prices.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has used a similar tagline this election: “The rich have had their Prime Minister. It’s your turn.”

The federal Conservatives have also sharpened the knives.

“Justin Trudeau,” says one ad. “He’ll do and say anything to get a majority.”

Another 30-second ad plays Trudeau’s own speech when he called the election. As he speaks about  a time of crisis and uncertainty, videos play of evacuations from wildfires, COVID-19 patients and refugees fleeing Afghanistan. It simply, and devastatingly, makes the point Trudeau should never have called the snap vote during these numerous crises.

The Liberals have been trying a more hopeful tone to celebrate their record, listing off all the progress made on things like climate change, seniors care, and health care. Some ads have taken shots at Erin O’Toole’s voting record, and tried to drum up interest in wedge issues like gun control and abortion.

Expect the nastiness factor to be turned up to 11 at any moment.

Trudeau was clearly looking for a big moment in the English debate, something to build upon the days of fighting protesters on the campaign trail and a spectacular attack on Rebel News that went viral and picked up support across party lines.

He seemed to have a whiff of momentum. A decisive moment in the debate, combined with fear that he’s on the verge of losing this election, could have served as a springboard into a supercharged final few days of the campaign for the Liberal leader.

That didn’t happen.

The format of the debate appeared to flummox Trudeau, by boxing all the leaders into ridiculously short segments by a moderator more concerned about cutting them off and interrupting than letting a debate actually occur. Trudeau grew clearly frustrated. At times, that boiled over into overheated answers on subjects that didn’t require anger. Consequently, he delivered an off-key and off-brand performance at a critical moment of the campaign.

Voters are now heading to advance polls this weekend. The deadline for mail-in ballots is approaching within days as well.

Trudeau grew clearly frustrated. At times, that boiled over into overheated answers on subjects that didn’t require anger.

You can expect the Liberals to go negative in a big way in the final few days, to make up for the failed debate and the generally failed campaign. They’ll attempt to convince voters the country is on the verge of falling backwards to Conservative boogeymen who will claw back abortion rights, gun control, public health care, vaccines, and whatever other wedge issues the spin doctors in Liberal HQ can think up.

It still might work.

Canadians remember the dying days of the Stephen Harper government, when Conservatives were in open conflict with the federal public service, closing observatories across the country, shuttering Coast Guard stations and lighthouses, muzzling scientists, and playing procedural games in the house like using gigantic omnibus bills to bundle good legislation with bad and play chicken with other parties.

The goal now for the Liberals is clear: Toss everything possible out the window in negative attack ads, in the hopes voters get a whiff of the Harper era when they see O’Toole.

It’s the only move left for the Liberals, after a botched election call that threatens to blow up in their faces in only a few short days.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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