No one likes attack ads, but they work. That’s the cynical political calculus behind the millions of dollars ploughed into negative political campaigning.
There’s a parallel to telemarketing here. Telemarketing only exists because a few per cent of us answer the calls and buy garden weasels, Chia pets and Ginsu knives. If no one bought any of this stuff, telemarketing would disappear.
This election, we face the same choice. Conservative Ryan Leef plays the role of the Chia pet, which the Conservative national office is hoping to sell you using the universally-lamented-but-possibly-effective sales technique of negative advertising.
You now have to decide whether you buy or not.
The recent crop of radio ads by the Conservatives, Liberals and Greens are a clear contrast (I haven’t heard an NDP one yet). The Greens talk about vision and the future. Liberal ads talk about things like Larry Bagnell winning the “hardest-working MP” award from the Hill Times. Conservative ads attack Larry Bagnell personally.
Not only are the local Green, Liberal, and NDP parties not doing negative ads, they aren’t even doing things like aggressively circulating the various negative newspaper stories on Ryan Leef that have accumulated over the last few years.
The Tory attack ads don’t just criticize Larry Bagnell for his record on things like the gun registry, they also make some very dodgy claims. One is that Larry “voted against” increasing the Northern Allowance. Strictly speaking, a judge wouldn’t convict you of false advertising for this claim. But it is highly misleading.
The claim is based on Larry voting at some point against a Conservative budget enabling bill which included something about Northern Allowances.
But modern budget bills are made up of a laundry list of hundreds of programs. The latest was 352 pages long. MPs do not get to go through the budget and check which ones they are “for” and which they are “against.” No one believes that all the opposition MPs who vote against budget bills are also against funding for health care, transfer payments, employment insurance and the Canadian Olympic team.
The kind of argument Leef is making in these ads would get you laughed out of a high school debating club. But Leef isn’t in a high school debating club where you have to convince people face-to-face. He’s trying it on the whole territory in 30-second-long, one-way attack clips.
In the spectrum of questionable political techniques, attack ads aren’t the worst. There is also “push polling,” where you hire a call centre to do a supposed poll but ask questions like “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate Smith if you knew he ate puppies for breakfast?” Another nasty is “voter suppression.”
In the Virginia Senate race in 2008, Republicans did things like call up people likely to vote Democrat to tell them voting locations or dates had changed.
But misleading negative ads are still something I’d like to hear less of.
The good news is that, unlike in the United States where all the parties sling mud with nearly equal vigour, we have a choice here in the Yukon.
We’ll see how that turns out on voting day. But don’t count Leef and his nasty electoral tactics out just yet. If there is enough vote splitting between Liberals, Greens and NDP he may only need to convince three or four voters out of 10 to win.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.