We have all had a lot of fun watching the Donald Trump show in the United States and of course people up here in “politically correct” Canada have done their fair share of fingering pointing at him. There has been much said by political pundits, the media and even politicians about how awful American politics has become, but is this a sign of what is to come in Canada?
Over the years we have seen much of what is practiced in the United States slowly blend into the Canadian political landscape. Many of us can remember the introduction of some of the very first negative attack ads in the USA. The “Daisy Girl” ad used in the 1964 Presidential campaign by Lyndon B Johnson against Barry Goldwater is one of the most famous ones. The George H.W. Bush campaign successfully used attack ads against Michael Dukakis in 1988. In the Canadian election of that year the Liberals ran one of my all-time favourite ads on the free trade issue showing an eraser wiping out the Canadian border if the Mulroney Conservatives won. When attack ads were first introduced in the USA, we gloated that Canadians were different, but today such ads are a regular occurrence here. While Canadians still like to say they don’t work here, we know they do-just ask Stephane Dion or Michael “Just visiting” Ignatieff.
Some readers may remember the Presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon. Today in Canada, we can’t have an election without some type of leader’s debate. As boring as they often are, they involve weeks of negotiations between the various political camps and the media spend hours trying to rev up the public’s interest in them.
After the federal election in 2000 (in which the Progressive Conservatives didn’t fair to well) the House of Commons research budget was so small we had to cut costs and that meant cutting staff. The net result was a very small staff that wasn’t able to find the time to do the type of opposition policy research needed. That was the reason we switched tactics and using the example of Bill Clinton’s advisor, James Carville, I set up a permanent war room under the guise of “Issues Management”. In those days we were an attack team that created the issues for the Chretien Liberals to handle. Issues management eventually moved to PMO in 2006, but it switched its focus to a defensive role. Incidentally, Carville was also hired by the Liberals on occasion to help train staff.
The Harper PMO often looked to Australia for examples that could work here. Internally there was a lot of discussion that focused on what and how the Australian parties did things. In addition, we had members of one of the Scottish political parties visit our war room in 2006 to see how we ran a campaign including our rapid reaction team. The Liberals in 2012 held a convention in Ottawa and among the presenters were some of President Obama’s campaign’s digital experts to explain how to use modern technology to build voter data bases and use it to win elections. On the Conservative side, The Manning Conference in Ottawa which is often viewed as a training ground for Conservatives also invites political experts and trainers to give lectures.
So while Canadian pundits and media types like to think that we are different, I would be wary of being too smug. For those who think that it couldn’t happen here, we only have to look at the media frenzy generated by one man, who like Trump is not a politician and who aimed a few words at the Premier of Alberta. In this case it was Kevin O’Leary who got the media all worked up, especially when he speculated he might run for the Conservative leadership.
Politics is often described as a blood sport with a winner takes all attitude. The strategies and political tactics used south of the border should matter to us as they do have a tendency to cross that invisible barrier.
One last point that might help to illustrate this can be found in the 2008 Presidential campaign. John McCain’s Republican Party ran an attack ad aimed at Barack Obama that included the tag line “But, is he ready to lead?” That does remind you of the Conservative attack ads aimed at Justin Trudeau which claimed he is “Just Not Ready”. As Canadians, we should be paying very close attention to what works and what doesn’t work in this latest Presidential campaign- it does matter to us.