There I was at home last night, getting ready to tweet smack about Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democrat convention, when my emailbox commenced to overflow with a little somethin’ somethin’ from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It was a few paragraphs of quotes from the minister, faithfully transcribed by his communications director and forwarded to the office of the Parliamentary Press Gallery at 5:35 p.m.
Basically the email said the government was doing what needs doing, but that the NDP would ruin it all if Canadians let them. Nut graf:
“Despite our economic strength as a nation, Canada is not immune to the fragile global economy. That is why the dangerous economic schemes and the higher taxes proposed by Thomas Mulcair and the NDP would be damaging to the Canadian economy and have the potential to hurt businesses and kill the jobs Canadians need to provide for their families.”
This was striking, because Media Party blackberries have been buzzing all week with handy quotations from the government about the NDP. On Wednesday it was Joe Oliver:
“The NDP’s carbon tax is a direct attack on the jobs of almost one million Canadians and we simply cannot afford it. That’s not what Canadians want and it certainly not what the Harper Government wants.”
And on the weekend it was a secret memo from the Conservatives’ campaign manager Jenni Byrne that somehow managed to find its way into reporters’ hands:
“It is also important to ensure Canadian middle class families understand the threat posed by Thomas Mulcair’s risky and dangerous economic plan.”
Now. The simplest explanation for all this is that it is perfectly without guile, that the Conservatives believe what they write and that they have lately been spending weekends and evenings speculating aloud, transcribing one another’s remarks and emailing them to the Press Gallery. Colleague Wherry points out that the opposition to carbon pricing is a late conversion, but you know, people evolve.
But if — hypothetically — there’s strategy to it, what’s the strategy? The government has believed forever that the worst way to get a message out is to recite it to the Media Party. We tend to filter things, it’s said at Langevin. And the government’s communications people have come to understand that the worst time to push out message is dinnertime, because most of the news day is done by then.
Furthermore, it’s not as though the Conservatives haven’t already warned against Mulcair. They ran ads against him for weeks, waiting only long enough to let me finish my column predicting they wouldn’t run ads against him. (That column, he said defensively, was wrong only in British Columbia and Manitoba. In Ontario and Quebec the Conservatives didn’t bother to buy local ad time for this round. The NDP directly threatens the Conservatives in BC and Manitoba; in Ontario its presence is handy because it splits the anti-Conservative vote with the Liberals; and in Quebec it remains so dominant that there’s no point joining the battle yet.)
But anyway. Saturation ad buys for an anti-Mulcair ad in B.C. and around Winnipeg. And then these dinnertime emails. One concludes, tentatively, that:
(a) the ad buy did not have what would have been the desired effect, which is a demonstrable erosion of NDP support in BC and Manitoba;
(b) That’s probably because its “risky economic theories” message is too fancy to have much impact;
(c) so it’s time for another attempt.
Why emails at dusk, though? I think the answer is in the quotes that Joe Oliver’s press person faithfully gathered and disseminated: “Thomas Mulcair’s NDP Caucus is meeting to discuss their dangerous and risky economic plan…”
Ah. The goal isn’t to get us to print this stuff, although sometimes they get lucky and it shows up on a blog somewhere. The goal is to put it into reporters’ heads so some of us will ask Mulcair questions about it at his caucus retreat. And then Mulcair will launch into a long explanation of his carbon pricing policy, and then the Conservatives will be able to use the first, seventeenth and thirty-fifth words out of his mouth as the basis for another round of ads.
As Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” The hope this week was to get Mulcair mired on Thursday in explanations of what he said on Wednesday. It would not be the first time it happened, but this week it doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s the text of Mulcair’s speech to his caucus. There’s not much defensive explanation in it.