Remember when “permanent campaign” was just a figure of speech? Ah, lost innocence of youth. A few days ago, the Conservative Party of Canada released a new wave of television ads, at least the fourth since Michael Ignatieff became Liberal leader. The New Democrats responded by releasing ads of their own. When a for-real election campaign does begin, the emotion you should feel is a premonition of relief: voting day will mean a break from election ads. That break may last as long as a couple of weeks.
What do the new ads tell us? Stephen Harper’s telling us we’re lucky to live in Canada. “We’re lucky to live in Canada,” he intones. See? The screen shows a Maple Leaf flag flapping. “A land where merit means more than privilege. Where who you are matters more than who you know or where you came from.”
Only six weeks earlier, the Conservatives released ads that showed Harper locked in his office while mobs threw rocks in the streets outside. “There’s uncertainty in the world,” a worried narrator explained. But already things are looking up. The new ads show Harper getting out of the office and walking around. Nobody throws any rocks. Still, in one scene the PM is seen wearing a hard hat. Better safe than sorry.
“Today our country is walking taller,” Harper says. There’s a shot of him walking next to Felipe Calderón, the diminutive president of Mexico, who comes up just past Harper’s belly button. Who is our country walking taller than? Mexican pipsqueaks, that’s who.
Harper’s voice-over brings it all home. “Together, as Canadians, let’s strengthen our country, make it better for families, and ensure our kids have even more opportunity than we did.” It’s the kind of ad most parties run in the last weekend before an election, ads designed to make voters feel good about a choice they may have made reluctantly.
The Conservatives have plenty of the other kinds of ad, too, the kind designed to make the opposition look like a big ball of stink. The latest shows only Michael Ignatieff’s face. The script repeats Ignatieff’s name three times and the word “tax” ?ve times. But what’s striking is that the Conservatives are running the flag-waving, walking-taller ad as often as they’re running the stink-bomb ads. This party still views its leader as one of its biggest assets.
So does the NDP. That party’s ads begin with Ordinary Canadians asking a question, then cut to Jack Layton with his tie knot loosened and his shirt sleeves rolled up. “Is it just me or has Ottawa stopped working?” Ordinary Canadian One asks. “It sure looks that way,” Layton responds. “Lobbyists, senators and insiders are getting all the breaks while more and more seniors are struggling just to pay their bills.”
Oh my. What can be done? “Roll up our sleeves, put the partisan games aside and start getting results.” Clearly Layton is the man for this job: he already had his sleeves rolled up before you came in. He lists the sort of results he would like to start getting. “Increasing assistance for seniors in need. And giving a little bit of help to those who are caring for a parent at home.”
Layton famously has other results he would be willing to take, just in case seniors and their caregivers get left in the lurch on budget day by Prime Minister Walking Tall. The NDP leader has spent the year preparing to vote in favour of the budget if he can find any pretext to do so. From that perspective, his party’s latest ads look more like an ounce of prevention than like the first act of a real election battle.
Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals have no new ads. In 2004, when Harper became leader of the Conservative party, the Liberals ran pre-writ ads seeking to define him as an awful fellow. Now that he is the one running ads against them, they have decided it’s not cricket to run ads outside of an election campaign. The Liberals are the party of late-breaking scruple.
They would be more flexible on such questions if they could afford to be. What would their ads look like? Probably roughly the same: the Liberals would depict their man as the only leader who glimpses the Canadian soul and protects the little guy. Increasingly, the big parties present interchangeable faces to an electorate that would, on the whole, prefer to be left alone. Their endless pre-electoral posturing is not matched by their ability to capture our attention.
What would a really surprising campaign ad look like? It might feature a politician admitting he gets things wrong, too. It might list areas where our country falls short and challenge its citizens to do better, instead of lining up to flatter Canadians and bribe them with their own money.
Of course all of that is fantasy. We see the ads we see because they work. Their weakness isn’t immorality: every party always believes its members are defending virtue against the barbarians. The endless ads’ only weakness is banality. In five-week doses, separated by decent intervals of two or three or four years, parties that flattered themselves on TV at our expense used to be a novelty. Now they are a fact of life.