Will Dalton be Iggie’d?

The Ontario Conservatives have now revealed their campaign strategy, and it’s a copy of their federal cousins’ approach. Demonize the opponent. In this case, it is the advertising campaign, now widely running, to portray Premier Dalton McGuinty as “the taxman,” a politician who frequently raises taxes to pay for waste (an example given in the television commercials is eHealth). The Conservatives hope that by spending massively and spending early, they will fix in many voters’ minds the image of McGuinty as taxman just as effectively as the federal Conservatives fixed in voters’ mind the image of Michael Ignatieff as ambitious and untrustworthy cosmopolitan intellectual.

How should the Liberals respond? Despite eight years as Premier, McGuinty’s image has never been so clear and unmistakable that he cannot be rebranded. If he doesn’t respond, he will suffer the same fate as Michael Ignatieff, who chose not to respond. Because the election has not been called, the Conservatives’ spending is not subject to legislated limits, and it is not clear to me that the Liberals can match them.

The initial Liberal ad is an “Ontarians are working together” ad, narrated by the premier. It is the political high road. The question is whether the high road will work when your main opponent is building his campaign around negative advertising aimed directly at your leader. In addition, with the recent victories of the federal Conservatives – with such a strong showing in Ontario – as well as the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, the Ontario Conservatives seem to have the zeitgeist in their favour.

In a blog about the federal election (“If he says you’re fat, you say he’s bald” – March 12, 2011), I argued that one approach to negative campaigning is to find a different topic than the one your opponent is raising, and attack him on that. It seems Tim Hudak is open to at least two principal lines of attack: lack of experience and right-wing ideologue. The Liberals contemplated the latter approach in 2007, but didn’t need to use it because John Tory was open to attack for his championing of public support for religious schools. They could bring it back this time, and more credibly than last time, because Tim Hudak is a CSR (common sense revolutionary) Conservative, rather than a centrist like John Tory. Emphasize Hudak’s links to Harris. Dig up Hudak’s record. Run ads showing Hudak’s face morphing into Harris’s.

Even though it is not what the “you say he’s bald” maxim would dictate, McGuinty could defend his record. He could argue that the Government of Ontario has spent money on important public purposes, such as improving health care and education and protecting the province from the effects of the recession, and that Ontario’s levels of taxation are similar to other comparable jurisdictions. He could remind Ontarians that, as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, taxes are the price we pay for civilization. And he could make the point that Hudak is unwilling to pay that price and would therefore wreck civility, if not civilization in the province. Portray him as Ontario’s own Tea Party boy.

I’m old enough to remember the Beatles’ song “Taxman,” which came out in 1966 on their album Revolver. The song referred to Britain’s then confiscatory (95 %) marginal rates of taxation for high income earners and taunted both Labour and Conservative party leaders, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath, respectively. Mr. McGuinty is a far less aggressive taxman than either Mr. Wilson or Mr. Heath, and he must make that point. The Liberals will undoubtedly do some polling to assess the effect of the taxman onslaught, but my gut tells me that it is having an impact. If McGuinty wants a third term, a prompt and vigorous response is a necessity.

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