Responding to the Bob Rae Attack Ads: A Teachable Moment?

In recent months, there have been two similar, but not identical, ads attacking Liberal Party leader Bob Rae. The Conservative Party’s ad (“Bob Rae wants to be prime minister”) has been broadcast, especially during sports events, and is still available on YouTube. I don’t know if the National Citizens’ Coalition’s ad (“Bob Rae is back”) has ever been broadcast, but it too is available on YouTube.

The shared message is that Bob Rae was a failure as premier of Ontario. Both zero in on Ontario’s economic performance (job losses) and Rae’s policies (income increases and large deficits). The Conservatives conclusion: “If he couldn’t run a province, why does he think he can run Canada?” The Coalition’s: “If he gets the chance, he will do for Canada what he did for Ontario.”

The Coalition’s message is shriller, in both content and tone. The Conservatives refer to “the most job losses since the great depression,” while the Coalition is more explicit in its claim about causality: “he was the job-killing NDP premier who threw Ontario into the worst recession since the dirty thirties.” Its ad is also more detailed in its recital of tax increases, including gasoline, car tires, parking meters, insurance premiums, and photo radar; it would appear that the NCC is appealing to the same constituency that Rob Ford targeted in his pledge to end the war against the car. Finally, there is a marked difference in tone. The Conservatives’ ad is ironic and humorous – Bob Rae prime minister, funniest thing I ever heard. The NCC’s ad is urgent and alarmist – Bob Rae prime minister, scariest thing I ever heard.

It is widely believed that the Conservatives’ attack ads on Michael Ignatieff were very effective. The assertion that “he didn’t come back for you” ads created a narrative that contrasted enormous personal ambition (Ignatieff’s return to Canada after thirty years away solely because of his desire to be prime minister) with a ruinous public policy of tax increases under an Ignatieff Government. The Rae attack ads have the same narrative structure, but will they be equally effective? Viewers might remember that Rae was premier long ago and that, during that time, all of North America was in a recession that, the NCC’s claims to the contrary, Rae did not cause. While Ignatieff’s ambition was portrayed as over-reaching, Rae’s is the natural, and appropriate, ambition of the leader of an opposition party. Finally, there is the matter of intentions. Why was Bob Rae raising taxes? Even the NCC wouldn’t claim it was for his personal enrichment.

One perhaps unintended consequence of the Conservatives’ attack ad is that the Liberals launched an immediate appeal to party members for funds to counter the ads, and very quickly raised over $ 250,000 in donations from 4000 members.

After the launch of the NCC’s ads but before the launch of the Conservatives’ ads, the CBC’s George Strombolopolous interviewed Bob Rae about the attack ads. Rae made several thoughtful points. Consistent with the political maxim, “if he says you’re fat, you say he’s bald,” Rae reminded us that there are clips and transcripts available of Stephen Harper’s speeches and articles when he was director of the National Citizens’ Coalition: Canada is a northern European welfare state, people are unemployed only because they want to be, build a firewall around Alberta.

Rae presented a somewhat mixed message in the interview. On one hand, he said that “one of the biggest mistakes we make in politics is allowing other people to define us and then letting that stand” and that “there are a lot of things I did as premier that frankly I’m very proud of.” But then he said that he didn’t think “if he says you’re fat, you say he’s bald” politics is very productive.

So this leaves open the question of what to do in response to political attacks or, more concretely, how the Liberals should spend the $ 250,000 they just raised.

The Liberals could use the money to attack Harper, not for what he said and wrote in the past, but for what he is doing now – gutting the environmental review process or knowingly downplaying the cost of the F-35 fighter aircraft.

Rae could also expand on his statement about the things he did as premier that he is proud of, and doing so could create a teachable moment. (Unfortunately, the Liberal Party website, in its profile of Bob Rae says only that he was premier of Ontario between 1990 and 1995, perhaps not wanting to remind readers of his change in affiliation.) Rae’s 1996 memoir “From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics” does go into some detail about the accomplishments of his government, particularly in terms of helping some firms (Algoma Steel, Spruce Falls Pulp and Paper, De Havilland Aircraft) survive the recession and using the government’s capital budget to maintain employment.

Looking back over the last two decades, there are several comparisons that could be drawn between the Rae and Harper governments’ economic policies. Rae took office just as a recession hit North America. If any one Canadian was to blame for the 1990 recession, it would have to be Bank of Canada Governor John Crowe for his high interest rate policies. Rae no more caused the recession of 1990 than Stephen Harper caused the financial crisis of 2008.

The responses of the Rae and Harper governments to the recession were quite similar. Both bailed out major employers that were near bankruptcy. Both used capital spending to maintain employment. (Economic Action Plan meet Jobs Ontario.) Both oversaw major deficit increases. Both restrained public sector salaries, though the Rae Government preferred salary restraint to layoffs, while the Harper Government is delivering both. The Rae Government increased taxes, in part in response to its critics in the business community, while the Harper Government has kept taxes constant or cut them slightly in the last few years.

If Bob Rae wanted to remind people of recent political-economic history, he might also say a few words about Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution. Harris defeated Rae on a promise of tax cuts and spending cuts. He delivered the cuts, but also brought Ontario a deterioration in the quality of public services, public sector labour unrest, alternative service delivery by unqualified private sector agents (the cause of the E coli outbreak in Walkerton), and costly privatization (Highway 407). Criticism of the Harris Government is also a criticism of its ministers, three of whom – John Baird, Tony Clement, and Jim Flaherty – now occupy .senior portfolios in Harper’s Government. Flaherty often would like the electorate to forget that he was a particularly avid Common Sense Revolutionary.

Bob Rae’s current hesitation in engaging with his political past might be the result of his uncertain political status as interim leader. If he were no longer the leader, he would be free of expectations; if he were the leader, he would have to engage with it, because his political past would continue to be the focal point of Conservative attacks.

I think it would constitute a teachable moment for Canadians if Bob Rae were to explain what his record reveals about the pressures all governments face in economic crises, and the similarities of many of their responses, regardless of political ideology. And it would be a good thing of public discourse about economic policy was conducted on a higher level than the over-simplifications of 30 second Conservative attack ads. Perhaps Rae will still seize the teachable moment.


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