BRANDON -- In the world of politics, fear works -- and nobody knows that better than Manitoba's New Democrats.
A report prepared by senior NDP campaign officials following the 2011 provincial election, which saw the party win its largest majority in its history, provides a fascinating insight into the devastating effectiveness of fear as a political tool.
At the top of a list of key strategies implemented in the year prior to the election is "Define Change on our terms: 'TOO BIG A RISK,' recognizing that being elected a 4th term means, most importantly, that the alternative is dangerous."
Further down the list is "Change the channel on Hydro from the west side bipole route to privatization."
A discussion entitled Pre-Election Campaign describes television campaigns that were utilized by the party. One "Began the work of defining change as risky," while another "Defined Hugh McFadyen's record as creating risk." There were also "3 Caucus Mailers defining the risk of change on key issues such as health and Hydro" and a radio campaign that emphasized the "Premier on the value of Hydro as a public resource."
In a section entitled The Central Campaign, the document lists "Reinforce Risk of Change," "Make privatization the Hydro issue," "Healthcare and economy versus crime" and "Strong contrast message Us vs. Them" as four of its five campaign goals.
Viewed in that context, the NDP's Running with Scissors television ad targeting Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister is not a desperate act in response to the party's sagging poll numbers, as some have characterized it. It is part of a calculated strategy that has worked extremely well in the past.
There is a rule that is as valid in politics as it is in sports -- if you find a strategy that works, you stick with it until it doesn't work anymore. That is exactly what the NDP is doing with its attack ad. It is re-stoking fears that a Tory government would implement deep and painful cuts in areas Manitobans rely on.
The fact the ad relies upon distortions and outright falsehoods in pursuit of its objective may be morally repugnant, but that is tactically irrelevant if the other side does not deliver a compelling response -- a disheartening truth proven by the results of the 2011 election.
That explains why both the Tories and Liberals have come out swinging against the ad. On Tuesday, Pallister promised no front-line civil servants would lose their jobs under a Progressive Conservative government. He told reporters "If one nurse or one teacher is fearful of their job security because of these ads, that is one too many."
A few hours later, Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari complained that "I do not support the NDP's use of negative attack ads, especially outside of an election. Front-line civil servants like nurses and teachers are a vitally important part of our province and their jobs should not be used as a political football."
The responses are a good first step, but Pallister and Bokhari could go further, exposing the NDP's own agenda to cut public-sector jobs.
They could refer to last week's budget speech, in which Finance Minister Jennifer Howard bragged that "We have reduced the civil service by 370, more than halfway toward our target of 600," and "This year we will build on these measures by freezing or reducing the budgets of nine departments."
They could point to the many vacant positions and low morale throughout Manitoba's civil service, arguing that the creation of a "lean council" is a Trojan Horse designed to exacerbate the problem, while keeping the blood off the NDP's hands.
They could hammer the NDP's bloated health-care bureaucracy that wastes millions of dollars that could be spent on front-line health-care providers and an inefficient education system that spends too much on administration and too little in the classroom.
In politics, if you aren't playing offence, you're playing defence. For too long, the NDP was allowed to sow fear among Manitobans without a persuasive answer. It's time for the Tories and Liberals to fight back. Tuesday's announcements should be just the start.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.