Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pallister has right idea, wrong script

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BRANDON -- Politics is nothing more than a public argument between groups of citizens and, as in all arguments, the winner is often the one who gets the last word.

That is why successful politicians and their parties never let an attack against them go without a firm response. They have learned that turning the other cheek may work in church, but it will get you killed in politics.

Over the past four months, Manitoba's New Democrats have unleashed a series of attack ads targeting Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, depicting him as a heartless slasher who, if given the reins of power, would cut programs and services Manitobans rely on.

Though the ads have been exposed as resting on a shaky factual foundation, they should be regarded as a success for the NDP.

They appear to have both halted the party's downward trajectory in the polls and the Tories' rise in popularity.

The NDP's strategists can take much of the credit for the ads' success, but the Tories must shoulder some of the blame.

Instead of quickly challenging the NDP with their own ads, they reacted with silence and a shrug. It allowed the NDP to have uncontested control of the narrative and has likely hardened opinions against Pallister among non-Tory supporters.

It was a mistake the Tories now appear intent on correcting, as they launched a radio ad campaign of their own, with Pallister reading this script.

"The Progressive Conservatives are standing up for all Manitobans. We are taking the NDP to court on June 4 to have the PST increase reversed. In the last election, the NDP promised not to increase taxes. They raised the PST while taking away the chance for Manitobans to vote on the increase.

"In fact, the NDP is going to court to fight against Manitobans. The PCs are standing up for Manitobans. We're standing up for you."

The Tories deserve credit for finally taking to the airwaves to make their case to Manitobans, but there are several reasons why this is the wrong message.

First, they are preaching to the choir. They made their point on the PST increase a year ago and have already won all the support they can from Manitobans on that issue.

Second, instead of directly responding to the NDP ads, the Tories are simply changing the subject back to the PST increase.

That plays right into the NDP's hands, as it reinforces its argument Pallister is obsessed with fiscal issues and couldn't care less about the social costs of that obsession.

Rather than implicitly confirming the NDP ads, the Tories should be confronting that narrative with ads that show Pallister and his MLAs do understand and care about the concerns of ordinary Manitobans, and would never impose arbitrary cuts that would hurt them.

Third, the Tories' focus on the PST increase has given the Selinger government a free ride on a number of other issues they are vulnerable on. The cut-rate sale of the property registry, the ongoing Manitoba Hydro rate increases, the impending MPI rate hike and golden parachute for its outgoing CEO, the STARS fiasco, the Assiniboia Downs payout and the auditor general's alarming report into government ethics are a few examples.

A series of Tory attack ads targeting those issues would have put the NDP on the defensive over the past several weeks and would have derailed the government's careful messaging during the spring session of the legislature.

Finally, as much as a well-planned and executed ad campaign can attract voters, it can also attract desirable candidates.

They need to see a party that is ready to win, understands the entire range of issues that confront a provincial government and isn't simply a bunch of single-issue ideologues.

In politics, you are either playing offence or defence. Silence and indifference is not a strategy, however -- it is a recipe for defeat.

The NDP understands that. It has driven the political narrative in Manitoba for more than a decade, and has reaped electoral success as a result.

That Pallister's Tories are finally taking to the airwaves in response is encouraging and the right idea. Unfortunately, they are using the wrong script.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2014 A11

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About Deveryn Ross

Deveryn Ross joined the Free Press as a political columnist in 2011. His columns also appear in the Westman Journal and other community newspapers throughout Western Canada. He has also served as a columnist for the Brandon Sun, Brandon Today and several rural Manitoba newspapers.

Born and raised in Brandon, where he still resides, Deveryn has been active in politics at all levels for more than four decades. He has worked in various roles on dozens of election campaigns in several provinces and has provided strategic advice to elected officials and candidates from all major parties.

Deveryn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Dalhousie University and Bachelor of Arts from Brandon University, where he was awarded the medal in political science.


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