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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

This could be risky Ernie

The problem with running down your opponent, says BRIAN TOBIN, is that it becomes easier for a dark horse to make a good impression
By BRIAN TOBIN
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

The last time a party in power bid for a third consecutive term by making the Opposition leader the main issue was 10 years ago. The prime minister was Kim Campbell, the leader of the Opposition was Jean Chretien.

The Tories, under Ms. Campbell, who had succeeded Brian Mulroney, were trailing in the polls. They had distanced themselves from the Mulroney legacy that had won them back-to-back majority governments. They decided to move toward the political centre and go after Ms. Campbell's credentials.

The Tories believed that having elected the perceived star of the Mulroney cabinet as their new leader, the focus of the campaign should be to target the alleged shortcomings of the Liberal leader. Sound familiar?

The strategy did not work. The overnight tracking for both parties showed the Liberals continued to enjoy a decisive lead in the polls.

The Tories got desperate. They intensified their campaign against the Liberal leader. They produced those awful campaign ads that distorted Jean Chrétien's face and attacked his physical appearance. The backlash was enormous. The Tories were decimated. Reduced to two seats in 1993, they have, regrettably, failed to this day to recover sufficiently to offer a credible national alternative to the federal Liberals.

We do need a credible alternative, and the Tories must play that role. As for Jean Chrétien, he went on to win three consecutive majorities, and appears ready to retire, leaving his party and his presumed successor, Paul Martin, poised to make it four in a row.

What are the lessons here in the context of the current Ontario campaign? Well, clearly, Ernie Eves would never repeat the mistakes of the Campbell campaign and launch the kind of nasty attack that so repelled Canadians 10 years ago. Mr. Eves, I am confident, is above that kind of nonsense. However Ernie Eves is taking a chance, and a big one, in making Dalton McGuinty the focus of the Tory campaign.

Most Ontarians' impressions of Liberal Party Leader Dalton McGuinty were formed in the last election campaign. They remember him as a relatively new and inexperienced leader taking his party into an election for the first time. Mr. McGuinty was up against an experienced and confident Mike Harris.

This time around, Mr. McGuinty comes into the campaign with the experience of the last one under his belt. It is Mr. Eves who is fighting his first campaign as leader. Mr. McGuinty is more sure of himself, he is more confident on the stump, he is strong and compelling behind the podium. Most Ontarians will not recognize the 2003 Dalton McGuinty as the same Liberal Leader who took on the Harris Tories last time out.

And therein lies the danger for Mr. Eves. If you tell the electorate that the Leader of the Opposition is unsteady, unsure and unreliable, and he lives up to those expectations, you have a winning strategy. However, if he exceeds the low expectations you have created, you have a problem.

I remember Jean Chrétien telling me over and over during his tenure in Opposition, and subsequently during the 1993 campaign, that the attacks on his credibility made it much easier for him to succeed: "The more they lower expectations, the easier it is for me to surpass them."

This campaign is Dalton McGuinty's to lose, and he has a few critical challenges of his own to face. The polls are consistent in saying the people of Ontario want change. In the last election, Mike Harris faced a desire for change that peaked at 50 per cent. Today, more than 60 per cent of the people of Ontario are looking for change. I believe they are going to be asking themselves, "but change to what?"

It will not be enough for the Ontario Liberals to say it is their turn. They will have to clearly lay out a platform that addresses the large public-policy issues of the day. What about Ontario's electricity needs? How will they be met in future? Is there a role for the private sector?

What about the Tory attack that the Liberals represent a return to high taxes? Will Mr. McGuinty lay down strong and unequivocal assurances in that regard? What about the future of education? Will there be enough spaces, and will those spaces be affordable for those who want postsecondary education?

There is another sleeper in this campaign. Howard Hampton and the NDP have an opportunity to play spoiler. If Mr. Hampton is able to bleed votes away from the Liberal Party, he could improve his party's standing after the next election. He could also, as a consequence, help re-elect the Tories. Mr. Hampton will only become truly relevant if Mr. McGuinty stumbles.

Most leaders of the Opposition go through election campaigns trying desperately to draw attention to themselves and their platforms. Most premiers seeking re-election, including this former premier, never give free publicity to their main rival. Ernie Eves has done the opposite. He has turned the spotlight on you, Mr. McGuinty. The ball is in your court. Mr. Eves is betting the premier's office you can't run with it. Let the games begin.

Brian Tobin is a former federal minister

of industry, and former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.



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