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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Liberals' beatific ad campaign a risky strategy

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Thursday, Sep. 11, 2003

Greg Sorbara grew up in the north end of Toronto in the 1950s and recalls that in those far-off days you could get bullied at school simply for having an Italian name.

He says he didn't fight back against the schoolyard taunts. "The way you deal with a bully is just to be much stronger and above it," he said.

This strains the imagination considering the reputation as a scrapper that Mr. Sorbara carries as a member of the Ontario Legislature but it fits in with the beatific stand that the Opposition Liberals have adopted in the election campaign.

The television ad the party unveiled yesterday is in marked contrast to the biting message from the governing Progressive Conservatives. Where the Conservatives attack Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty for still not being up to the job of Premier, Mr. McGuinty does not even mention his prime opponent, Ernie Eves, or his record.

"Choose the high road," Mr. McGuinty says in his ad, looking like the kid who always got his lunch money stolen.

The experts say it's a risky strategy the Liberals have opted for. They say the reason that so-called negative ads like the ones the Tories are airing -- "what's he got against seniors?" -- are effective is because they are memorable.

Voters who don't pay a lot of attention to politics -- and in Ontario that would seem to be almost everyone -- are susceptible to ads that strongly define politicians they only vaguely know.

Mr. Eves says the ads are merely a polite dissection of Liberal policy but there's no doubt they are fundamental to a Tory campaign aimed at painting Mr. McGuinty as another high-taxing, big-government guy.

In his ad, the Liberal Leader asks voters to reject the siren call of tax cuts to preserve social programs. It's an honest message and it would be nice to think that honesty is the best policy.

But ask Walter Mondale about it. In the 1984 U.S. presidential election, Ronald Reagan ate him for breakfast after he tried to "tell the truth" on taxes.

It's not that the Liberals don't know political scrapping. In its own way, the McGuinty ad is insidiously negative -- it links the Tories to big corporations and to cash-strapped schools and hospitals. And the Liberals are proving adept at running a quick-response operation with some familiarity for the location of the Tories' jugular vein.

But the party says it isn't going to respond in kind to the Tory ads. "We feel the people of Ontario are sick to death of that type of campaigning," said Mr. Sorbara, who in addition to being an MPP is also the party's president.

Party strategists say they needed to present Mr. McGuinty to voters who don't pay much attention and that it wouldn't have made sense to craft ads that said as much about what Mr. Eves wanted to do as what the Liberals are pledging.

Don't be surprised, however, if the Liberals don their brass knuckles in the next few weeks. But as long as they are appealing to our better angels, Mr. Eves might want to entertain a few questions about his own record:

Why do electricity blackouts remain a threat and why has more than $600-million of debt been added because of electricity price caps?

Why, in a "First World" country, did seven people die from drinking tap water?

Why is the air so bad on so many days?

Why are cancer-care treatment waiting lists so long?

Why did taxpayers pay $206,000 to stage the Magna budget (including the cost of a makeup artist for Mr. Eves and Finance Minister Janet Ecker)?

Why is gridlock in the Toronto area getting worse?

Why are regulated child-care spaces so difficult to secure for working parents?

Why, when public schools are cramming their classrooms and running short of supplies and textbooks, is public money going to parents who send their children to private schools?

Why did the 1999 campaign pledge to reduce property taxes by 20 per cent become targeted specifically at seniors?

Why has the minimum wage been frozen for eight years and when will it be raised?

Just asking, of course.



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