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Attack ads risk blighting Tories' green strategy

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

There is a double-edged sword in the Conservatives' decision to run a series of aggressive ads attacking Stéphane Dion on the issue of global warming.

On one side, they would love nothing more than to neutralize his perceived advantage on the matter. On the other, they may want to be careful they don't neutralize themselves.

New polls for The Globe and Mail/CTV News have clearly established that environmental change is viewed as the most serious threat facing Canadian society today, an issue that does not traditionally play to Conservative strengths.

So, through a series of negative television commercials unveiled this weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved forcefully to remove the environmental halo from Mr. Dion.

In doing so, however, the Conservatives run the risk that they themselves aren't taking the issue as seriously as the Canadian public wants them to.

"I think the Tories would be happy to wrestle the Liberals to an ugly draw on this," said an Ottawa pollster who asked not to be identified by name.

"The ads are perfectly consistent with this approach."

The first hint of the government's nullifying strategy came in early January, with Mr. Harper's appointment of John Baird as his new Environment Minister. Observers asked at the time whether the Tories were truly interested in fixing the problem or whether the intensely partisan Mr. Baird was made minister with the express purpose of taking down Mr. Dion, quashing whatever advantage the Liberals may have on the issue.

During the first month of Mr. Baird's tenure, the Tories made some strides toward trying to establish some environmental bona fides, with a series of announcements that included money for wind power and other technologies.

But it has become apparent fairly quickly that, when it comes to dealing with climate change, the Tories have some ways to go in winning over public opinion. Last week's poll found that the Conservatives were seen by only 12 per cent of Canadians as having the best environmental plan for the country. The Liberals had the backing of 16 per cent -- not much more, but given the environment's top-of-mind prominence among Canadians, the Tories cannot afford to give away any ground to the Liberals.

The answer to that challenge comes in this week's ads. People who have seen the commercials will note that the Tories say nothing about their own environmental policies, preferring instead to accuse the Liberals of 13 years of governmental indolence.

As negative ads go, even Liberals concede they may be effective. One former high-ranking Grit said the Tories have taken a page from the Liberal handbook by running images of their opponents' leader and superimposing his own words at the bottom of the screen against him.

Effective stuff, they say, and successful if the game is all about cancelling out your opponents' advantage by proving that they're just as bad as you are.

But there are those who say that there are also a couple of significant risks in the Conservative strategy.

On one level, the Tories may be elevating Mr. Dion's stature by focusing their attacks so heavily on him. That's bad news for Mr. Harper's potential ally, NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose efforts have been to make the Liberals irrelevant.

On another and perhaps more significant level, the ads may leave the Tories open to criticism that they are simply being opportunistic.

One former Conservative ad executive suggested that the approach may be dangerous for the Tories because it risks making them look more intent on winning a spin war than on fixing what may turn out to be this generation's most significant public-policy difficulty.

"They show the Conservatives are worried about Dion but more importantly, they'll simply reinforce Canadians' perception that the government isn't serious about the environment and views it as a PR battle to be won," the executive said.

If the Conservatives really believe they've lost the battle on the environment, then they may also believe there's little risk in this approach. Invalidate the Liberal advantage, goes the theory, because you can't make up the ground anyway.

But if the Tories start looking like all they care about is taking down Mr. Dion, then they better hope it works. Because if he somehow survives the assault intact, the next debate may be about how much the Tories themselves care about what may be the most significant issue of our day.

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