It was the first brillantly sunny pre-summer weekend of June. Joggers in Ottawa hit the river parkway and canal while sun-bathers converged on Parliament Hill. In an air-conditioned office on Queen street, Conservative Party officials were preparing to unleash the first volley of their new advertising campaign.
A few short weeks earlier, hapless and troubled Liberal leader Stephane Dion first mused about a new policy that MP Garth Turner would later – in a turnabout way – described as the sort of idea that drove the former sociology professor into politics years ago.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien recruited the then-unelected Mr. Dion into cabinet as intergovernmental affairs minister and following that, Canada’s environmental direction was later guided by Dion’s hand as environment minister. Tethering his ambition on recent popular interest in the topic of Global Warming, Dion and his supporters donned green scarves at the Liberal leadership convention in 2006 and effectively won the contest with this topic as a single issue campaign. For Dion, it was a calculated risk and when he secured the leadership of “Canada’s Natural Governing Party” – despite its recent rejection to opposition status – Mr. Dion probably thought he scored himself quite a coup. Unfortunately for him, a shrewd Conservative Party set to work soon after defining his visibly weak personality as weak leadership and Canadians started to associate the man with the cleverly crafted Conservative catchphrase “not a leader”.
Fast forward to 2008 and the Conservative strategists are facing an alternative line of attack from the opposition. Scandal is the order (rather, strategy) of the day for the Liberal Party. Labeled as untrustworthy after the very public sponsorship scandal, Liberal minds went to work after receiving a bit of a hint from Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney. The former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister taught the Liberals that there is no shelf-life on unresolved scandal, but more importantly that the public spotlight on perceived dubious activity could harm Conservatives as it had done the Liberals. If the Liberal brand has a higher floor than that of the new Conservatives, framing all political parties as untrustworthy may just have Liberals coming out ahead (while at the same time setting everyone back). Chuck Cadman, Ian Brodie and NAFTA, and Maxime Bernier became key nodes on the Liberal strategic whiteboard as that party worked on degrading the key strength of the Conservative Prime Minister: trust and accountability.
The Liberals felt a new sense of energy after being demoralized by the constant barrage of attack against their leader. This was especially evident in daily question period when former Liberal leadership candidate Maurizio Bevilacqua rambled off expressive Italian tabloid headlines on the “scandalo” of Maxime Bernier that were dogging the PM on his European trip. A gang of OLO staffers and Liberal researchers showed up in the member’s gallery and held their sides as the Italian-Canadian MP made a great show of his question to the government.
The Liberal leader, however, still had his own problems. Facing a ‘save-the-furniture’ style election by elements within his own caucus – namely MPs loyal to Bob Rae – Dion promoted a new policy plank in his carbon tax. Later told by senior Liberal strategists that calling his plan a tax would turn off Canadians, Dion strode forward on the well-founded assumption that the only thing standing in the way of a Rae-Harper orchestrated defeat of the government, was a party-defining policy that could sustain the embattled leader through the summer. Environment played to one of Mr. Dion’s rare if wrongly perceived strengths and for the Liberal leader it will probably be his last playable hand. Going into a summer forecasted to be a scorcher too hot for even regular joggers along the canal, Mr. Dion may believe that the “green, don’t call it a carbon tax, shift” is his trump card.
In the meantime, Conservative insiders heard that Mr. Dion was set to unveil his carbon tax plan next Wednesday, just prior to the House rising after the spring session. In doing so, the professorial Liberal leader could define his plan outside of Parliament on the – ironic perhaps – propane-fueled BBQ circuit that politicians often take during the summer recess.
In focus groups and telephone-based market research, Conservative planners came to understand that a carbon tax in the abstract is a well-received concept to most Canadians. What they also found, however, that when the details of achieving such a policy objective are understood, a broad majority of Canadians don’t think of it as feasible. Words like “tax-shifting” and “revenue neutral” were panned and uncomfortably rejected by focus groups when polled and the general distrust of politicians regarding new tax became a palatable conclusion for Conservative strategists. Conservative-Liberal switchers, a group that holds victory for either party, was found to have a distrust for any politician with a plan for creative tax manipulation.
As they did before, the Conservatives moved to define the Liberal leader, however this time on his carbon tax, before Dion could do it himself. The party faced two decisions. On one hand, they could engage the Liberals in a debate on their carbon tax proposal, and on the other they could tap into the public’s well-grounded suspicion in creative tax schemes proposed by politicians. The Conservatives chose the latter. Using the specific terms of carbon taxation would be instrumental to the party’s strategy and this would not allow Dion to speak about it in general feel-good terms. Conservatives tasked themselves on warning Canadians of politicians promising new models of taxation. A key weakness for Dion in attracting swing votes that exist between Liberal and Conservative is that the Liberal leader is not viewed as a fiscally frugal Liberal and that he instead occupies the “tax and spend” left camp in the Liberal party. On trust numbers, Harper scores much higher than Dion on the issue of taxation. If Dion’s strength is in the environment, the Conservatives did well to frame this as a tax issue instead. From alluding to the then-promised temporary measure of income taxation to pay for the First World War to the recent McGuinty health premiums, Conservative messaging sought to enhance Canadian skepticism in Dion’s plan yet to be unveiled. Warning tape was streamed at the “willyoubetricked.ca” website the party built to compliment the campaign and scores of volunteers donned yellow shirts – yellow being the colour of warning or caution – to alert Canadians to what Conservatives claim would be Dion’s “tax on everything”. Indeed, the primary message of the campaign was caution underscored by the primary catchphrase “don’t be tricked”.
The party also signed a contract with Fuelcast, the company that runs the video screens at the gas pumps for very focused messaging. While representing less than 5% of their ad buy, the fuelcasting represented a unique angle to land coveted free advertising via earned media; no political party has ever used the gas pump video screens for political advertising and the unique nature of this advertising was a great news hook for the networks. Although the agreement unexpectedly fell through, the campaign earned increased exposure even in the negative attention that certain media outlets gave the ad spots as some reporters speculated that “Oily” (the talking oil spot in the fuelcast spots) was a deliberately engineered failure in order to get earned media.
Oily, as he’s been dubbed by reporters, was never intended to die. Though the Liberal response to the advertising was that such a campaign indicated that the Conservatives were in the pocket of big oil – in that the party purchased advertising on gas pumps, the irony is that the Fuelcast company eventually rejected their advertising citing that they didn’t want to be political. Oily was meant to be an eye catching, sort of in-your-face character to draw the attention of gas pumping consumers and the spot compliment the yellow warning colour of the campaign website. The willyoubetricked.ca website was meant to be a zany, humourous and interactive website that people could pass on to their friends.
Any successful campaign gets a lot of attention and it’s without dispute that this one did. A multi-faceted campaign that included the novelty (or promised novelty) of fuelcasting, an interactive website, a pedestrian literature push in yellow t-shirts and panel after panel of Conservative strategists warning Canadians not to be tricked by politicians promising crazy tax schemes. Surprisingly on Monday, while Conservative prodded Dion on redefining himself (after they had done so) on his carbon tax, Dion accepted the challenge and we bizarrely saw an opposition leader in fact responding rather than challenging. This suggests that the theory that Dion is desperate to cling to a medium-term campaign (rather than a snap election) to save himself as the leader of the Liberal Party.
So this summer, Dion will jump on a jet to visit all parts of Canada, flipping non-organic transited burgers on gas or charcoal grills telling people that he’s in a shifty mood when it comes to their taxes, the summer sun that Canadians will seek to avoid inside their cooled homes may prove to have too much disconnect when it comes to the tax they’ll pay on their gas, their groceries and their respite from the heat. For Conservatives, the party planted a successful seed of well-founded doubt among Canadians concerning Mr. Dion’s plan.