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Monday, November 15, 2010

Vacuously Yours

Pot calls out kettle:

The governing Liberals plan to paint Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak as a “vacuous” Mike Harris “puppet” in next year’s election, according to a leaked campaign document obtained by the Star.

“Someone is pulling the strings,” the internal strategy memo says of Hudak, noting he’s “Harris Lite” with “no original ideas” and is a “shifty, evasive, slick politician,” who is “in the pocket of special interests — big pharma, chemical companies . . . private health care.”

Prepared last May and entitled “Framing the Opposition: Draft Ideas and Concepts,” it details the proposed direction of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s re-election bid.

Wow. It gets even better:

The leaked Liberal document also outlines a strategy for tackling NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party is derided as being “inexperienced, pious, self-righteous” with “unrealistic expectations” and “will throw money at problems” if elected next year.

Liberal talking points I agree with. Emphatically. There is only one little, tiny problem with the approach. If Tim Hudak is a "vacuous" nonentity then what, exactly, is Dalton McGuinty? Moses leading his people across the Sinai? By portraying Tim Hudak as a brainless Mike Harris stooge, the Grits are inviting the Tories to portray Dalton McGuinty as an unprincipled stooge of public sector unions. There is also the Mike Harris thing. It's so very, very old.

There are elements of the Left in Ontario that not merely hate, but viscerally despise Mike Harris. Back when George W Bush was still meandering through the Texas political scene, the largest province in Confederation was in the grip of Harris Derangement Syndrome. There was almost nothing that was not blamed on the former school teacher from North Bay.

Can't get a hospital bed for your dying mother? Mike the Knife. Your kid is studying in portables? Mike "the Baby Eater" Harris is to blame. The climax of this assault on the then Premier, as well as plain common sense as most of these problems pre-dated Harris' time in office, was Walkerton. Two bumbling township officials in rural Ontario failed to do their job, resulting in the deaths of seven residents, and somehow it was the Premier's fault. How? Because of that magical word: "cutbacks."

It didn't matter if a particular service had actually been cut, of if funding had been later restored, it was all about the mythical force "cutback." No amount of supervision from Queen's Park could have prevented two minor officials from not doing their jobs at a crucial moment. It didn't matter, the Toronto Star had a stick to beat the hitherto popular provincial Tories. A mythology was soon crafted of an age of heartless terror that descended upon the innocents of Ontario. That the Ontario of 1995 was a business-phobic fiscal basketcase, and whose Premier Bob Rae (now a Liberal frontbencher!) was enthralled to powerful labour unions, was conveniently forgotten. 

To his credit Tim Hudak has, for the most part, tactfully distanced himself from Harris. What made sense in the Ontario of 1995 does not necessarily make sense in today's Ontario. Not blaming Harris, but not parroting the strategies of a decade and a half ago. It's a reasonable balance, which the Liberals have no intention of striking. Generals are often blamed for fighting the last war. The Grits seem rather intent on fighting the election three elections past. The Tory response should be simple: Look at the date on your Blackberries.

Aside from the Toronto militants, who mostly vote NDP, Memories of Mike isn't going to sell as an election strategy. Describing Tim Hudak as a lightweight just might:

“Someone is pulling the strings,” the internal strategy memo says of Hudak, noting he’s “Harris Lite” with “no original ideas” and is a “shifty, evasive, slick politician,” who is “in the pocket of special interests — big pharma, chemical companies . . . private health care.”

Leaving aside the "Harris Lite" bit, the rest of that paragraph could have been lifted from one of my posts. Perhaps the Liberal back office has decided to outsource its copywriting to the blogsphere. It would be an improvement. The charge can, however, stick to Hudak since he has so far been less than original in his policy pronouncements. This has not been helped by Hudak's image.

The Tory leader's public persona is far, far too slick for his own good. He's a professional pol. His wife, whom he recently declared off limits to mudslinging, is a professional political operator. The problem with such people, however sincere they might be in real life, is that in public they come across with all the earnestness of a used car salesman. A glib answer to everything makes you look, well, glib. In fairness, Dalton McGuinty has only grim brooding as a cheap substitute for gravitas, still having been Premier for seven years, people will tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

Tim Hudak can easily counter the light-weight spin by, er, not acting light weight. Here's my advice to the Timster:

Pick a public policy issue, master its details, come up with a politically plausible alternatively and hammer the Liberals for their failure on the file. The obvious issue would be health care, but it would be foolish to expect such reckless - and principled - bravery from Hudak. Let's try something simple and feasible: cutting the deficit. The topic is likely to spook some Tory operatives. Fearful of being painted as a resurrection of Mike the Knife? Fine. Focus on waste. 

As I've noted previously in this spot, there is no waste in government. Every dollar government spends benefits some pressure group, to whom the warm spigot flow is daily nourishment. That doesn't mean the general public won't regard such spending as waste. The fiasco around eHealth is certainly worth another few kicks. A half dozen research assistants could easily find a few billion blown on similar porkbarrel projects, most of which will probably have awkward connections to the Liberal machine. Because that is how the game is played.

A figure will emerge - the public loves figures, as they are a substitute for genuine analysis - of say $5 billion in waste and mismanagement. A Hudak government will cut that waste and fat! And pay down the deficit! Even though you can't really "pay down" a deficit, but it sounds prudent. Conservatives love sounding prudent! Except about cutting CPP payments. They know who shows up on election day.

The comprehensive Hudak Fiscal Action Plan would highlight spending freezes. Never let the word "cut" pass between those pretty lips Tim. You know what the Toronto Star will say. And as the Star goes, so go most of the TV networks and radio stations. Instead borrow from Davy Cameron's book and "ring-fence" health care and education, but use a Canadian sounding term. How about "guarantee" or "protect?" You might even dredge up that old Mulroney-era standby, "sacred trust." Wait. Forget that. Sounds too religious. You know what happened last time with John Tory and the religious schools. Painful memories...

Repeat until numb, and then repeat again. Once you are sick to death of repeating a political slogan, you can be sure that the electorate, always half-attentive toward the blatherings of their political masters, will give up and believe. Heck, they believe Medicare provides "universal" and "quality" care, all the while being given actual service that would get a McDonald's night manager fired. The scary Mike Harris charge will fade. You will no longer seem a lightweight. Barring a John Tory-style implosion, you'll be sitting in the Premier's office this time next year. Not that Ontario will be any better off as a result, but the people cheering Team Blue will be happy.  

P.S. Keep John Tory as far away as possible from your campaign. Nice guy but he's cursed or something.


Posted by Richard Anderson on November 15, 2010 | Permalink


Ah, but they cannot keep John Tory away from any campaign. He's a typical Red Tory: Liberals or Red Tories, he's happy with both.

Posted by: AB Patriot | 2010-11-16 5:19:36 AM

Publius, I normally respect your opinions, but this one smacks of the very thing of which it complains.

The "vacuous" label could stick, as you say, but only because it is consistent with the facts of reality: Hudak's entire approach is identical to that of John Tory - propose no changes of any significance and, where pretending to be a voice for significant change, present a 100% ambiguous, equivocal promise like...the ones you propose in this article.

Cutting waste (or "cutting red tape", or "eliminating inefficiencies" etc.) is the very lingo that was used by Tory, and that is currently being used by Tim Hudak. Hudak, following Tory's lead, is operating on the idea that if he proposes nothing, he will not have scared off any voters with a proposal. His entire strategy is based upon poll results, not ideas. Specifically, his approach requires that the Liberals implode, and that whoever is then doing best in the polls will be voted in as a matter of strategy, to ensure that the Liberals do not win again.

Take this recent PC media release (cut and pasted onto a pretend news website, as that website routinely does): http://www.northumberlandview.ca/index.php?module=news&func=display&sid=5044

Here's the substance of the media release: "Hudak outlined four key policies for the Ontario PCs: getting serious about red tape reduction; developing a comprehensive long-term infrastructure plan; treating energy policy as economic policy; giving hard working everyday families the break they deserve."

I defy anyone to prove that "getting serious about red tape reduction" means something in particular.

"Developing a comprehsive long-term infrastructure plan"...what, because the government isn't spending enough already? This is a nothing statement, especially because long-term and 4-year election cycles render the elected official's role in long-term infrastructure planning a falsehood. Such things are bureaucratic matters. The only thing an elected politician can (and should) hope to achieve is: the *cancellation* of some of the bureaucracy's long-term infrastructure plans.

"Treating energy policy as economic policy": it was the PCs who nationalized what it later called Ontario Hydro and the TTC, and it was the PCs who borrowed billions to build the nukes, but who didn't want to add that cost to the price of electricity so that consumers paid the real cost of it. We've still got over $20B in nuclear "debt retirement" charges...and the one thing that Hudak has committed to is...building more nukes (most recent quote: $26B a crack...but those prices are always grossly understated). I don't think Ontario can survive more PC "economic policy".

"Giving hard working everyday families the break they deserve". As opposed to hardly-working, one-day-per-week families? What about individuals? Why play favourites. All of us are punished by taxation, regulation, etc. We're continuing to pay the price of decades of Progressive Conservative initiatives, including:

- The Human Rights Code/Commissions/Tribunal
- The Provincial Sales Tax (now the HST)
- Rent Controls
- Penalties for opening retail stores on Christian holy days.
- the ban on private health insurance
- the government monopoly on health insurance (OHIP)
- the provincial income tax (introduced to pay for the socialized health care monopoly that the PCs brought in in 1969).
- name a socialist idea, and it was usually the PCs who introduced it.

Moreover, as a person following the fluffy-sweater example of Stephen Harper, and prefacing things with "as a father" or "as a dad", notice that Hudak ultimately is proposing to replace one "Premier Dad" with another.

If even the likes of a normally rational person like you, Publius, wants Tim Hudak's PCs to win, and to attempt to win by focussing ambiguously, equivocally, and dishonestly, "on waste" that you do not even believe exists per se, take a moment to consider why you never get the individual freedom you seek. It starts with the facts of reality, reason, and rationality (which implies honesty, as a virtue). Freedom is the logical consequence *only* of those things.

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-11-16 8:47:20 AM

Erratum: "long-term and 4-year election cycles"
should read "4-year election cycles"

Note: the four "policies" were announced *after* the PCs' policy convention. Allegedly 400 PCs worked for a weekend...and THAT was what they came up with? Shall we hand them the reigns of power?

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-11-16 8:54:03 AM


I don't think you understood my approach in the latter half of the post. I wasn't endorsing Hudak. I was simply providing an example of what kind of strategy he could use given his unprincipled nature. It was a strategic analysis, not a philosophical one. Perhaps I was not clear. Note that I wrote:

"The obvious issue would be health care, but it would be foolish to expect such reckless - and principled - bravery from Hudak."

In the conclusion I noted:

"You will no longer seem a lightweight. Barring a John Tory-style implosion, you'll be sitting in the Premier's office this time next year. Not that Ontario will be any better off as a result, but the people cheering Team Blue will be happy."

That doesn't sound like an endorsement of Hudak or the Ontario PCs.

BTW, you missed socialized dental care. George Drew proposed it during - I think - the 1943 election and then backed down.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-11-16 9:30:31 AM

Publius: In that case, fair enough, I suppose. It's just that, well, why bother providing such an entity with any advice at all? Why not, for that matter, provide the NDP with advice?

Re Drew: ah! Thank-you.

Incidentally, have you noticed a rather obvious effort, of late, to give the NDP leader coverage...more coverage than that given to Hudak, when it comes to any of the issues facing the house: HST, electricity, etc.. Somebody wants to relive 1990. God help us.

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-11-16 1:09:13 PM


I've given "advice" to Liberals, NDP and even ChiComs. It's political commentary, which includes strategic analysis. Like the way sports commentators play coach for each side in a match. it's not partisanship, it's just watching the details of the game.

I've found that once people begin to understand the "game" of politics and how they are being manipulated, it makes them more critical of political promises. When I say critical, I don't mean that they already believe politicians are honest, but they do fall for their tropes and wording, don't they?

Political consultants make a lot of money knowing what shade of blue those fluffy blue sweaters should be. As people begin to understand the sweater stuff, they begin to question the messages. It's just a starting point, but it does help.

As an example, I've meet many people who became sympathetic to free markets by watching Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The common theme in their conversation is "so that's how it works." Once you see the little man behind the curtain, the illusion is lost.

As for the increased coverage of Andrea Horwath, haven't noticed it myself. But keep in mind that two groups have a vested in interest in propping up the NDP: Their fellow travellers in the MSM and the Ontario PCs. Remember that Bill Davis' strategy in the 1970s was to help out the NDP, and so weaken the Liberals on their left-flank. Squeeze the middle.

Worked fine for him, didn't work out so well for Frank Miller, Larry Grossman or Mike Harris in 1990. Davis moved so far to the Left that people stopped being afraid of the Liberals or the socialists in the NDP. When you concede the high ground, you lose the battle in the long-term.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-11-16 7:17:47 PM

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