Beware the reckless Coalition!
That’s been the Conservative Party of Canada’s main message from the onset of this election.
The Conservatives believe raising the specter of a possible Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois coalition forming the next government will translate into voters opting for a “stable” Conservative majority.
In other words, the Conservatives are pinning their hopes on fear.
It’s not a bad strategy. Fear works in politics.
But, in my view, the Conservatives played the “Coalition fear card” too aggressively and too soon for maximum effectiveness.
Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was blasting the Coalition even before the writ was dropped.
On the day the House of Commons was dissolved the Conservatives sent out a news release with the headline: “Only Stephen Harper Can Deliver The Stable National Government That Canada Needs To Complete The Economic Recovery and Keep Taxes Low.” The subtitle read: “The alternative is Ignatieff’s reckless Coalition backed by the Bloc Québécois.”
In the short term, of course, this worked like a charm.
The media, which is always more interested with the “politics of politics” than with boring policy issues, eagerly latched onto the Conservative’s Coalition spin and played it up.
Thus in the opening days of the campaign, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was peppered with media questions about whether or not he would form a Coalition.
Fortunately, for the Conservatives, Ignatieff’s initial response was poor. Rather than just dismissing Harper’s Coalition stratagem as a “phony issue” designed to distract voters from the “real issues”, he opted instead to deny, deny, deny.
Going on the defensive like that is never a good idea. Consider Richard Nixon’s famous, “I am not a crook” defence.
As they say in the communications business, “when you’re denying, you’re dying.”
Plus Ignatieff’s denials about forming a Coalition were couched in terms that were just vague enough to leave room for interpretation.
More importantly nobody believed him anyway.
All this, no doubt, did make Canadians wary and fearful for a lot of reasons.
Coalition governments are not the norm in this country. Many Canadians would be uneasy about the socialist NDP having a say in running the economy. Most of all, Canadians would instinctively reject the idea of a federal government propped up by the separatist Bloc.
However, the important question is this: can the Conservatives sustain the fear of a Coalition government over a six week period?
That’s a long time in politics.
Certainly, it’s enough time for Canadians to get used to the idea of a Coalition. It’s also enough time for voters to get bored with the Conservative’s “reckless Coalition” refrain or possibly to generate a backlash.
More importantly, it’s enough time for the Liberals to figure out a way to change the channel and to go on the attack.
That’s why it would have been better for the Conservatives had they waited until say a week before Election Day to hammer away at the “Be very afraid of the Coalition” theme.
They could have blitzed the TV airwaves with ads saying things like, “Do you want Jack Layton as
Canada’s next Minister of Finance?” or “Michael Ignatieff wants the Bloc Quebecois to run !” Canada
That would have certainly stirred things up and perhaps driven undecided voters into the Tory camp.
The point is holding off your most lethal attack to the last minute works because most casual voters only start paying attention to the campaigns in the last few days before they vote.
Plus by holding off, you don’t give the opposition enough time to formulate a counter-attack.
None of this is to say the Conservatives current strategy won’t work.
But it would have worked better had they held their fire a little bit longer.