January 20, 2006

By David Warren

Perhaps you might say winning a majority is the Conservative Party’s “secret agenda”. They have been trained not to talk about that, because it would make them sound arrogant. It was a mistake they made in the last election, compounded by the unusual behaviour of their leader in that campaign’s final days. With about three dozen close seats that could still be won in Ontario, he went on an absurd victory lap around Alberta. A third catastrophic mistake was, not responding effectively to last-minute Liberal smears. Add these errors together, and a Conservative Party on the verge of government threw its victory away.

The 2006 campaign has gone so well for the Tories, and so poorly for the Grits, that I am inclined to congratulate Mr Harper on his learning abilities. But they account for only part of his success; he has benefited mostly from developments beyond him.

Five days left, and the Conservatives have still escaped being mugged again. We should assume the Liberals may still have better smears coming than the ones they tried last week; and Conservatives should assume they are planning to unload them on the very eve of the election, in the hope that any rebuttal will come too late.

This is a device the Democrats tried in the last couple of U.S. elections. It backfired for them, however, for they failed to anticipate the speed at which Internet blogs can now expose any stunt that relies upon a lie or imposture. And the Democrats had the advantage of attacking a sitting government, with a public record to defend; our Liberals have no such luck against their long-out-of-power opposition.

It appears that last week’s “record low” blows from the Grits did not work. They did not arrest Tory gains, which accelerated, especially in Quebec, where the worst of the Grit ads were running. I doubt they were completely ineffective, however. I suspect the polls concealed a crossover, as people who were frightened by the ads, into abandoning their flirtation with the Tories, were outnumbered by others revolted by the ads, and driven into their arms. At the end of the exchange, the Conservatives were left with both more, and more committed, supporters; the Liberals with both fewer, and less committed.

What I think the Liberals failed to anticipate up here, like the Democrats down there, was a development that may well prove the antidote to smear advertising over the longer run. For this is the Canadian election in which our “blogosphere” came of age. Sites such as Small Dead Animals, Angry in the GWN, the Shotgun, Andrew Coyne.com, Relapsed Catholic, and many others, respond to events almost instantaneously. Then, “news aggregators” such as Nealenews and Bourque direct readers quickly to the latest memes. Things that would have taken a week to unfold in the old media, now break over breakfast and are resolved by noon; and an hysterical smear ad is being mocked and parodied, long before the evening news.

It should also be said that the Canadian mainstream media are being transformed, I think largely by their own timid entry into the web, and by reporters’ access to new information they are finding therein. Though also because, at a certain point, our mainstream journalists decided they had had enough patronizing from Paul Martin’s cocky and arrogant backroom braggarts. This process being itself enhanced by the power of email, to make people on the front line in alien territory feel that they are not alone. Email can remind the boy who says the emperor has no clothes the knowledge that others think so, too.

In short, the Internet has broken the stranglehold the Liberal Party had over sympathetic media, and created an information environment in which you had better be darned sure what you are saying is the strict truth, because there’s an army of fact-checkers out there. Moreover, an army that cannot easily be intimidated by off-the-record threats from Party lawyers, or made to desist by peer pressure. For even when (as we saw in the delayed release of Gomery testimony) a legal ban on publication can be obtained, the information simply passes through electronic space across the border, and we can all read the banned material on such sites as Captain’s Quarters from the USA.

The Internet has also brought a new class of people into politics -- I would almost say a new generation who aren’t accustomed to the old rules. We will look at the longer-term implications another day.

For the moment, to put it nicely, the same thing has happened to the Liberals in Canada, as has happened to other long-serving single-party regimes elsewhere in the world. Technology has caught up with their ability to manage information; and a sheltered population is losing its fear. The more the ruling party tries to scare them, with heavy-handed old-media campaigns, the worse things get -- for the ruling party.

Copyright 2006 Ottawa Citizen

David Warren

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