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NDP campaign targeting Jason Kenney presumes attack ads work and sometimes they're necessary

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Transportation Minister and former NDP leader Brian Mason introducing TheTruthAboutJasonKenney.ca yesterday (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

One of the enduring myths of our era is that Albertans (or Canadians, or whomever) don't like negative political advertising, and therefore that political attack ads won't work here.

Now that Alberta's New Democratic Party has published a website attacking Opposition Leader Jason Kenney's record as a federal Conservative MP, cabinet minster and lifelong social conservative activist, with digital advertising spots on the same theme, we are bound to hear that notion repeated a lot.

"Mr. Kenney has spent his entire public life trying to impose his personal beliefs on people," Transportation Minister and former NDP leader Brian Mason told a news conference called by the party in an Edmonton hotel yesterday afternoon to introduce the website and campaign.

"He has bragged about his work to stop same-sex couples from visiting their dying loved ones in hospital, and he has described his efforts in Ottawa to restrict women's reproductive rights his 'most distinct privilege,'" said Mason.

Within minutes, plenty of people on social media -- not all of them supporters of Kenney's party -- were grumping about the negativity inherent in what the NDP news release called the "detailed and fact-based account of Mr. Kenney's long career as a politician who works against the interests of everyday people, choosing instead to serve anti-abortion activists, anti-LGBTQ groups and other special interests."

You can judge for yourself by visiting TheTruthAboutJasonKenney.ca. There are footnotes -- well, hyperlinks, which are the footnotes of the internet era -- so the NDP can say they've backed up everything they say with verifiable facts.

As to the notion that political attack advertising won't work in Canada because Canadians don't like it, that is far less certain. The record of political negativity, as they say, is ambiguous, but the prevalence of negative advertising in places a lot like our Alberta is not.

According to Oxford Research Encyclopedias, while only 10 per cent of the advertisements aired during the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign went negative, in 2012 only about 14 per cent did not! There's a reason for that and the reason is they work.

In other words, the prevailing wisdom contains a kernel of truth -- most folks don't much like negative political advertising -- but you simply cannot conclude from that they aren't effective. Their prevalence in U.S. politics, their growing influence in Canada, and their arrival in Alberta 11 years ago prove they do.

From Democrat Lyndon Johnson's apocalyptic "Daisy" ad in 1964 attacking Republican Barry Goldwater, to Republican George H.W. Bush's unsavoury "Willie Horton" spot in 1988 attacking Democrat Michael Dukakis, to Conservative Stephen Harper's successful effort in 2009 to plant the thought the brainy Liberal Michael Ignatieff was "just visiting," done right, they get results.

There's another piece of conventional wisdom that attack ads that mock a politician's appearance or circumstances will flop, but those that attack a politician's record are more likely to succeed. Having watched U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign, it's hard to feel confident even that is still true. If that's the case, though, the NDP's Truth-About-Jason campaign is safely on the side of the political angels.

Of course, no matter how good an attack ad is, such campaigns are not a silver bullet that can wipe out a 20 per cent lead in the polls. For that to happen, the leading politician has to meet his or her opponent halfway, as did the hapless B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix in 2013 when he countered then premier Christy Clark's attack ads with sunshine and bumbling.

Despite Kenney's dismissive response yesterday, I don't think the Alberta NDP can count on the United Conservative Party to stick to the high road the way Dix did in the event the NDP campaign starts to get traction.

The UCP cleverly announced some campaign finance proposals yesterday to distract from Mason's presser. Ideas like a ban on MLAs crossing the floor of the legislature, bound to appeal to the UCP's red-meat Wildrose Party base, are pretty blatantly unconstitutional, but we'll deal with them in more detail another day.

In the meantime, the NDP's duly footnoted truths about Kenney do provide an opportunity for Albertans to compare him less than favourably with Premier Rachel Notley, who personally polls more positively than Kenney does.

"Given that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour," Mason said yesterday, "Albertans deserve to know these and other truths about Mr. Kenney before they choose their next premier."

"Mr. Kenney cares about privatizing health care, chipping away at women's rights, and giving the richest 1 per cent of Albertans a tax cut they don't need," he said. "Rachel Notley cares about defending our hospitals, diversifying the economy, and treating every Albertan with dignity and respect."

Mason will retire from his long career in Alberta politics after the election expected to be called any day now. If there's any backsplash from the negativity unveiled yesterday, I doubt if the old New Democrat warhorse will much care if any of it lands on him.

Call it the realpolitik of real politics: Attack ads work, and sometimes they're necessary.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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