Narratives on the offence (and the defence)

By: Sandford BorinsAn election campaign is about disrupting and destroying your opponent's narrative just as much as it is about communicating your own narrative. How will this play out in the Ontario election campaign?The Liberals will attempt to show that John Tory really stands for the hard core common sense revolution values of the Harris-Eves government. The Ontario Young Liberals have a video on their Web site showing Tory morphing into Mike Harris. My local Liberal candidate is distributing a flyer comparing the Liberal record with the Tory record – a clever way of linking John Tory's eponym with Mike Harris's record.If you go deep into the Ontario PC party Web site under party history, you'll find this statement about the Harris government: “Its achievements include welfare reform, health care restructuring, major reductions in public spending and more efficient government.” Picture an ad that starts: “Here's what John Tory thinks about the Harris government,” then quotes the statement, then asks rhetorically, “Is this your vision for the future?”How does John Tory respond? Does he attempt to distance himself from the Harris record by saying explicitly that he would be a different kind of Conservative, or does he ignore the attacks and try to change the subject? We'll soon know.The Conservatives will attack the Liberals for perceived corruption, such as the slipshod distribution of grants by the Ministry of Citizenship of Immigration that led to Minister Mike Colle's recent resignation. They will also focus on broken promises, for example McGuinty's promises not to raise taxes, to shut down coal-burning power plants by 2007, and to roll back Highway 407 toll increases. For the grants, McGuinty will say that we've fixed the problem, and will do better in the future.As he makes clear in his answers to questions about broken promises on his Web site, he'll shift the blame to either the Harris-Eves government (the inherited $5 billion deficit, the Highway 407 contract it signed) or the difficult external environment.For McGuinty, the issue will be credibility. Will voters believe his rationalizations, or will they decide he cannot be trusted?Ultimately, attacks are about building a negative image of your opponent – particularly the party leader. To an extent they can be parried, but not completely. McGuinty must live with his record. Tory needs the votes of the hard core Conservatives.As the campaign gathers steam after Labour Day, watch for the attacks. The parties will be polling and doing focus groups to see if the attacks are working. A party whose own campaign is sputtering (for example, the federal Liberals in 2004 and 2006) will step up the intensity of its attacks as the election comes down to the wire.One measure of intensity is whether the attacks are done through proxies (for example interest group or single issue Web sites) or directly, for example on the party home page and in the leader's speeches and in the leader's debate.I'll be at a conference next week, so I'll pick up the narrative after Labour Day.

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