Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Conservative Adscam" A Dead-End Issue

More philosophy at heart of "in and out" scandal than actual malfeasance

In today's National Post, Don Ivison comments on the political dead end that is the Liberal party's recent reliance on the so-called "in and out" scandal in which the Conservative party is accused of violating spending limits by dressing down national advertising spending as regional advertising.

"Just Stephane Dion's luck. The Liberal leader picked the Conservatives' alleged "in and out" election spending scandal as his signature issue to attack the government. The public gave a collective yawn, apparently unconvinced Stephen Harper had "bilked taxpayers for millions of dollars," as the Liberals claim."
This particular scandal -- referred to by many Liberal partisans as "Conservative adscam" -- has, despite the Liberal party's best efforts, failed to take on the spectre of the sponsorship scandal in the public eye.

There is a reason for this, as Ivison alludes to:

"Since Parliament returned this month, the Liberals have been using Question Period to attack Conservative accounting practises during the 2006 election. It's an eye-glazingly complicated tale that has failed to gain any traction in the national media, but which boils down to the allegation that the Tories exceeded election spending limits by more than a million dollars.

A Liberal party brought low by Adscam would dearly love to uncover a Conservative corruption scandal, but this ain't it. The allegations centre on the Tories passing off national advertising costs as regional ads for local candidates. It is being looked at by the Elections Commissioner but even a cursory reading of the Elections Act suggests the line between "national" and "local" is cloaked in hodden grey.
Ivison goes on to address the recent allegations made against West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast MP Blair Wilson. We'll part at this particular fork in the road, and look at the "in and out" scandal itself.

In the end, much of the complaint regarding this particular issue seems to boil down to a differing in political philosophy, one that raises the question of whether or not the local candidates, in particular, benefited from this particular advertising.

While the Liberals would certainly insist that it didn't, the truth is that they know better.

Canadians are currently living in an era of a Consumerist democracy, wherein image often trumps substance, and branding serves as a key political tactic in virtually every campaign. To put it simply, each political party has developed a brand, much like the consumer products found on the typical store shelf. Each one espouses a core package of values, ideology, and promises that they invite consumers -- in this case, voters -- to purchase (in this case with their vote).

Each local candidate for each party benefits from the promotion of his or her party's brand, much like each individual McDonald's franchisee benefits from the larger corporation's advertising. Thus how the Conservative party, seizing on a legal loophole that defines local advertising, in rather nebulous phrasing, is that which benefits the local candidate, can insist that they're well within the straight and narrow. In the age of consumer democracy, national advertising does benefit the local candidate, particularly in a political age where -- for good or ill -- many Canadians tend to vote for parties above candidates.

Of course, the Conservative party knows it's exploiting a loophole. This portion of Elections law was clearly written with yesterday's political climate in mind, one where (in theory, at least), voters voted for individual candidates over parties.

At the same time, the Liberal party has to know full well how branding can affect the fortunes of their candidates. In Canada, they pioneered it, when they embraced John F Kennedy's image-based campaign model and applied it to Lester Pearson, and (more successfully) Pierre Trudeau.

Dion himself has attempted to benefit from image-based branding, donning Green scarves throughout his leadership campaign to underscore his overrated reputation as an environmentalist.

In this particular case, it's obvious that the letter of the law doesn't reflect the intent of the law. That's an issue that will clearly have to be resolved in Parliament.

In the meantime, Ivison offers astute insight as to why this particular tactic is proving disastrous for the Liberals:

"Mr. Dion must take the heat for this fixation of the "in and out" scam. It was raised in the House again yesterday, to the great glee of Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, who rose to answer in the Prime Minister's absence.

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings said Mr. Wilson had done the right thing by stepping aside and called for a number of ministers "implicated" in the election saga to do likewise. Hardly able to contain himself, Mr. Van Loan pointed out that the "Blairwitch" project had been well-known to the Liberal party, who only forced Mr. Wilson to resign when it became front-page news.

He then proceeded to read all the allegations into the public record, pointing out that their stark nature was a far cry from the confusing muddle of accusations levelled against various Conservatives. By this point, it was all over for Liberals, who were forced to defend the position of their leader and their member.

The whole thing makes a mockery of the parliamentary process. I know it's Question Period, not Answer Period, but surely it's not too much to expect that it is the Opposition that thrusts and the government that parries.

At the moment, the Liberals are behaving like the crack suicide squad from Monty Python's Life of Brian, who attack by impaling themselves on their own swords.
Unfortunately for Stephane Dion, not only is the "in and out" scandal not the scandal he and his party want to make it out to be, but much more serious violations have not only sunk the Liberal party's fortunes recently. Worse yet, more of the same may (or, in all fairness, may not) be yet to come.

The Liberals need to make a tactical shift. With Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton currently duelling over who can usurp him as at least the spiritual leader of the opposition, Dion is running out of thime.

But they won't find any extra time by running head-long into a dead-end... or by impaling themselves on their own swords.

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