Where are the attack ads about Trudeau’s early election call?

In 1990, the Ontario Tories went after the Liberals with a stinky-fish ad. You’d think the federal Liberals would be getting the same treatment in 2021
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 23, 2021
Premier David Peterson (right), NDP leader Bob Rae, and Progressive Conservative leader Mike Harris (left) prior to a debate in Toronto in 1990. (Hans Deryk/CP))

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Let’s stipulate off the top that every election is different and that the campaign techniques that once worked may not necessarily work again. 

Having said that, one thing that has surprised me about the current federal-election campaign is the apparent willingness of the opposition parties to give up what seems like a huge ace in the hole they have over the Liberals. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t need to call the current election. His four-year term hadn’t expired. He hadn’t lost a confidence vote in the House. In fact, Liberals have been hard-pressed to name one thing the minority status of their government has prevented them from doing. Oh, and did we mention, we’re in the midst of a fourth wave of a global pandemic? 

Those all seemed like good reasons not to have a premature election, and polls reflected it. The largest chunk of those surveyed thought the early call was unnecessary. 

Yes, the opposition parties squawked about it for a couple of days, but since then, they’ve essentially let the issue drop, and I’m not sure why. 

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Five weeks ago, I wrote a piece outlining why all early election calls are not the same. For example, in 2000, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day dared Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to call an early election after only three years, so the Canadian public could render what Day hoped would be a harsh verdict against the Liberals. Turned out, much of the public was happy enough with Chrétien and gave him a third consecutive majority. And the early election call wasn’t an issue, because the opposition had actually asked for it. 

But a little over three decades ago, another first minister called an early election, and both the opposition and public were unhappy about it. This time, though, the Tories decided to do something about it. 

Mike Harris was the very new leader of the Ontario PC party in spring 1990. His party had no money and few candidates, and it was clear he was not going to win the provincial election that year, called for September 6. But his party did have a say in who would win the election — because it took out one of the more effective ads ever seen. 

John Laschinger ran that campaign for the PCs, and he asked well-known Republican strategist Mike Murphy for advice. Despite all the Tories’ shortcomings, Murphy told Laschinger his party was in great shape. 

Laschinger didn’t see that at all and asked for an explanation. 

“You can be truly dangerous,” the adviser said, given that the Tories had nothing to lose. 

“So I started to think about how,” Laschinger now says. “I called our agency and got them thinking about how to be dangerous. We knew people didn’t want an election.” 

ad featuring a fish wrapped in newspaper
Ad from the July 27, 1990, issue of the Globe and Mail. (Toronto Public Library/ProQuest)

Ads can be particularly effective when they speak to a nagging pre-existing concern the electorate has. In this case, the early election call definitely bugged a lot of people. 

“They’re about to call a $40 million election,” the newspaper ad intoned. “You better ask why.” 

The Tories used a picture of a fish wrapped in newspaper, conveying the impression that the early election call was a stinker. It took up a quarter of a page in the Globe and Mail on July 27, the Friday before the election call — in other words, high visibility. And it got more exposure as other media talked about it. 

The Tories were actually the third-place party at the time and had no money to run the ad again. But running it once might have done the trick. 

“The call of the early election remained as an issue throughout the campaign,” recalls Laschinger. 

In fact, unlike in this federal-election campaign, the opposition never let go of the notion that the 1990 provincial election call was unnecessary. I well remember talking to then-attorney general Ian Scott several days after the call and asking him whether he was encountering any anger at the door about it. 

“Yes,” he admitted. But, he added, he ultimately expected the Liberals to be re-elected. “After all, people are not yet ready to vote the Conservatives back in. And what are they going to do — elect the NDP?” 

Turns out, yes, that’s exactly what they did.  

I’ve always assumed political parties can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can have their leaders roll out policy platforms and talk about their plans and also buy ad time to remind people that we’re in the midst of an election that didn’t need to be called. Trudeau clearly knows there’s a danger in being seen as opportunistic in making the early call. He did not allow the words “majority government” to pass his lips even once during his campaign kickoff. 

In polling a week before Trudeau called the election, Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data found “Canadians don’t particularly want an election, but mostly won’t take umbrage at the prospect of one.” That may have been true in the first week of August.  But a nine-point Liberal lead has vanished in the campaign’s first week, and pollster Nik Nanos has referred to a “recoil effect” — that the fact of an unnecessary early election call has actually angered voters more than the theoretical prospect of one. 

The Liberals are clearly vulnerable now. The early election call seems to be part of the explanation. So where are the stinky-fish ads for 2021 that could truly cause the governing party some headaches? Why no ads pointing out that the $500 million this election will cost could purchase 167 MRI machines or 10,000 ventilators or support nearly 200,000 Canadian households with their costs of social housing? 

Beats me. 

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