Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Something's Rotten in the State of . . .

There is a distinct fragrance surrounding "Canada's New Government" -- and it's not the sweet smell of success. Perhaps it's simply because the government is no longer new. But the Party of Peace, Order and Righteousness is beginning to look sleazy. Even worse, it's beginning to look incompetent.

Perhaps that explains the new set of attack ads which the Tories launched this week against Stephane Dion. They come as no surprise. After all, the Conservatives rented a large bunker eighteen months ago to produce this kind of stuff. And, with no election in sight, there was a need for the operation to justify its existence.

What was surprising was the new venue -- the screens on gas pumps -- to catch the eyes of Southern Ontarians as they filled up their gas tanks. That new wrinkle speaks to the sophistication of the Conservative propaganda machine. This government may not be very good at governing; but it does know how to get out its message -- a message which is clearly meant to distract public attention from an accumulating series of failures.

The now-you-see-it-now you don't federal surplus, the Cadman Affair, the election funding investigation, the NAFTA leak during the Democratic presidential primary, the resignation of Maxime Bernier -- and the ever widening circle of government contacts which Julie Couillard cultivated -- have begun to take their toll.

In his book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich -- who writes a weekly column for The New York Times -- documents how the Bush administration sold the lie that Iraq was allied with Al Queda and about to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Every time someone from Washington's inner circle -- former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil, former terrorism czar Richard Clarke, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson -- cast doubt on the story, the White House did not attack the message. Instead, they attacked the messenger. Rich's analysis has recently been confirmed by former press secretary Scott McClellan.

The Harper government is operating from the same playbook. There is no election. In fact, Dion has not yet revealed the policy which is the target of the ads. But the ads themselves appear to be a further development of the message which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought to the Economic Club of Toronto three weeks ago: the Liberals are wide-eyed radicals who will once again plunge the country into deficit -- a strange message from a party which inherited several years of Liberal surpluses and managed to blow through them in two short years.

The playbook is not a new document. Its author was Joseph Goebels, who started from the premise that the truth of a message had nothing to do with whether or not the public bought it. Even the biggest of lies would sell -- if they were repeated often enough. Tyrannies and democracies have been operating on that principle ever since. Add to that tight control of government information, and you have what Toronto Star columnist Jim Travers calls a prime minister who is "building stone-wall defences around his own exposed flanks."

The Tory propaganda operation is impressive. But, eventually, the narrative falls apart. As Rich makes clear, that happened for the Bush administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Despite Bush's claim that "Brownie" was "doin' a heckuva job," the public -- says Rich -- remembered the old line from the Marx Brothers, "Who are you going to believe -- me or your own eyes?"

Despite the new ad campaign, recent poll numbers suggest that the public is beginning to believe its own eyes.

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