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John Baird, the sharp point. (BLAIR GABLE)
John Baird, the sharp point. (BLAIR GABLE)

Jeffrey Simpson

Why these tactics? The Conservatives think they work Add to ...

When Brian Mulroney arrived in the House of Commons with his crushing Progressive Conservative majority in 1984, he was quickly confronted with a quartet of noisy, partisan Liberals dubbed the Rat Pack.

These four MPs - Brian Tobin, Sheila Copps, Don Boudria and John Nunziata - made quite a name for themselves, assaulting the Conservatives with all manner of rhetorical invective, wild charges and stunts, including Ms. Copps's disruption of a committee meeting.

Demoralized by the party's defeat, Liberals loved the Rat Pack. The quartet's tactics cheered their partisans. The news media ate up their rhetoric and, loving conflict over substance, highlighted their tactics. But they actually hurt the party over the long run, because their approach deepened the view that the party had a mean streak, lacked policy alternatives and put partisanship above all else.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party has its own rough equivalent. Call it the Frat Pack: a cluster of ministers and MPs who represent the sharp point of the party's attack machine.

Of course, what differentiates this group - led by Transport Minister John Baird, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan and Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre - from those old Liberals is that the Frat Pack is in office, rather than opposition, where overheated rhetoric and wild charges seem to go with the territory.

Despite sometimes being quite sensible (as Mr. Kenney is trying to be on citizenship, refugees and immigration), it's members of the Frat Pack who are immediately off the mark with the kind of perfervid rhetoric that goes with the Conservative communications strategy: unrelenting partisanship and obsessive control of information.

That machine - and it is a machine - has introduced new, partisan elements into Canadian politics borrowed from the United States, especially television ad campaigns against opposition leaders, and targeted campaigns, including parliamentary mailings, against opposition MPs. (Of course, nasty attack ads have been used by both major parties during election campaigns, for the sad, simple reason that they are often effective. But never before has a party unleashed them between elections.)

This machine has been effective, both in its specific negative framing of opposition MPs and in causing the Liberal opposition to fear for its own shadow lest it put forward ideas that get assaulted. You could see it at work last week, with Mr. Baird and others attacking the credibility of Richard Colvin, the civil servant who tried to alert the Canadian government to the torture awaiting Canadian Forces detainees sent to Afghan prisons.

The mugging of Mr. Colvin's reputation showed the Conservatives' underside, to their obvious immediate detriment. Any doubt that their tactics went awry disappeared on the weekend when Defence Minister Peter MacKay and other ministers began defending their record of dealing with prisoners, rather than slamming Mr. Colvin.

Yesterday, in the Commons, Mr. MacKay didn't deny anything Mr. Colvin said. Without mentioning him, the minister insisted that the military had changed its detainee policy, though months after the detainee program began. That was the reasonable side of the Conservative government, rather than what was on display the previous week.

The instinct to attack is part of a larger Conservative Party strategy that is consumed with controlling all messages as tightly as possible.

You can see this at work constantly in the behaviour of the Prime Minister, who shuts down opportunities to be questioned whenever possible and limits all exposure to circumstances that have not been meticulously scripted in advance.

Among other strategies, this involves restricting access for the media, limiting public questions and avoiding events where something unexpected might happen - unless he controls the unexpected, as in playing the piano unannounced at a National Arts Centre gala, after having denigrated galas as affairs for rich people.

Who is to say, however, that this approach to communications is not succeeding, given the Conservatives' standing in the polls? Obviously, the party in power believes this mixture of Frat Pack attack strategy and communications control is working, and is therefore unlikely to change it.

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