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Mug Shot Too Hot for Political Ads

Parties running against B.C. Liberals fear use of drunk driving photo would backfire.

Scott Deveau 16 Mar
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If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last, according to famed playwright Anton Chekhov.

In B.C. politics, Chekhov's proverbial gun is Gordon Campbell's drinking and driving mug shot. And yet, deep into the third act of the B.C. Liberals' tenure, the Grits are leading the polls, and not one of the other parties says it will pull the trigger and use the mug shot during the election.

The premier avoided resigning in 2003 after being charged with drinking and driving while on a Hawaiian vacation. After spending the night in jail, his grimacing mug shot splattered front pages across the country. And while both the Greens and the NDP demanded Campbell's resignation in the subsequent weeks, two years later, the premier's indiscretions are being treated as thing of the past. 

The BC Teachers' Federation is running the most aggressive ads against the premier so far in this election. But the ads have remained focused on the B.C. Liberals' record on education, not the premier's arrest record.

The two television ads, which while receiving criticism for being exploitative to children, have not resorted to personal attacks on the premier and fell short of using the mug shot.

According to a BCTF spokesperson the intent of the ads was to make education a determining issue in the election and using the mug shot was not even considered.

"What we're saying to our membership is, ask questions and make an informed decision," said Jinny Simms, BCTF president, who added the federation does not lend its support any party.

Negative ads and backlashes

The NDP recently distributed a pamphlet door to door that prominently featured a black and white image of Gordon Campbell's face. Green leader Adriane Carr said the image was meant to suggest the mug shot. But, the NDP refute this as the intent behind the ad.

Negative campaigns do not come naturally to Canadian elections and often end up haunting the parties that use them. 

In 1993, the federal Tories received an enormous amount of backlash for campaign ads that emphasized Jean Chretien's facial paralysis. 

In the subsequent 1997 election, the Reform party received a similar response for campaign ads that showed pictures of Chretien alongside Lucien Bouchard and other Quebec politicians with red "X"s over their faces.  The accompanying caption read, "A voice for all Canadians, not just Quebec politicians."

The ads offended more than just Quebecois voters and some argue entrenched not only the Reform party, but its subsequent Alliance and Conservative parties in the West, alienating them from eastern voters.

We're not in Kansas

The Canadian election is a different breed of animal than the ones our neighbours to the South engage in every four years. 

During the 2004 US presidential election, America and the world were once again subjected to Vietnam-era politics as the G.O.P. set up a narrative around John Kerry that would eventually lead it to his defeat. 

The Republicans labeled Kerry a "flip-flopper," used his opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars as the evidence of this, and then repeated the "flip-flop" line until Election Day. By the end, even Democrats were using the catch phrase and Kerry lost the election.

NDP spokesperson Scott Perchall said there is enough in Campbell's public record for the NDP to campaign on without resorting to personal attacks.

But NDP insiders say the reason the NDP is not using the mug shot is because the party has already conceded defeat on whether Campbell's drinking and driving conviction impinges upon his ability to lead the party. 

B.C. Liberal spin doctors turned vice into a virtue the weekend Campbell returned from Maui. By dealing with his drinking and driving conviction in such a public manner and perpetuating the idea that he had only had "one too many," the premier mitigated the outcome of his charge, NDP insiders say.

Another reason the NDP won't use the mug shot is that the divisive politics created in a negative campaign does not jibe with the image it wants to create around Carole James as a cooperative leader. The NDP is instead targeting the B.C. Liberals' broken campaign promises in the last election instead of its leader's character.

The B.C. Liberals are campaigning this year on the economy, maintaining a safe distance from their leader, who polls less favorably than the party.

What's the question?

However, if the NDP and Greens are not able to get the election focus off the economy, they have a major problem ahead of them, according to a former federal NDP candidate and Simon Fraser University public policy professor Kennedy Stewart.

"How it works with voting is you don't necessarily want to give people the answer, but the most critical thing is, you're trying to set the question they will ask themselves when they walk into the voting booth," Stewart said.

Is Gordon Campbell like what the average British Columbian would imagine themselves to be? This is the question the other parties want voters to be thinking about when they go into that booth, Stewart said.

"If this election becomes a referendum on Gordon Campbell, then the NDP will do really well, and the Greens to some extent. But if it's a referendum on the economy, then the NDP does badly," Stewart said.

However, Stewart admits highlighting the premier's conviction in Maui is different than targeting a leader's deformity or admitting a prejudice against a section of the electorate. 

He said he would not be surprised if the mug shot pops up during the election, but if it does, it will likely be from an arms-length organization like the labour unions or the environmental organizations rather than a political party.

"People always say they don't like negative advertisement, but in the end it's quite effective," Stewart said.

Patrick Smith, a SFU political science professor, agrees with Stewart, but adds negative campaigning is more of a short term solution and can often have unexpected and unwanted outcomes.

'Tired of negative'

"The evidence seems to suggest that negative ads work, but negative ads also turn voters off.  You're fighting to get people engaged in the process, but what you're doing (with negative campaigns) is creating voter cynicism for something that might be to your short term advantage," Smith said.

The Reform ads targeting Quebec politicians was a good example, Smith said.

"My sense from the (May 17 B.C.) election is that there is going to be an attempt to take the higher road," Smith said.  But he too is not willing to rule out the mug shot playing a part in the election.

But even the parties with the most to gain from using the image say they won't.

Adriane Carr, leader of the provincial Green Party, whose party is polling at around 10 per cent, said she won't use the image because she is trying to focus on campaigning positively.

"People are tired of negative campaigns," Carr said.

She added that the recent NDP pamphlet is thinly veiled attack ad.

"(The NDP) are going with negative campaigning.  I don't understand why they are not just using the mug shot, because it's a technicality.  If you've seen the latest brochure that that features an ugly picture of Gordon Campbell, it's moot that they are saying that they are not going to use the mug shot," Carr said.

Promises to MADD

Tom Morino, leader of the Democratic Reform B.C., said his party would "absolutely not" use the mug shot.

"One thing I'm not prepared to do is turn the volume up with hyperbole, insults, and the Americanization of the way in which we talk about campaigns," Morino said.

Morino admits the DRBC's lone member in the house, Elayne Brenzinger brought up the charge recently during question period. But Brenzinger kept the question focused on what the B.C. Liberals have done about their promise to Mothers Against Drunk Driving to make B.C. a leader in drunk driving reform, Morino said.

"I'm of the mind that if the man had a shred of respect for his office, he would have resigned. But I won't take part in ad hominem type arguments," Morino said. "If Mr. Campbell wants to engage in a verbal fistfight, I invite him into the parking lot of public opinion, I'll knock his block off and I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

Scott Deveau is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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