Liberals have to fight back, hard

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The Conservatives have already started their pre-election communications strategy and are well-funded to keep it going. If the government wants to remain in the game, it needs to get in the game.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 11, 2023.

OTTAWA—P.T. Barnum once said that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Oscar Wilde followed suit with this zinger: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre followed Barnum’s advice by vowing to bring in thousands of amendments to legislation until the Liberals change some elements of their pollution pricing strategy.

Poilievre didn’t call it “pollution pricing,” but rather “carbon tax,” which is how most Canadians seem to be viewing the issue.

Government House Leader Karina Gould was quick to repudiate Poilievre’s tactic, accusing him of being a bully, and “not a serious politician.”

She also pointed out that Canadians earning less than $50,000 are actually receiving more in their pockets because carbon pricing includes personal rebates.

Poilievre seems to be winning the ground war, and has not been damaged by his bully tactics on parliamentary bills.

Most Canadians are not watching the machinations of Parliament on a daily basis, but they are feeling the pinch of inflation, and a hike in cost for basics like food and housing.

On the housing front, Poilievre dominated the headlines again, for good or for bad.

He released a 15-minute docudrama on housing which was widely quoted by pundits in both positive and negative news columns.

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason called the video “a dime-store analysis of our housing crisis.”

Globe columnist Andrew Coyne, on the contrary, called it, “extremely impressive. Simplistic, tendentious, conspiratorial in places, but by the standards of most political discourse, it is a PhD thesis.”

The video had legs. Within days of its posting, the docudrama had received more than three million views.

That compares with a prime ministerial upload the same day that received fewer than 100,000 views.

Liberal Housing Minister Sean Fraser joked that the Poilievre video got multiple views because of the opposition leader dialling in to watch himself perform.

Anyone can manipulate social media to inflate the number of views.

But the fact that the video occupied so much ink in mainstream media means that Poilievre was getting out his message.

The media and positive polling numbers have emboldened the Conservatives in the House of Commons.

Last week, one member was bounced out of the place for accusing the prime minister of lying on the carbon tax issue.

Alberta MP Damien Kurek ignored repeated invitations from the Speaker to withdraw his comments and was drummed out. Kurek almost immediately posted his exchange from the House on Twitter.

Meanwhile, a journalist for social media Insight has used the incident as a fundraising measure, inviting people who support Kurek to assist by sending money to a media PayPal account.

But this is no ordinary media strategy. Instead, Poilievre and the Conservatives plan to use every social media platform to promote their positions.

On these platforms there is no real rebuttal, so it doesn’t matter much that a number of statements in Poilievre’s housing video were simply false.

To follow the Barnum school of promotion, simply getting out the message on multiple platforms helps reinforce Poilievre’s status.

Screaming matches in the House of Commons are intended to reinforce the Conservative message that the carbon tax needs to be axed.

Liberals have some great talking points to deflate the video, but talking points will not carry this day.

Instead, they need to get serious on social media, attacking the falsehoods that are being perpetrated by Poilievre.

Fraser issued his own video in rebuttal to Poilievre’s housing claims.

But he is a single actor in the parliamentary story. Instead, the government needs to spend as much effort on rebuttals as it does on its own positive announcements.

As long as Canadians are talking about carbon tax and not a price on pollution, it is pretty simple to see who is winning this public relations battle.

But that doesn’t necessarily equate to winning the war.

A hard-hitting rebuttal to the “dime-store” housing analysis needs to come from the Liberals, and it needs to involve social media saturation and paid media messaging.

The Conservatives have already started their pre-election communications strategy, and by all accounts, are well-funded to keep it going.

If the government wants to remain in the game, it needs to get in the game.

Any winning team needs a defensive and an offensive strategy.

By leaving the offence to Poilievre, Liberals look defensive. Only by going into attack mode will they win.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.