Attack ads on simmer: Manitoba election campaign more about issues than scandal

WINNIPEG — With one party leader getting into trouble over his tropical vacation home and another with past criminal convictions and misogynistic writings, there’s a lot of material for a negative Manitoba election campaign.

But halfway through the four-week campaign, party advertising has not been overly negative.

“They might be saving it,” says Royce Koop, head of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

Long before Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister called the election for Sept. 10, the Opposition New Democrats consistently attacked Pallister over his vacation villa in Costa Rica, where he at one point planned to spend up to two months a year. Pallister also failed to pay a Costa Rica tax on luxury properties until recently because he had not kept his property assessment up to date.

Following regular attacks in the legislature, the New Democrats held a fundraising raffle. The winner got a Costa Rica vacation.

On the campaign trail, however, the New Democrats have been tightly focused on public services, especially Pallister’s ongoing reforms to health care that have seen some hospital emergency departments downgraded.

Their one, very marked exception is two recent ads in which actors appear to call Pallister an “ass,” although the last two letters are drowned out by traffic noise.

“We don’t want to make it personal about Brian Pallister. We want to make it about what he’s done,” says Bob Dewar, the NDP’s campaign director who also ran the party’s efforts in 1999 and 2003 under Gary Doer. Most recently, he directed John Horgan’s win in British Columbia.

People on doorsteps already know about Pallister’s Costa Rica issues, Dewar said. The messaging now is about front-line programs.

“When (people) sit around their kitchen tables and their living rooms and talk to each other, they’re talking about things that matter in their lives. And health care is one of them and we want to make sure we’re talking about that.”

Pallister’s Tories have been running some negative ads on Kinew, mainly about a domestic assault charge against him that was stayed by the Crown and an assault conviction for which he has received a record suspension.

But the advertising has been small-scale for a party with over $1 million in the bank — five times what the New Democrats have, according to the latest financial filings with Elections Manitoba.

The Tories have run professionally produced, positive ads focusing on Pallister’s personal history — his rise from poverty and entry into politics. Most of the attacks on Kinew have been low-budget web videos or graphics on a website.

The Tories’ campaign director, David McLaughlin, hinted that advertising efforts from all parties may be on simmer until later in the campaign, especially with people on summer holidays.

“In terms of advertising resources and campaign marketing resources, there’s clearly, in election campaigns, more propensity to decide in the latter half of the campaign,” McLaughlin said.

“In the context of Mr. Kinew, we haven’t been silent on it. It’s been out there, but we’ll see what’s required, as people pay attention and start to ask some questions.”

Kinew has a lot of potential target material, some of which he was up front about in his 2015 memoir. He was convicted of impaired driving and assaulting a taxi driver — matters for which he has since received record suspensions.

But Kinew’s book did not include some disturbing facts contained in the court record about the latter conviction — the incident started with Kinew uttering racial epithets at the driver. The book also did not reveal an accusation from a former girlfriend of domestic assault, which was stayed by the Crown several months after she went to police and the charge was laid.

There were also misogynistic and homophobic rap lyrics and social media posts Kinew made, including a lyric in which he bragged about slapping women’s genitalia and a Twitter post in which he asked if he could catch avian flu from “kissing fat chicks.”

There can be a risk for the Tories in going too negative and facing a potential backlash from voters, Koop said.

But the party may be also be feeling comfortable with their current public support. Polls this year have consistently suggested the Progressive Conservatives have a substantial lead on the NDP, although the race is tight in vote-rich Winnipeg.

“It might be that the Tories feel from their polling that they don’t really need to use (negative advertising) as intensely as they thought they did,” Koop said.

“And the NDP might be finding that it doesn’t really help them that much to go after Pallister.”

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