Goodale reflects on 'political carpet-bombing' in election campaign

A third-party campaign, designed in Regina, Sask. focused on attacking Liberal politicians leading up to the federal election. A political scientist says the seemingly successful campaign could inspire similar tactics in the future.

Long-time MP was targeted by billboard, social media campaigns

A billboard bearing images of long-time Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
These billboards popped up around Regina in the spring and were part of a multi-province ad campaign aimed at Liberal MPs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Marie-Christine Bouillon/Radio-Canada)

​Billboards featuring Ralph Goodale and Justin Trudeau loomed over potential voters in Regina as the federal election neared. 

"Send Trudeau a message: Vote out Ralph Goodale," ​the message advised. It was a campaign brought to the people by the third-party advertiser Canada Growth Council (CGC.) 

Goodale said the campaign was effective for the opposition.  

"It made the atmosphere rather toxic, so that as you were responding to issues or answering questions it was very difficult to have a rational, comprehensive conversation," Goodale said during an interview with CBC's Chris Hall, host of CBC Radio's The House.

That's certainly something that you see and in a lot of American political discourse.- Loleen Berdahl, U of S head of political studies

"That was kind of political carpet-bombing through the course of the election campaign and just before the election campaign."

Alongside the billboard, social media ads and postcards called Goodale "desperate." They stated that he "used to be Regina's reliable voice; now he's just Trudeau's chief apologist."

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Conservative Michael Kram won the riding by more than 7,000 votes. It had been Goodale's for the 26 years prior.

Goodale said what matters now is exploring how the government can "address the issues that created the circumstances for that carpet-bombing in the first place." 

'Less savoury work for politicians'

The success of this focused attack in the west could inspire more third-party groups to embrace individual attacks and negative campaigning, said Loleen Berdahl, who is head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. 

"We're seeing a very big shift toward negative emotion: fear, anger, frustration," she said.

Berdahl said it's important people understand the link between third-party groups and formal political parties, especially if more groups embracing these tactics pop up.

"What we don't want to have happen is these groups emerging that are essentially doing some of the less savoury work of political parties," she said. 

"That's certainly something that you see and in a lot of American political discourse." 

The WestWatch campaign focused on messaging about Goodale being unreliable and a figure who sold out Regina. (WestWatch)

The CGC's three directors all have ties to the Saskatchewan Party. Eric Clark is a former party board member, Tyler Willox was the party's largest single donor in 2018 and Robinson worked in former Premier Brad Wall's office. 

Stan Grad, a member of the right-of-centre Buffalo Project, created with the help of Wall, donated at least $5,000 to the campaign. 

The CGC third-party campaign raised at least $290,000 and is required to report final numbers to Elections Canada within four months. 

'It works'

"Everybody says they hate negative campaigning, but the reason that we have it and the reason that we see it increasing over time, is that it works," Berdahl said. 

"People don't have the time or the inclination to fact-check everything that crosses their screens or … that they hear, and these things do filter in." 

In fact, repetitive messaging is more likely to stick with people, said Gordon Pennycook, a University of Regina cognitive psychologist and assistant professor who studies messaging and disinformation.

"The more we see something the easier it is for us to just process," he said. 

Third-party advertiser Canada Growth Council moved their campaign beyond Saskatchewan, putting up billboards in Alberta. (Colin Hall/CBC)

"Even a single prior exposure to false or fake news headline magazine that got a single prior exposure increases later belief in the headline."

Berdahl said that people should speak up if negative campaigning doesn't resonate. 

"They need to be voicing that to politicians," she said. "That they expect leadership in terms of presenting a positive vision." 

Focused on individuals 

Berdahl said individual attacks — or the "uglier edge" of politics — create challenges when it comes to focusing political discourse on ideas and moving forward. 

It's also an approach not often used by third parties in Canada, she said. 

"The approach is focused on individual politicians as opposed to policy issues or policy positioning"  said Berdahl.

She added that unions, or other business organizations, focus on positions: "don't privatize the Crowns," for example.

CGC spokesperson Derek Robinson initially declined to comment about the success of the campaign to oust Goodale, or the future of the CGC. He later submitted a written statement to CBC. 

A western disconnect 

The campaign was successful, but it wasn't the only reason Goodale lost as blue swept over Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Political scientists say a big drive of the Conservative sweep was because of negative emotions toward Justin Trudeau and a passionate desire for pipelines.

Goodale said the Liberals must work diligently to hear Western Canada and resonate with the people. 

"There's obviously been a disconnect of very significant proportions," he said, adding they must invest in making sure that is corrected.

"It's not healthy for the country to have a major national political party without elected representation across one region of the country."

With Goodale out, Saskatchewan and Alberta are left without cabinet representation in the House of Commons. 

Missing representation on the prairies 

"I would hope that we can come up with a creative way that will ensure those voices are there," he said. 

"The more important thing will be getting to the issues that need to be addressed and demonstrating by the solutions that we come up with to the issues that Western Canada is having impact and being listened to and being responded to appropriately."

Liberal Regina-Wascana candidate Ralph Goodale greets a room full of supporters on Oct. 21, 2019 in Regina. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

On election night, CGC spokesperson Robinson said in an interview with Global Regina that Saskatchewan's lack of representation "is a problem in some ways," but would "present an opportunity for real meaningful change." 

In a written statement, he later added that voting Goodale out "was the strongest democratic message Alberta and Saskatchewan could send because the Liberal government wasn't listening to the concerns of the West."

The comment made in the interview generated criticism on social media.

"Now​, ​even some of the people who created that campaign are going ​'​oh, wait a minute​, no​w we don't have anybody at cabinet​,'" ​said Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan​.

"That's the kind of thought leadership that was lacking and I think those people need to be called to task for it." 

He said losing Goodale as an "ambassador" for the province is significant. 

Block voting can be problematic 

Berdahl said it's possible the Canada Growth Council acted under the assumption that the Conservatives would win and may not have considered that Saskatchewan would be left voiceless if the Liberals won. 

She noted that she can't speak for the campaign or its devisers — but she said that anytime there is a party sweep in a province that doesn't align with the winning government is problematic. 

A portrait of a man in a T-shirt, smiling.
Derek Robinson is the spokesperson for Canada Growth Council (CGC), a non-profit Political Action Committee (PAC) incorporated in January and based in Regina. It launched the WestWatch campaign in the spring in Saskatchewan. (Derek Robinson/Facebook)

"There's risks — not just with this campaign — but with block voting overall," she said. 

"Usually the best spokesperson for an area is someone from the area — who really knows what it's like living there, who has a connection with the people living there."   

Hear Ralph Goodale's full interview with Chris Hall on The House on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 9 a.m. CST. Listen live online here.

With files from CBC Radio's Chris Hall, host of The House