07/10/2012 03:43 EDT | Updated 09/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Conservative ads targeting Mulcair spur NDP to respond with anti-Harper attack

OTTAWA - "What's Stephen Harper's solution?"

Attack ads, it would seem, judging by a pair of new online offerings released Tuesday by the federal New Democrats.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Conservatives should take heart that the NDP is adopting their playbook.

New NDP ads in English and French, posted on the party website, go after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's economic record, complete with ominous drumbeats and unflattering, black-and-white photos — stock material for negative political ads everywhere.

The NDP ad accuses Harper of presiding over the worst recession "in a generation."

"What's Stephen Harper's solution?" intones the female voice. "Attack the most vulnerable Canadians when they are most in need."

As examples, the ad points to changes to employment insurance and the pension system.

The official Opposition hit back after the Conservatives finally unleashed a summer ad campaign late last month targeting NDP Leader Tom Mulcair with accusations of reckless economic policies.

Political attack ads were once rare in Canada between elections, but the Harper Conservatives have used them extensively to help define their adversaries.

Liberals Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae all received the Tory treatment, so many pundits were surprised when a Conservative barrage did not materialize in March, immediately after New Democrats chose Mulcair as leader.

But the Tory anti-Mulcair ads finally started airing in late June, and New Democrats are responding. The ads were emailed to party supporters Tuesday and posted on the NDP website, but it is not clear whether the party will actually pay to broadcast them anywhere.

"We are not prepared to share the specifics of our advertising strategy; however, our objective is to reach out to a maximum (number) of Canadians," NDP spokeswoman Chantal Vallerand said in an email.

In the summer news doldrums, that's not a bad plan, said Chris Waddell, the Carty Chair in Business and Financial Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"Everybody seems to have learned the strategy that maybe you don't even put the ads out, you just tell the media ... and everybody will write about them and give you free publicity," Waddell said.

Political communications expert Jonathan Rose of Queen's University said the NDP ads are a good way to drum up interest and motivate the party base.

"It's always an attempt to continue to re-frame Harper, and this is just an attempt to reinforce the message and also keep the base active and aware of what the key issues are."

The Conservatives are gradually ending the per-vote party subsidy that was brought in under the Liberals to make up for restrictions on corporate and large individual donations. That's putting greater emphasis on political parties motivating their bases year-round to keep the cash flowing.

The new NDP ads, like the earlier anti-Mulcair ads by the Conservatives, fit the bill.

"The production values are pretty low," Rose said Tuesday after seeing the NDP ad online. "They're cheap to do, so they're easy to put up. So why not now?"