The Harper Government

In political communications, an objective of prominent important is framing your political opponent(s). For example, the Conservatives have seized upon Stephane Dion, just over a year ago the new leader of the opposition and crafted a public persona for the man before he had a chance to do so himself. The Conservatives introduced Canadians to Stephane Dion rather than allowing Dion to define his own leadership. Now, even when you prompt an Ottawa reporter to fill in the blank: Stephane Dion _________, the response that you’ll inevitably get is “is not a leader”. For the more Liberal-sympathetic members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery it helps if you mimic the timbre and cadence of the narrator in the now infamous ads.

One of the classic methods of defining one’s opponent is personification (either by emphasizing or diminishing its importance). In favourable media reports on a positive event, headlines will personify accomplish while when bad news happens a favourable headline writers will often spread responsibility thin. For example, if the Conservative government announced that it was to send the coast guard to rescue a sinking ship of orphans, the National Post might trumpet, “Harper acts to save children” while the Globe and Mail might report “Ottawa approves watercraft extraction”. In a situation where a negative event occurs, the favourable press might write “Ottawa spending at record level” where an unfavourable paper might publish “Harper government out of control”. Negative messengers try to personify the blame and thinly distribute the plaudits while positive messaging personifies the kudos and distributes the blame. After all, it is easy to demonize one person rather than a collective such as a party, or, even more abstract, the city where the federal government sits.

Moving along this logic, the opposition parties in the current Parliament have sought to sharpen their criticism on one focal point: Stephen Harper. Thus, they reason, it is more effective to blame “The Harper government” than “The Conservative government” or “Ottawa” (opposition MPs are part of “Ottawa” too, in the cynical and literal sense of the term/location). However, polls on the Harper and his party are showing that the Prime Minister frequently polls higher than his party; Canadians are more comfortable and warm to the concept of “Harper” than they are “Conservative”. This may be attributed to a few factors such as the transcendence of the Prime Ministership beyond the concept of party. “Harper government” may actually be a redundant phrase to some people, synonymous with “the Prime Minister’s government”. The “Harper government” is therefore somewhat inert in its effectiveness as messaging for the opposition.

The term “Conservative”, however, is a term with which people may or may not self-identify. Since it is the weaker of the two terms (Harper being the stronger), it is difficult for opposition parties to personify the negative and take advantage of this weaker brand.

The Liberal Party on the other hand has a stronger brand (the Liberal Party) than the personification of it (Stephane Dion). This plays to the Conservatives favour as they can both personify the negative and use the weaker brand at the same time to emphasize their message.

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