Getting caught up in the syntax

Yesterday, I wrote a post with some general musings about political communications and how it complements politics and the public policy process.  In short, I argued that when one criticizes the method by which another releases news instead of the substance of the news itself, it’s already a lost battle.

The example I brought up yesterday was Ontario Premier Dalton’s McGuinty’s unsurprising leak of Ontario’s budget shortfall projecting an $18 Billion deficit over two years.  I suggested that we would be more productive debating how we got to this fiscal position and how to remedy it whereas the cheap and easy solution is to criticize the communications strategy of the leak (as the federal Liberals did when the Conservatives did this with the federal budget).

Today’s example is this business about the seal hunt and federal fisheries minister Gail Shea’s use of ministerial resources to put out partisan messaging.  The substance of the message is the suggestion that Liberals are against the seal hunt.  To be against the seal hunt may bring nugatious satisfaction to urban-dwelling self-styled sophisticates who would croak that such an industry is “dreadful” and “appalling” while it is the causus belli of the constituents of a block of Altantic ridings.  Even Stephane Dion recognized the political disaster that would come from speaking out against the hunt.  But the Liberals are not wisely measuring the risk of their latest moves against the Conservatives on the peripherals of this issue.

Yes, Gail Shea’s office made a mistake but it is perhaps a larger – yet characteristically instinctive – mistake for Liberals to criticize the method when by doing so they force wider the path to highlight the substance of the release.  While Ottawa people get caught up in the fact that Stephen Harper’s minister didn’t dot her i’s and cross her t’s in the proper and polite procedural fashion, the real folks in Atlantic Canada look right past the syntax snafu and have another news cycle to consider that the folks in Ottawa that may be taking away their livelihood and according to this “press release scandal” those folks are Liberals!

For the Liberals, this is a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees or in this case the seal hunt for the jobs.  Instead, they’re getting caught up in the syntax of it all.

Politics is at times a sport, but should always be a serious business

Yesterday, Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan ‘leaked’ the news that Ontario would see a budget deficit of $18 Billion over the next two years.

We’ve been hearing hints of an Ontario deficit for a little while now. Of course, this is a communications strategy for mitigating bad news.

Just as the federal Conservatives did prior to the release of their own budget, PMO director of communication Kory Teneycke passed on the detail that the budget would be projecting deficit.

Strip the bad from the budget day headline and frontload some tax cuts and the other ‘silver lining’ elements on the day of the budget announcement. By that time, deficits are yesterday’s news and the media is biased towards reporting what’s new.

The federal Liberals protested when their Blue friends on the government benches did just over one month ago, while their provincial cousins are doing the same thing. Provincial Conservatives should avoid the same temptation.

Communications is necessary to move dry, plain or just ugly policy through the emotional and human crucible of the public forum. However, to burn at communications as a method instead of policy as substance is often too easy and while it may produce a bright flash, the flame is short and does nothing to get at the essence of debate.

We should not, however, dismiss real debate and positioning on issues. Some bemoan that politicians are ‘playing politics’ at a time of economic crisis. But, politics is getting to the core of an issue and at the methods by which it should be addressed. Let’s get past the bright flash and get down to it.

Tories targeting Ottawa-Centre

I live in downtown Ottawa in the riding of Ottawa-Centre. The riding itself is a special one as it is populated by the workers the keep the gears turning of the very government that all Canadians voters elect. My neighbours are staffers from each federal political party (Bloc staffers know the rent is cheaper in Gatineau), bureaucrats, journalists and you wouldn’t even know the riding has any NDP inclination until you find Bank st.

Despite this, Ottawa-Centre will be a battleground during the next federal election. In recent history, the riding has been held by all three political parties (the PCs won it in 1979). While the Conservative candidate Keith Fountain lost by some 9,000 votes during the last election, he and the Green Party candidate David Chernushenko were the two major candidates that were able to raise their respective parties’ vote share while Dipper Paul Dewar (the current MP) and then-Liberal candidate Richard Mahoney lost overall party vote share from the previous 2004 election.

Six ten-percenters from the Conservatives

For the Conservatives, the strategy to win this riding would require splitting the vote among NDP-Green voters and demoralizing/converting Liberal votes. The current nominee of the Conservative Party Brian McGarry has good name recognition in the riding as his family have been prominent small-business owners in the riding for some time. The combination of the right factors and McGarry’s candidacy may just allow the Tories to challenge and win in the riding.

A key strategic element of the Conservative push in this riding has been effective use of ten-percenters. Since January, I have received not one but six of these mailings from this House of Commons program.

The Liberals have been railing against the Conservatives for sending out these partisan (perish the thought!) mailings from their House of Commons research group. As a party in perpetual opposition, the NDP has been quietly onside with the Conservatives in sending out these mailings as opposition parties (such as Conservatives themselves and their legacy parties) have needed to innovate in order to get their message out since traditional mainstream channels tend to project and focus upon the government’s message (or information about the government) as that which is newsworthy.

As I’ve received six of these ten-percenters since January, I imagine that Ottawa Centre is a target riding. This is compounded by the fact that other MPs from other ridings are legally using their ten-percenter quota to blanket this riding with information about the Conservative government’s agenda.

I do think that the messaging could be even more specific and strategic in this riding. Conservative ten-percenters in Ottawa Centre should question the NDP’s commitment to the environment and rhetorically ask who will keep Canada along the proper environmental path. If the Conservatives are not going to get left wing votes in Ottawa Centre, they should make sure that these votes are going into the most advantageous column. To win the riding, Conservatives need to challenge the NDP and get their base to move green. To best the Liberal voting total in Ottawa Centre, Conservatives need to do as they are doing elsewhere in the country; an effective Conservative campaign will not so much win on converting ardent Liberal partisans but rather by demoralizing them and have them ponder why they should get and and vote for a so-called leader that will not stand in the House of Commons and vote for them.

Strategy in a nutshell

Now that Stephane Dion has indicated that he won’t force an election before the fall, it might be a good time to look at the overall strategies of the four federal party leaders as Parliament winds down into the last days of the spring sitting before summer break.

Stephen Harper’s strategy is as it has been since Dion became leader of the Liberal party but has become much more evident with the Conservative leader’s latest chess moves. The Prime Minister aims to demoralize Liberals both partisan and reluctant. By making Stephane Dion eat the Harper secret agenda and ask for seconds rather than go to an election, the PM is showing Liberals that their leader is more interested in survival than in standing for principled positions. Just a few of the major capitulations by poor Stephane to mean Stephen have been the Liberal leader’s support of the extension of the Afghan mission to 2011, the wholesale Liberal surrender on the Conservative immigration bill and now, as we may still see, the reluctant and red-faced approval bill C-10 (it might as well be called the McVety bill to the Liberal base, but to Stephane Dion, it’s five minutes of oxygen). Stephen Harper wants to allow Jack Layton to rhetorically ask which party will stand up to the Conservative agenda.

Gilles Duceppe for some reason has indicated that he wants to go to an election. Perhaps he just wants to finally retire from politics. Duceppe stands to gain from having the House sit for some time longer as the Prime Minister’s branding of the Quebecois as a nation has not only taken fertile soil but has put down roots for Harper in the province inhabited by the nation. The damage is already done for the Bloc on this issue and Duceppe’s hope should be to tap into potential future RCMP and/or Elections Canada embarrassments for both the Conservatives (in-and-out) and the Liberals (on Adscam and Dion’s debt). This will allow Duceppe to point to the only other viable options in Quebec and say that those federalists are all the same. For a party that has no purpose left in Ottawa but to ensure the continued growth of their federal pensions, scandal seems like a better option for BQ sustainability than defense of Quebec’s non-interest in sovereignty.

Stephane Dion’s strategy has and will continue to be survival. The Liberal leader finds it more critical to parry the daggers at his back rather than thrust towards Stephen Harper across the House divide. The beleaguered Liberal leader would rather pass Stephen Harper’s agenda than face his own party. Therefore, the strategy that Dion will continue to employ is his threatening of the government and his insistence that everyone stands at the precipice of election. However, the threat is really meant for his own party as they cannot dispose of Dion so close to a potential campaign that Harper stands to win big if the Liberal party is left without, well, a leader. If Dion were to say that he will only cause the government to collapse after one year, senior party officials and those with ambitions on leadership would see such a window as a perfect opportunity to safely dispose of Dion. When Dion threatens election, he is only holding off those Liberals that are balancing the dispatch of Dion and the worser option of a (significantly more) disastrous election causing a potential Harper majority, with a faulty campaign led by the man that says it could happen any day (it really is Dion’s last refuge).

Jack Layton is probably rubbing his hands gleefully at thought of being the party of principle of the left that can be seen to oppose Harper. Ironically, this is being done as Layton effectively works with the Prime Minister to destroy any semblance of Liberal identity as liking the colour red and Gerard Kennedy’s taste in eyewear may not be enough to sustain party support under Dion’s leadership. The likes of Buzz Hargrove and Maude Barlow will carry less weight if they encourage NDP supporters to Stop Harper by voting Liberal. Indeed, the voting record shows that even when Dion is in the position to stop the Prime Minister’s agenda, he would rather make his stand defending Stornoway from the growing number of Liberal invaders. Jack Layton’s strategy is to play Harper’s game but he cannot do so too visibly without alienating his own base. However, there is a lot of room here for Layton to maneuver as only the Greens, despite their actual status as a Liberal proxy under May, stand to gain from any anger that the socialist base may have for Layton for strategizing to split the centre with Harper.