In London, where provincial Progressive Conservatives gathered this weekend, John Tory’s future as their leader seems uncertain. Tory faced a vote of confidence today on his leadership as approximately 1000 delegates voted on a question on whether the party ought to have a leadership review. Taking personal blame for the party’s electoral loss last fall in a pre-vote speech, Tory also warned delegates that a such a review process would take precious time out of preparations for the next campaign, in 2011.
Prior to the vote, delegates experienced some olde-tyme convention tactics as 81 pro-review (anti-Tory) delegates were challenged due to their residency status within their representative ridings. Tory claimed no prior knowledge to the challenges but expressed that some of his delegates faced the same.
After the votes were finally counted, Tory could only muster 66.87%. The number is technically a victory for Tory, but in reality shows that there is not enough support for the man who ran on leadership during the last election. In a previous conservative leadership review vote, former Prime Minister Joe Clark bested Tory’s number by less than one percent at 66.9% yet stepped down as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives.
Pro-review forces initially had set the bar high for Tory at 80% declaring that “80% minus 1” would be enough to cause a review. Tory never took the bait to declare the threshold that he would need, rather simply citing through supporters that the party constitution simply requires a majority of support at 50% plus one. Media observers including the Sun’s Christina Blizzard set a realistic threshold at 70-75%.
After receiving the verdict, Tory expressed that he would take some time to think about his future in the party given the support given at this weekend’s convention. It would be divisive for John Tory to accept a technical victory on these numbers and he should resign as the leader of the party. In my opinion the party needs a bold vision and platform to offer Ontario in a future election. Dalton McGuinty’s government has not been plagued by scandal to the extent that it has registered on the minds of the passive political observer. Therefore, running as a “nice guy” with no groundwork established on policy prior to an election will result in the same. If John Tory can learn this lesson from the last election and learns that his party yearns for change, he will have the opportunity to prove it; Tory can run for leader. But to succeed, he must show that he will offer a bold vision. Others too will be able to offer their views on the course that should be taken by the PC Party. The party will be able to spend some true time in the wilderness and if Tory and a new field of competitors face a true trial by fire, the victor can forge new and competitive policy in order to offer Ontario a viable Progressive Conservative 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.