Friday, October 30, 2009

Winning Back the Hearts and Minds

Here are the results of the last several federal elections (click on the images for better resolution) across the Canadian electorate from two different lenses (wouldn't it be nice if polls always told us how many respondents actually planned to vote):

I'm hopeful that with Peter Donolo, one of the architects of the last Liberal revival, now put in charge of Michael Ignatieff's office, that a cold hard examination will take place of why the party has lost support over the years, where it went, and just how it can be earned it back, region by region, group by group.

I know that we can't over glamourize the "golden years", but Liberals would be foolish not to take lessons from just how under Jean Chretien they went from even trailing the NDP in the polls at one point to winning a landslide victory. With a focused, disciplined communication strategy based both on the failings of the government and their own concrete plans for the future (and yes a Thinkers Conference in Quebec) Liberals overcame the negative press and slowly built back up their support. By the time the election came Canadians knew what Liberals stood for and Liberals had a clear narrative for the campaign that appealed to a wide section of voters. They started out the campaign behind the governing party, but trounced everyone in the end.

That said, Liberals should recognize that the political climate differs in many fundamental ways now than then. There was no divided right, the PM will be in his 4th campaign vs. Ignatieff's 1st, the global economic crisis has led some voters cut the government slack over the deficit, the unprecedented government self-promotion ad buy, Chretien had 3 years to plan while Ignatieff may only have 5 more months, amongst other factors. Even so, the basic communications strategy from then can be applied to now to reverse the trends in the Liberals' favour.

But the message is just one part of the puzzle, who it is primarily directed to is another. Liberals would be wise to make a concerted effort to rebuild the winning voting coalition of 1993 (with some additions and subtractions here and there).

Many pundits have talked about the need for Liberals to win back women, minorities, and so called "mainstream Canadians" who have drifted off to other parties. This is definitely true, but I do hope it's not lost that it hasn't just been voters leaving to other parties that has cost Liberals support, but also the fact that many of the old supporters have stayed home in droves. A 12% drop in voter turnout since 1993 is nothing to scoff at - there were actually fewer total # of votes cast in 2008 than in 1993 despite the Canadian population growing by over 5.5 million since then. This represents a huge swath of voters that should not be given up on.

The Liberals' 1993 win was not only the best popular vote score the Liberals have received since 1980, but also the last time the winning party in a Canadian election received a larger share of the vote than there were non-voters. Stephen Harper wants to depress voter turnout further. He wants to turn off as many people as possible with relentless negatively and attempts to portray himself as being no different than were the Liberals. If he wins an election with only 20% of registered voters, that's fine by him.

But if Canadians who didn't vote in the last election think the Liberals are not all that different from the government then they'll be staying home again. They need to be convinced their vote would actually make a difference and that Liberals would truly represent their ideals. They need to hear concrete ideas on how the culture in Ottawa that Conservatives poisoned will be really changed for the good.

If Liberals can present themselves as a party unafraid of bold leadership on the issues of the day, and that will provide good honest government, this will provide an excellent contrast with Harper's way of governing.

It's clear that work has already begun to rebuild the winning coalition, but there is much more to do. Many Liberals have put forward ideas/advice in the past (including myself), some of which has already begun to be implemented, and some more practical than others, but no one should be under no illusions just how much work needs to be done both within the party and to broaden its appeal with the general public.

There are many months now to lay the groundwork for a narrative both about the party and for the next election and there will be an excellent chance to showcase the Liberal message and ideas at the Thinker's Conference in Montreal in March. It's going to take some major heavy lifting from the highest to the lowest levels of the party, but Liberals been in worse straights before and came out the other side victorious. I know they can do it again.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Standing Out from the Crowd

The Conservatives' politicization of the distribution of infrastructure funds and government websites is a story that is hitting them hard on one of their biggest weaknesses. But it is not yet a story that is highlighting why the public should trust Liberals to be better. While Canadians across the board will cringe at images like these, many will unfortunately think "a pox on all their houses, I can't trust any of them." Liberals need to reach these people and convince them that they are the only party that will truly put a stop to the nonsense in Ottawa and restore faith in government again. And in fact the Liberals have put the ideas out there to do just that.

Liberals proposed expanding the Gas Tax Transfer program to distribute infrastructure funds. This would have allowed the stimulus funds to be distributed faster and under an already established system of audit, administration and evaluation. Instead, the infrastructure program was completely politicized and the money is distributed with virtually no oversight by comparison.

Conservatives have spent tens of millions on partisan government advertising, while the Liberals have proposed to end the practice by having an independent advisory committee vet all ads.

Conservatives want to spend money recklessly with no one to watch over them, while the Liberals would strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office's watchdog ability by making it independent.

But the media stories about the Conservative cheque fiasco don't mention any of the Liberal proposals. In fact some lazy reporting has claimed Liberals did the exact same thing (not true) or haven't proposed how they'd do different (also not true). That needs to be changed.

Every time Liberals are hammering the Conservatives for inaction, mismanagement or excessive partisanship they need to also get the message out of what they'd do different.

When they are talking Conservative stonewalling investigations and appalling secrecy, they can highlight the pledge to improve access to information laws.

When they are talking about Conservatives abandoning Canadians abroad they can mention how Liberals have promised to pass legislation ensuring that what happened to Suaad Mohamud would never happen to another Canadian and that, unlike the Conservatives, Liberals don't support having a Canadian child solider in Guantanamo Bay.

When Liberals are criticizing the Conservatives on the environment they should point to the party's plans on clean energy and a cap and trade system with hard caps. How real leadership would benefit Canadians economically and Conservative inaction costs us.

You get the point. But it would great to see in the future any article talking about the latest Conservative scandal having at least a couple lines saying "The Liberals have said if they are elected to government they would....". The Liberals put the ideas out there in many cases, but the bulkk of the media aren't biting. That isn't necessarily the Liberals' fault, but they need to do what they can to address this perhaps by talking up their own proposals more forcefully in press conferences, speeches, or press releases, alongside the sharp critiques of the Conservatives.

Now there are many parts of the next platform that the party doesn't want to reveal before a campaign and that's perfectly understandable (and I agree with that), but in those cases where Liberals slam Conservatives for something and want their counter-proposal(s) kept under wraps, even just a quick sound bite from Michael Ignatieff saying something along the lines of "rest assured, this would never be allowed to happen under our watch!" is worth a lot and would find its way into the media coverage.

When Liberals are just critical it might help to shake votes loose from the Conservatives, but not necessarily driving them back to the Liberals. Pure negativity also risks feeding the narratives spread about the Liberals being a party that opposes, but that has no ideas or identity of its own to distinguish itself from the government.

I know it's tough to get the media and public to pay attention to your ideas when you are in opposition, but Liberals succeeded with this before in the early 90s and I know the party can again.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Government of Canada Quietly Changes Logo

Government of Canada Quietly Changes Logo

OTTAWA - Last night every Canadian government website underwent a small, but quite momentous change. The logo of the Government of Canada appears to have been officially changed in a way that places the imprint of the governing party on it like never before. The "C" in the Canada logo has been altered to be virtually identical to the logo of the Conservative Party of Canada (see above).

The Prime Minister's press secretary Dimitri Soudas tried to play down the significance of the logo change, "It's really just a natural progression for the logo of the Government of Canada, it's only a change of one letter," he said.

Soudas further noted why he felt that the recent uproar about Conservative MP Gerald Keddy presenting a ceremonial Government cheque with the Conservative Party logo on it was overblown. He explained it was simply a case of Keddy mistakenly distributing cheques in this format before the new government logo was officially unveiled. Soudas indicated that, from this point forward, all ceremonial cheques used for government announcements and signing ceremonies will have just the C (that looks identical to the Conservative logo) from the new government logo imprinted on them. "It's just a short-form of the new logo of the Government of Canada so I don't see why anyone would have any problem with that," he said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was less guarded in his explanation of the logo change, "Real Canadians are all Conservatives, so this change in logo just reflects that reality," he said.

The change in logo has the political opposition parties fuming. Gerard Kennedy, Liberal Critic for Infrastructure, Cities and Communities, didn't mince words. "This is the most flagrant example of crass partisanship I've seen in my political career. This just goes to prove what we have been saying all along, that the Conservative Party only cares about serving their own interests, not those of Canadians. They can't help but politicize absolutely everything they do," he said

This may only be the beginning of what might be called the "re-branding" of the Government of Canada. Rumours have begun to swirl around Parliament Hill that the Government may soon place the $1 bill back into circulation with a surprising new twist. There's speculation that the new $1 bills would have a picture of Stephen Harper at a piano on them instead of the picture of the Queen that was on the bills when they were last in circulation.

Conservative strategists were buoyed by the positive reception the Prime Minister received for his performance of a classic Beatles tune at the NAC gala recently and it is thought they want to capitalize on this in a major way. Mr. Soudas would not confirm or deny the rumours, but did say that, were the $1 bill ever to go back into circulation, the Government would ensure it came back "in style."

DISCLAIMER: The story above is (of course) NOT real (in case the labels of this post weren't already a give away).

I think we can all agree that no governing party in their right minds would ever tie their party logo to the work of the Government of Canada. That would be outrageous. Right Conservatives ??

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Putting Policy Centre Stage and the Thinkers Conference

Plans are apparently in the works apparently for the Liberals to hold a "thinkers conference" in January modeled on the famous "Kingston conference" that Pearson organized in 1960 and that set the direction of Liberal party policy for many years to come. Obviously this conference will operate much differently than the one almost 50 years ago, but the Liberals stand at a crossroads today similar to then.

Even as a big policy person myself, I don't believe that policies or platforms actually win elections, but narratives do. Whoever has the best story to tell about why they deserve the reins of government and why the other parties don't stands the best chance of coming out on top as long as long as the public buys the narrative.

And bad narratives that you can't shake can certainly lose you elections. Today there seem to be 3 related narratives that are a big drag on our support levels even though to varying degrees they aren't actually true:

1) The Liberals aren't proposing any policy and yet want to be seen as a government in waiting
2) The Liberals don't sound like they'd govern significantly differently from the Conservatives
3) The Liberals don't stand for anything and don't really know what they are about.

Now Michael Ignatieff has been out there proposing policy in broad strokes, and in ads, speeches and Question Period has been saying where the Conservatives have gone wrong and how the Liberals would be different. I understand he's going to give a speech this Tuesday that will give more details on his plans for the environment. These are all good steps. But they haven't been enough to reach the people we need to win over. I've met many non-partisans who believe these three negative narratives in spite of the reality. We need to reach them better.

A "Kingston for our age" as Michael Ignatieff once described it represents an excellent opportunity to reverse the narratives bringing us down and show to the country that unlike Stephen Harper we want to bring the best minds and ideas together to address the big issues of our time. That you can't trust Stephen Harper with our county's future, but you can trust us.

It's not a guaranteed homerun by any means. There needs to still be sufficient Liberal party grassroots input into the conference as there does expert opinions or it could end up being portrayed as an elitist affair. And it can't just be a bunch of "position papers" or "think tank sessions" being presented and everyone goes home with no ideas actually being decided upon or it could be seen as just talking around in circles. Those sessions were worthwhile at the convention, but people will be expecting a lot more from something modeled on the Kingston conference.

When it's over the media and the public should know our overall narrative of what we are about and be able to say it in 10 words or less. And they should know some very specific things we'd do in government. They don't need to know where we stand on every issue, we don't have to give away the whole platform, but put enough on the table that no one can credibly say anymore that we don't have a plan for government or that we wouldn't govern very different from Harper. A similar conference helped Chretien and the Liberals come back from opposition in the early 90's, it can help us now.

If we are worried about ideas being torn to shreds by Conservatives outside a campaign, something that doesn't withstand scrutiny outside the writ could just as easily be slammed during the campaign. There are many directions we can take that the Conservatives won't be able to criticize (and wouldn't adopt either) and that the public (particularly those that have lost faith in all Ottawa politicians) would favour. We shouldn't be afraid to put them forward sooner rather than later.

Waiting till the campaign for any real policy specifics risks the negative narratives feeding a downward cycle that with each drop becomes harder to get out of. We can easily gain back any support we've lost now and it starts with being a party that doesn't just oppose, but also proposes. And getting in that pattern needn't wait till January either, it can start in the weeks ahead right in the House.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe we can win back government in the next campaign, but Canadians aren't going to be willing to give it to us until they know and understand why we want it and what we'd do with it. Between now and March our main goal should be to ensure they do.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Facts to Brighten Your Day and the Road Ahead

So it seems that with the election speculation out of the way, many in the media have moved on to the next favourite past time which is obsessing about the latest polls. Since these stories are already getting a bit repetitive, here are some facts it would be nice to see some reporters bear in mind that might just add a little more context to those Liberal "doom and gloom" /"Harper can't be stopped" themes that are being peddled:

1) Liberals fall 2009 meet Conservatives circa fall 2005: The Conservatives started the 2005/06 election campaign farther behind the Liberals in the polls than the Liberals are behind the Conservatives now. NANOS/SES had them down by 15 points (41%-26%) 11 days into the campaign and the Conservatives were still down 10 points even 25 days into the campaign. Remember Harper and Co. did force a Christmas election "no one wanted". Well we know how that campaign turned out and NANOS was by far the most accurate in predicting the final result.

2) Voters are up for grabs right up till E-day: In the last election campaign the Liberals bounced between 21% support to 31% support and Conservatives bounced between 31% to 42%. The Conservatives even led 40% to 21% at one point, only to have the gap narrow to 34%-31% within just one week of E-day (only to see the Conservative lead widen after that infamous CTV interview). So it's safe to say what happens in a campaign influences public support a lot more than anything in between.

3) Massive leads have collapsed in past campaigns: Just ask Paul Martin or David Peterson (who didn't even come away with his own seat in the 1990 Ontario election that was supposed to give him another majority). Even Kim Campbell's PCs started out the 1993 campaign slightly in front of the Liberals (ending with 14% and 2 seats) and John Turner's Liberals led Mulroney's Tories when the 1984 campaign began (and the PCs ended up with 50% of the national vote). Which is why I don't put much value in non-writ polls (or ones any more than a couple weeks before E-day) to begin with.

4) Polling trends still have Liberals gaining seats and everyone else losing them: If you must listen to current polls, then even as the media tell us the Liberals are in deep trouble (and admittedly the Liberals have had a rough couple weeks) if you look at seat projection sites (that don't just rely on one poll), the trend still indicates that the Liberals are likely to win around 100 seats. Every other party is on pace to lose seats.

5) Ontario traditionally doesn't look too fondly upon a party that's dead in Quebec: That isn't registering now, but if E-day is nearing and the Conservatives are looking to lose all (or almost all) their Quebec seats, we will very likely see a shift away from them in Ontario.

6) Stephen Harper's career is still on pace to end with the next campaign: Harper's career depends on winning a majority in the next election and not a single poll since January has shown the Conservatives with the numbers that would actually translate into one (again see 308's projections). Remember Harper has to make up for the collapse of the NDP vote (which always helped the Cons more than anyone) and his horrible numbers in Quebec. If Stephen Harper thought he could win a majority, he'd have forced an election by now. He hasn't and it looks like he won't be. As the media talk about how "Conservative fortunes are on the rise" the Cons are still overall on pace to lose seats. Then we'll see who has the "leadership woes".

7) The NDP are down in the dumps and are truly horrified of facing the voters: As their finances, support levels, and party morale keep sinking, their leader has to explain to his supporters why he has "formed a coalition with Stephen Harper" and given Harper a "de facto majority" (Jack's words, not mine), while endorsing him as our representative at the most important climate change conference ever in Copenhagen in December. Increased NDP support in elections has helped elect a fair number of Conservative MPs as they came up the middle. As the NDP are down to their lowest support levels in many years, it seems we won’t have to worry as much about that next time.

8) Harper can't run from his record forever: Stephen Harper promised us no recession and no deficit and we have had the worst of both. He'll have to finally explain himself about that and so much more come campaign time. I'll give him full credit for his Beatles performance, but that will be ancient history once the writ drops and we will be back to the real issues he'll have to answer for. He won't have a piano to save him at the debates.

9) The Liberals will be looking more and more like an alternative government: Now that we no longer vote with the government, we can oppose their policies in House while simultaneously proposing alternatives or even formal amendments to confidence measures. The NDP would have to oppose popular Liberal alternative proposals and have to explain themselves later. The extremely lazy and false argument that "there's no meaningful differences between Liberals and Conservatives" will fade away with each passing example.

10) Liberals remain in excellent organizational shape for the campaign: The Liberals will go into the next campaign with considerably more money in the bank than last time (to spend $24 million instead of approx. $14.5 million), three times as many members (and likely more), more centralized/streamlined organization, better on the ground operation, excellent voter tracker software we never had before, many new star candidates, and as a party more united (right across the country despite some reporters' spin) than we have been in recent memory.

So some can keep up with their doom and gloom all they want, but it doesn't change these facts that leave Liberals with lots of reasons to hold our heads high. If Stephen Harper wants to believe the Liberals are finished like some (though far from all, to be fair) reporters are spinning, let him, Steve will be in for a surprise when the campaign gets underway.

So where does this leave us?
Are the Liberals experiencing a bit of a downturn lately? Do they still have some problems to deal with? Yes and yes. But as I've said before EVERYTHING must be kept in perspective.

Doesn't mean we should completely ignore the media, put our heads in the sand, and pretend that getting back into power will be easy or that the government will simply defeat itself. But stories and polls like those of the past week can be a blessing in that it reminds us that we must always have our A-game on and that we must act as if we are behind and needing to play catch up (even if we get ahead). We must always have in mind how we are best suited to win the next campaign and keep our eyes focused on gaining back supporters from the Conservatives..

We can't afford to let lazy spin win. We need to do a better job of conveying the strength of our party and our ideas and how we would govern much differently than Stephen Harper. We need to do a better job of reaching out to those middle of the road Canadians who have lost faith in our federal politicians and who opt to stay home at election time. We need to make sure all our messages resonate well outside the Ottawa beltway. We need to do a better job of winning over Western and rural Canadians who abandoned our party long ago.

That work is now well under way and I know it will continue in the months ahead, but it can't for a second be let up.

We now have lots of time it would seem to organize for the next campaign and promote our ideas, party and leader. And when the campaign comes, Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal team will present a strong positive vision for Canada that will put Stephen Harper's pettiness and lack of vision and ideas to shame.

It will be the campaign who will decide who wins.

We may start out from behind but I know we have what it takes to win the hearts and minds of Canadians and give them the government and leadership they deserve.

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