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Launching Week Two

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Elly Alboim

The Liberal platform launch was unusual. It was part game show and part infomercial, putting Mr. Ignatieff at centre stage directing traffic, taking questions and delivering substance in bits and pieces. It was somewhat surprising because normally a platform launch is the occasion for something more sober and austere that emphasizes the agenda for government as its centerpiece.

But the current Liberal task is more complex than that.

Mr. Ignatieff’s constellation of leadership attributes has been weak and he must be seen to be an alternative prime minister before the Liberal party can be taken seriously as an alternative government. Today’s launch seemed to be driven by that underlying thesis. It was another – and much more important venue – to showcase his performance skills. As journalists have been reporting, he was very fluid, and comfortable. He handled questions apparently without specific preparation and did so off the cuff. More importantly, he structured his answers to questions very well using value propositions, anecdotes and accessible language. His summary attacking Mr. Harper’s governing style and its implications for “democracy” was a harbinger of the character debate that will underpin the Liberal narrative for the next four weeks.

Judging from the performance today, there is little doubt he will surprise first time viewers at the debates – the next big moment in the campaign dynamic.

The complexity and gimmickry of the launch was designed once again (as in the Montreal policy conference) to shore up the perceived competence of the organization – that strange surrogate reporters often use to judge potential competence in government. The obvious and ham handed use of women candidates (many of them relative unknowns) to present platform elements, was purposeful. And finally, the use of the “family pack” label was consistent with the overall packaging. It is out of tone with traditional substantive launch positioning but emphasizes the core Liberal offer.

As to the substance, the fiscal reconciliation on the back of restoring CIT (corporate income tax) revenue will emerge as a key area of cleavage – something both the Liberals and Conservatives want. The Conservatives need it as the anchor of the “tax and spend” argument. The Liberals knowingly put themselves in this position many months ago when they decided to work within the current fiscal framework with budget balance as an overriding objective. They chose the CIT as the revenue source, banking that they could mount a populist argument that corporations should not be at the head of the line for limited government help. And that help would be targeted at family social policy. Adding a fiscal anchor (of a deficit of 1% of GDP within two years), a target (budget balance), a two year planning horizon and explicit prudence built into the framework, is a familiar operating formula designed to further cushion again allegations of fiscal adventurism. The flip side is that these decisions so constrained their policy proposals that they seem relatively small and incremental. They depend on the power of the collective narrative of a family/care agenda where the whole will have to be much larger than the sum of the parts to provide an alternative governing thesis. The Liberals are not doing enough paid media (as least not yet) to drive that home.

Finally, the obvious point: a Sunday morning launch means virtually everyone will hear about the Liberal platform at second hand. Journalistic framing will be critical. Thus far, reporters seemed to have found the launch innovative and Mr. Ignatieff effective. The characterization of substance of the platform is circling around the core CIT issue. It is likely the platform itself will get a respectful hearing – an absolutely critical outcome for the Liberals – though probably not much more. It is largely a safe document that likely will not break through and excite.

Today was also the day for another Conservative policy plank. Again it was a targeted tax credit and again, it takes effect only if and when the budget is balanced. While there are probably a number of strategic reasons to go that way, it also seems clear that the inevitable is happening – a party in government worries a lot more about implementation of the policies it promises than an opposition party. The only new big spending items the Conservatives have announced thus far are the promise of Quebec HST harmonization sometime in the fall (which is a budgetary one off and probably accounted for already in the fiscal framework, albeit not transparently) and the Churchill loan guarantee (which is an off budget item). The Conservatives are further hampered (as the Martin Liberals were in 2006) by having to campaign on a budget that got little oxygen when it was announced and now is defined as “old” news. They can’t walk away from it, it ate up some fiscal room that can’t be repurposed and it will give them little media “lift”. While the Conservative electoral strategy has less to do with its national campaign than it has in the past, the party doesn’t need to concede momentum to the national Liberal campaign on a daily basis either.

Looking ahead, week two is the week reporters begin to switch planes, newscasts and front pages tend to allow in non political news, and polling begins to evaluate the campaign period itself, determining perceptions of momentum or the lack of it (as long as they are not wildly contradictory.) And the count- down begins towards Debate Night. Every network is dusting off their Nixon five o’clock shadow and their “You sir had an option” video clips. The “do debates matter?” debate will start landing in the nation’s kitchens, living rooms and computer screens by end of week. There will likely be a strong consensus that, in this case, they do. Most will say they are the moment for Canadians to share an experience of seeing Mr. Ignatieff for the first time in an extended way and discussing together what they’ve seen. They will also point out that the Liberal gamble to launch an election from so far behind was driven by a conviction that to know Mr. Ignatieff better was to like and respect him – the debate is the time to see if that gamble pays off and the election becomes competitive.

Elly Alboim is an Associate Professor of Journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary Bureau Chief

Reader's Comments

  1. john lawson |

    Informative. Yes the raising of CIT will be a main point. Do the Canadian ppl realize the importance of corporations in job creations

  2. rob furlong |

    Thanks for your insights. Excellent to read. Hope you continue to share regularly.

    What we are seeing is that campaigns do matter and they are always unpredictable.

    Who would have predicted, for example, that Mr Harper would have challenged Mr. Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate and then backed away? Or that the PM would have to combat nightly news stories about his campaign’s decision to limit media access and/or to screen out 19-year olds from his “public” events? Or that the Carson story would still have legs, ten days into the campaign?

    It will be interesting to see if these “negatives” accumulate enough to gain traction with the public outside of Ottawa. As noted, the Liberals have yet to hit the airwaves hard with paid media.

    As Canadian elections are typically a referendum on the current leader/government, what I wonder (and think important) is this:

    How long and how hard will the Liberals go negative with paid media?

    Will Mr. Layton continue to focus most of his efforts/attacks on the Tories, or will he revert to attacking the Liberals in order to protect his base?

    How long will the Tories stick with their regional/protect the lead/try not to make mistakes campaign? Do they have a Plan B if their numbers go south after the debate?

    The debates will be crucial for all parties (except the Bloc of course).

    And for those who contend that Canadian elections are boring…well maybe they just need to pay closer attention.