Monday, September 26, 2011

The Boy Who Cried Crisis!

Hyperbole is nothing new in politics. It is used often, and sometimes it seems with great relish, by politicians and stakeholders alike to frame an issue, mobilize voters and ultimately win the day. Used properly it can have tremendous impact.

However, used improperly it can have the opposite effect. Its impact can be limited as the message simply becomes part of the noise. In these cases it is either ignored, or worse, never heard.

Unfortunately, we can see elements of this effect today. Take, for example, the use of the word crisis. At any one time in this campaign we are being told about an economic crisis, a jobs crisis, a looming demographic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis.

Taken together, it is amazing any of us get out of bed in the morning. Of course that assumes anyone is really listening.

Those who use hyperbole successfully are those who use it selectively and with the right audience. They are measured and targeted. Most importantly, the hyperbole complements their message; it does not become their message. They are heard.

In many instances it boils down to the fact that the more successful have recognized that if everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. Put another way, they are successful because they are credible, and they are credible because their are selective.

There is a fine line between trying to raise awareness of an issue and fear-mongering; between being watchdog and being chicken little. Today we see that line being crossed with greater frequency as politicians and stakeholders look to win the hearts, minds and votes of select swing voters in key ridings, cities and provinces.

So as election day draws closer in Ontario, P.E.I, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, challenge yourself to see through the hyperbole. There are challenges out there, no doubt. And there are crisis - either current or looming.

At this point in the campaigns underway, we have a good sense as to where everyone stands and how they are framing things. Now it is our turn. As voters we need to inform ourselves on the issues that are presented. Seek a second opinion. Ask family, friends or co-workers. Don't just stand there looking up, waiting for the next acorn to fall.

Engaged voters look beyond the advertisements and the spin. They ask their own questions and come to their own answers. And they put themselves in the position of being able to spot the difference between a credible choice and the "boy who cried crisis."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Missing Links

So far in this election, Ontario voters have been treated to a series of policy pronouncements and talking points which break the campaign down into a series of issues. Every party does it, and with good reason.

As noted in my last post on the forgotten voter, each party has spent considerable time and resources identifying what it thinks will be the election strategy that offers the best chance of success. The result is a campaign which is focused on key voter groups and ridings.

Of course in such a short campaign, this makes sense. At some point, one needs to be targeted. And on one level, I suspect that voters have a certain amount of respect for a focused campaign. The party which employs a "spray and pray" approach is inevitably caught out. In the end the voter can always spot a flailing party that tries too desperately to be all things to all people.

The need to focus should not, however, excuse our prospective leaders from the importance of tying the various issues together and making what I see are some important linkages in our public policy.

As an example, health care is not a "stand alone" issue, nor is it simply about social policy. It is an economic issue as much as it is a social one - perhaps more so. In order for a society to prosper, it needs a healthy, fit and active population. Health care has as much to do with productivity, innovation and economic well-being as does tax policy.

Yet when we hear health care being debated it is too often dominated by questions of cost and whether we can afford the system we have. These are important questions, but they should not be the only ones.

Transportation policy is another area where we should expect better. In this case, it is not that the other dimensions are ignored; rather, we seem to have hived transportation policy into a series of separate and distinct conversations - about cost, or about urban planning, or the environment. The party which is best able to link these elements into a cohesive, plausible narrative is the one which will get my attention.

Better progress is being made on the question of the environment, where parties - particularly the Liberals and the NDP - are more eager to link addressing issues like climate change to the opportunity of building a green economy. They have done so, in part, to blunt the criticisms that addressing climate change will cost jobs. Still, at least the broader linkages between the environment and the economy are being discussed (albeit for defensive reasons).

Education is probably the one area where parties have been successfully able to draw a broader picture, for obvious reasons. The linkages between education and employment and prosperity have been drilled into all of us since we were children. When politicians say that education is the silver bullet we get it, even if we don't hold them truly accountable for the need for change.


Too often during a campaign our engagement is in 2D. Issues are presented in a very linear manner, broken down into what appear to be simple causalities when in fact they are not. It is all very flat and if you look closely you come away with a feeling that something is missing.

In reality, policy discussions in areas like health care, transportation and the environment should be in 3D. They should strive to present a broader perspective on the issue and how the different elements come together.

The interdependence between the various areas of public policy needs to be presented so that voters can consider the bigger picture and make decisions which see Ontario for what it is - the sum of its parts. For this to happen, we need to demand it. We need to be engaged and let those looking for our vote know that this is what we expect.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The forgotten voter

If you close your eyes, you can probably picture them. Perhaps they are a student. Or maybe someone who could be homeless tomorrow. They could live somewhere that isn't along the 401 corridor from Windsor and up to Ottawa.

What we know is that they don't fit so easily into a box marked "family", or "immigrant", or "905-golden horseshoe". They probably don't belong to a union. They may be single and not yet facing concerns like aging parents or considering their own retirement. They are generally healthy.

Ontario, let me introduce you to the forgotten voter.

Every campaign has them. With time of the essence, parties need to focus and prioritize. While every politician will say this election is about everyone, in truth it can't be. Votes win elections, and each party will have spent a lot of time and money considering from where the votes will come and what they need to do to get them.

As a consequence, some slices of the electorate don't really see themselves in the campaign or in the supposed priorities of the main parties. They don't fit in the narrative except at a very high, almost superficial level.

Unfortunate? Yes. Surprising? No.

Before going further, let me be clear that what I am talking about as far as this election goes is the provincial narrative. Individual candidates are and always will be attuned to local issues and circumstances, whatever they may be.

However, my point is simply that at the province-wide level each party has had to make a choice about what they want to frame this election as being about. And that choice will have been made based on studious research into one thing: what will it take to win.

In this campaign, families occupy tier 1 in terms of priorities, followed by immigrants, seniors and the more broad notion of the urban-based middle-class. While that sounds like a big group, it excludes a lot of people.

So my challenge to those reading (he said hopefully) is simple. If you are a forgotten voter, tell us what would make this campaign resonate with you. What matters to you; what will earn your vote?

I am asking because when election day comes, you have a choice.

You can answer the questions the parties are asking you. Questions like "do you trust McGuinty not to raise taxes?" or "do you trust Hudak not to cut health care?"

Or you can answer the questions that you ask yourself - about Ontario, about what you think it needs to move forward, and about which party spoke to you and your vision during the campaign.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Caution, may cause dizziness

We are now into week two of the Ontario election and you can start to see how each party is trying to shape the narrative and define for the voter the infamous ballot box question. As party leaders fan out across the province, they do so armed with speeches and talking points which have one simple objective - define the election on their terms.

Sounds like a good time to pause and consider this further. So let me start with the following observations...

1. Dalton McGuinty does not spend every waking moment coming up with ideas about how to tax Ontarians or take jobs away from those born here.

2. Tim Hudak does not define success by killing health care, laying off teachers or turning the environment into a permanent greenhouse.

3. Andrea Horwath does not have the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto tattooed on her arm, and is not looking to nationalize everything.

Yet, obvious exaggerations aside, these types of suggestions are often what we tend to hear as leaders and spin doctors try and shape a narrative for the voter. Why?

To start, each party has its core support; those that will consistently vote for them. These voters not only need to "hear themselves" reflected in the comments of the candidates, they also need to have their worst fears articulated for them. Like it or not, this will help a party mobilize their voters on election day - a key driver of success.

A second observation is that core support is not enough to take any party to victory. This means that in order to win, a party needs to pick votes from their opponents (difficult and therefore not a huge source of support), or convince a good portion of the undecided block of essentially centrist voters to vote for them (a potentially rich and decisive source of support).

How does one do this? Make yourself appear safe and your opponents...not so much. Put another way, parties are always looking for a wedge issue. They want to hit upon something that brings them closer to a voter while at the same time driving their opponent(s) further away.

The "tax incentive for hiring immigrants" versus "taxpayer dollars to hire foreign workers" is an interesting example of two parties trying to use the same issue as a wedge. The PCs jumped upon this Liberal platform commitment and have tried to frame it in a way that drives middle-class voters worried about their jobs to the PCs.

The Liberals (after adding more precision to their policy) jumped on the PC reaction in a way that attempts to frame the PCs as anti-immigrant - a key demographic in Ontario's urban centres.

It's too early to tell whether either approach will be successful, though watching to see which party persists with their message and which one moves on will give some sense as to what internal polling is telling them about their likely success.

Something worth considering is the fact that in many respects, the parties do not differ from one another on the big issues in a hugely significant way. When you consider this and then factor in the realization that in order to achieve success the parties are all essentially going after the same block of votes, you can see the importance of making sharp distinctions.


In the coming weeks, Ontarians will be bombarded with all manner of spin and argument - again. It happened last fall with the municipal elections, in the spring with the federal election and now today with the provincial election.

As you consider all that is thrown your way and start to feel dizzy, move beyond the spin. Make this election about more than what is suggested to you. Make it about what is important to you.

Speak your mind.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A campaign underway and more Hudak clouds

"And they're off!" Yes, the Ontario election officially kicked off this week with the traditional posturing and efforts by each party to frame the narrative.

Over the course of the coming weeks I will be looking at each of the three main parties and how their messaging is evolving. Is their message resonating, or are they having to tweak it to respond to campaign developments?

As a start, I decided to follow-up on the tag cloud I prepared based on Mr. Hudak's response to the last Liberal budget. As mentioned in
the accompanying blog post, a big part of the Hudak strategy is to make this election a referendum on Dalton McGuinty.

That speech was several months ago. So now, with the campaign underway, I wanted to see whether the PCs were sticking to this approach. To start to answer this question, I reviewed Mr. Hudak's speech to the Economic Club of Canada on Friday.

This was a somewhat more detailed speech, and one which attempted to provide some clarity as to what a Hudak government would look like. That said, it was still very much a speech focused on the McGuinty record - the Liberal government was not mentioned once; it was always the McGuinty government.

Here is a tag cloud created using the most frequently used words in his speech. Once again, the focus on McGuinty is clear as the current Premier is referenced twice as many times as the Progressive Conservatives.

Don't expect this to change. The PCs will make every effort to frame this campaign as a referendum on Dalton McGuinty. They will then use the issues to target a specific audience.

This speech was focussed on business leaders and the business press. The focus understandably was on job creation, with the not too subtle message that families, the middle class and business would all be better off under a Hudak government. Moving forward, we should expect messaging which continues to be built around Dalton McGuinty, but which focuses on specific issues such as health.

My challenge with this approach is that it is premised on the wrong question. It asks you to consider Mr. Hudak as "the Premier who isn't (McGuinty)" and not as the "Premier who might be." As a voter, I deserve more.

I deserve clarity as to what I can expect over the first 100 days. I want to know how the government will tackle the deficit and debt. I want to know about each party's plans regarding climate change and the environment. I want to make an informed decision.

Put another way, I want those asking for my vote to tell me who they are and what they will do, rather than who they are not and what they haven't done.

Is that too much to ask?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pick me, I'm not him! Pick me, I'm not them!

While the unofficial Ontario election has been underway for some time, the official kick-off will come this week when the writ is dropped. However, for a campaign yet to begin we already know a fair bit about the narratives that are being drawn.

- For the governing Liberals, it's about continuity and experience, with a platform built around families.

- For the poll-leading Tories, it's about the need for a change in leadership, with a platform built around families.

- For the NDP, it's about breaking out of the Liberal-Tory axis and embracing a third way, with a platform built around families.

Spot any trends?

We have known for some time that the Hudak Tories will want to make this election a referendum on Dalton McGuinty's leadership. This focus on McGuinty and the question of trust (e.g. the surprise "health tax") will be complemented by policy proposals which could be considered "safe". Having seen how the schools issue hampered John Tory, Mr. Hudak will want to stick closely to the middle.

Mr. McGuinty will also want to make it about leadership, focusing on his experience as Premier and Mr. Hudak's past as part of the Harris government's common sense revolution. He will argue that Ontario needs an experienced leader to continue the province's transition out of the economic crisis, and to strike the right balance between economic demands and social policy challenges.

For her part, Ms. Horwath is hoping to present voters with a "third way". Drawing on the federal NDP's tactics, she will position her opponents as the status quo; as two sides of the same coin offering the same, tired politics.

So we have Mr. Hudak focused on the Liberals and saying "pick me, I'm not him." Mr. McGuinty is focused on the Tories and saying "pick me, I'm not him." Meanwhile, Ms. Horwath is looking at both of them and saying to the voter, "pick me, I'm not them."

So what will be it be Ontario? Is this enough to pull your vote in one direction or the other? I hope not. Over the coming weeks, we should be expecting to hear more from each of the parties looking for our vote. Some examples:

1. What will Ontario's position be when it enters into discussions with the federal government on a new health accord? Will it be purely about the need for cash, or will we get more clarity about how that cash would be spent? What are the priorities?

2. The economic landscape of Ontario has changed, such that we are no longer a "have province." With an eroded manufacturing sector, what are the priorities for re-building and re-focusing the economy? A government does not "create jobs", but it does create the conditions for those who do. What's the plan?

3. The HST. Following events in British Columbia, this could be a bigger issue than we might think. Like it or not, the leaders will need to clearly spell out their positions on the tax.

4. The environment, and in particular how to balance economic recovery with the climate change challenge. Doing nothing has a cost. Doing something has a cost. We need a good debate.

5. The deficit. At $14 billion and counting, we need a conversation about the deficit. If no one is planning on raising taxes, it can only be meaningfully tackled through reductions in expenditures (even accounting for higher tax revenues as the economy grows). What is the plan?

All to say, there is more than enough to discuss. We have province-wide issues, such as the ones above. We also have niche-issues in key areas - transportation in the GTA, being a big one.

Week one will not surprisingly be more focused on message, spin and efforts to define the campaign. This is normal course. Following that, however, we should see more debate. Frankly, we need it. Why?

It has to be more than "Pick me, I'm not him! Pick me, I'm not them!"
Canadian Blogosphere