Saturday, June 16, 2012

Leadership and Brand Go Hand in Hand

This week the Liberal Party of Canada announced that its convention for selecting a new, permanent leader would be held in April 2013. In the hours before this decision was made, Bob Rae - the current interim leader and at the time the presumptive favourite for the full-time job - announced that he would not seek the job.

Cue more existential discussion about the former natural governing party of Canada.

Attention has inevitably shifted towards Justin Trudeau - the man some are now saying is the party's last, best chance at picking itself up and re-inventing itself as a player in in Canadian politics.

I read through two articles which came out today on the subject. The first was by Warren Kinsella and the second by Rex Murphy. Both make the argument that Trudeau should run, albeit for different reasons.

Kinsella's argument seems to be based almost exclusively on the notoriety factor; that the name recognition and pedigree of Trudeau are sufficient to make him the party's first and only choice in what is likely to be a less than inspiring field. In short, his view is that Trudeau has the characteristics of a winner.

While Murphy also suggests Trudeau should run, he argues this from a completely different position.  To him, a refusal to run could potentially be the final nail in the coffin in a party that has now failed to convince your McKennas, Manleys and Tobins to seek the crown. A Trudeau refusal would be seen as a confirmation by the party elite that it has no future.

So, we have Kinsella saying the party must pick Trudeau and Murphy saying Trudeau should pick the party.

What's missing is a good discussion about what this party would represent.

The arguments thus far have tended to focus on the need to avoid the pitfalls that previous leader selections - Dion and Ignatieff - created. Without question, leadership is critical. A major element of the leader's job is to be the symbol and spokesperson of the party's brand.

And there's the rub.

For a party to succeed it needs an effective leader (the symbol / spokesperson) and a brand - those characteristics which it embodies. Unfortunately, the current Liberal debate is focused almost exclusively on the former, with limited discussion on the latter.

I believe that over time the sentiment that the Liberals were Canada's natural governing party became something of an albatross around the neck. Gradually it stifled thought and fostered an ever-growing sense of entitlement.

Post-2006, the party seemed to rely on the sense that electoral defeat was akin to time in the penalty box; that after they served their time out of power, they would get back in and that things would return to their rightful place.

What they did not recognize is that while they were in the penalty box the game changed.

Even now, six years removed from power and demoted to the third rung on the political ladder, the party is not doing enough to define itself. A failure to define itself in the old Liberal-Tory political axis is one thing. To do it today with the ascendant NDP is something altogether different. And dangerous.

The Liberals need more than a leader. They need an identity. They need to clearly articulate what they represent as a 21st century progressive political party. This means being definitive about yourself and purposely drawing distinctions between yourself and the other parties.

The further you are from power, the more important it is that you get your decisions on leadership and brand correct. The clock is now ticking for the Liberals.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shifting right or tuning out?

One of the questions that has been asked with some frequency by politics watchers is whether Canada is growing more conservative. Whether over time, we have moved away from our more traditional centre and towards the right.

While this might be a fair question to ask, I am not sure it is the right one.  The problem with a question like this is that it leads to somewhat narrow answers which offer limited perspective.

The answer many offer is that three election victories for the Conservatives is hard evidence that the country is more aligned with Mr. Harper's policies than those of his opponents.  Proponents of this argument also point to not just three victories, but three increasingly stronger results culminating in the May 2011 majority.

Fair points, yes.  But surely there is more for us to consider as we ponder whether the country is shifting right.
  • The progressive alternative has been splintered as the Liberals have fallen and the NDP have grown.  This game is still playing out, and as a result the Conservatives have been able to capitalize.  The combination of a fractured opposition and the first-past-the-post system have worked for Harper in much the same it did for Chretien, particularly in Ontario.
  • Building on the point above, Mr. Harper strongly benefitted from not one but two ineffective Liberal leaders.  Yes, the vicious Conservative attack ads contributed to the ineffectiveness of Dion and Ignatieff.  However, that these ads were "complemented" by a Liberal reluctance or inability to define oneself as a credible option should not be overlooked.
  • The Conservatives were highly adept at using the financial crisis as a platform for success.  First, they were essentially implored to spend - which they did in spades, thereby being able to legitimately wear the moniker of the government that steered Canada through "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." Second, as the global political winds have shifted and spending made way for austerity the Conservatives have gained a degree of legitimacy for the shrinkage of government they have always favoured.  Imagine being able to look out an ask rhetorically "do you want us to be like the EU?".  
These points are less about whether we are shifting right or left, and more about a lack of defined alternatives combined with a very unique and shifting "crisis environment."  And yet even then, I think there is something more that explains what we have seen over the past several years that goes beyond an ideological shift.

It is not that people have shifted right, it is that people have increasingly tuned out.

Our politics is more partisan.  It is more sound-bite driven.  There is less policy being discussed.  Parliament is by-passed at the earliest convenience and with greater frequency.  And every day that this happens, more and more people tune out and try to get on with their lives.

In the end, I think the better question to ask is not whether we are shifting right, but whether we are paying close enough attention to what is going on around us.  And by "we" I don't mean those of trapped inside of the bubble of Ottawa (or those outside, but fixated on those within it).

To say Canada is shifting is to say that Canadians are engaged.  We are not.

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