Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Red Meat For a Blue Base

So, there it is.

A prorogation, summer of reflection and a fall re-set has brought us to today. To a Speech from the Throne (#SFT13) that in the end was akin to a wordy pamphlet that appears primarily aimed at the Conservative party base.

This is not surprising. Given the challenges the Harper government has faced, securing things in their own home should be the first priority. More particularly, the nature of the government's challenges - the Senate / Nigel Wright, the Auditor General's questions about defence spending, Robocalls and perceived election improprieties, sluggish job growth - run counter to the very brand the government purports to represent.

Job one, therefore, was to make nice and sort things out with the base.

How does one do that? First, by reciting all of the base-friendly accomplishments of the past (e.g. the end of the gun registry and Wheat Board). Second, by promising an agenda that is both populist (consumer-friendly, smaller government) and conservative (balanced budget legislation, victims rights).

With two years to go until an election, it is arguably a sensible strategy. Get back to your core first, and once they are re-energized and engaged turn towards those remaining slices of the electorate that can get you over the line.  Simple enough.

Now, anyone who tells you this will work is misleading you. Similarly, anyone who tells you it won't is also misleading you. With two years to go until we go back to the polls, anything can happen that either adds to or detracts from the Conservative narrative we heard today.

So what to watch for?

By-elections, as a start. Want to test how this narrative will play on the campaign trail, try a by-election.  With four coming up in the coming months we will see how the message lands with the voter, particularly in the two Conservative seats in play.

Something else to watch for is the degree to which the government will use the opposition's continued focus on scandal as an opportunity to show themselves as "in touch with Canadians" and their opponents as being "stuck in the Ottawa bubble".

This is a gamble, particularly as it is not actually within the government's abilities to independently deliver many of the consumer-friendly measures contained in the Speech. Failure to do so, while at the same time wearing a heavier and heavier mantle of scandal, could prove problematic.

Which leads to a final point. Should the government find itself subject to death by a thousand cuts emanating from the Senate, particularly if there are links to the PMO, then all best intentions with respect to both the base and the broader electorate are out the window.

As the Liberals will tell you, erosion in support is difficult to stop once your brand has been subjected to a steady drip of scandal. Similarly, mould and decay are not easily painted over.

The government is not at that point, yet. But they have cast their die with the narrative put in place today. How this plays out will make for some interesting politics watching.

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