A contradictory message promising both fiscal austerity and economic expansion for Budget 2012 confounded media and, quietly, even many Conservatives.
To conclude that communications efforts in support of Budget 2012 were a triumph one must possess a thesis that denies the apparent. Because on the face of it, the media management of the first majority Conservative budget in two decades was inconsistent, schizophrenic and defiantly unclear.
In the weeks and months leading up to its release, Budget 2012 was variously characterized as certain to be a “transformative,” “watershed” and “breathtaking” document. Readers were alerted by purportedly well-sourced journalists that it would be a landmark event — a fiscal and political tour de force. It would not only serve to return the nation’s books to balance, it would unveil a blueprint for Stephen Harper’s remaking of Canada in a palette of unmistakable and irreversible Conservative hues.
In one particularly excitable preview in early March, the National Post cited government insiders who invited operatic expectations, suggesting the budget was a “moment of truth” that would “establish a lasting legacy”:
The Harper Conservatives are preparing to unveil a budget that is revolutionary rather than evolutionary, one that will introduce sweeping structural changes in key areas of federal policy. Politically, from the government’s standpoint, that won’t happen a moment too soon — even if the budget provokes great controversy, which it most certainly will.
Whether this presentation was the result of deliberate messages emanating from the finance department’s perch on Laurier Avenue or the ingrained expectations of the Parliamentary Press Gallery is difficult to know. But certainly, there was little early effort to correct and condition impressions that history was about to be made.
The elevation of expectations was only one off-beat aspect that bedevilled the preseason of Budget 2012. At the heart of the communications exercise there was a decided ambiguity as to the document’s very nature. To borrow the favoured phrase of communications professionals, the budget’s “core narrative” was, to say the least, ill-expressed. Or, to be more exact, it often seemed to be in competition with itself.
Early on, signals were sent that Jim Flaherty was itching to serve up a long-overdue dose of austerity. Conservatives’ discomfort with their own record of high spending was mitigated only by the rationalization that they had been forced to respond to the 2008 global recession. Now, the logic went, the time was ripe to get back to the task of state-shrinking that so many Conservatives pledge to do but so few ever accomplish.
Around Ottawa, Conservative MPs were alight with talk of a review exercise aimed at chopping departmental budgets by as much as 10 percent and slashing deeply into public service jobs. In a March 10 speech to fellow small-c conservatives at the Manning Centre’s convention in the nation’s capital, Treasury Board President Tony Clement reinforced the austerity thematic aggressively. Emphasizing the need to curb government’s growth, Clement celebrated the coming cuts and predicted the budget’s frugality would precipitate a “culture shift” in Ottawa.
And yet, by that time, others in government — led by the Finance Minister himself — had already launched a competing budget narrative: jobs and growth. (Incidentally, and apparently without irony, Jobs and Growth was the title of Paul Martin’s so-called Purple Book that was released in 1994 during his prebudget committee appearance, where he famously pledged to tackle the deficit “come hell or high water.” The irony was all the more pronounced owing to the Harper government’s insistence that their 2012 effort would not mirror the severity of Martin’s budget cuts introduced 17 years earlier. Interestingly, by the time of the budget speech, the branding had been slightly recalibrated to Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity).
In an interview with the Hill Times of March 3 — a week before Clement’s speech in which he emphasized austerity — Flaherty downplayed expectations of an all-out assault on public finances and talked up the importance of sustaining economic expansion: “This is a jobs and growth budget,’ Mr. Flaherty told reporters last week, noting that it now runs more than $256billion a year. ‘We’re talking about relatively small spending reductions, certainly nothing more than moderate spending reductions in a budget of that size.’“
Flaherty wasn’t alone in expounding in this more forgiving tone. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird — an extremely visible front-bencher whose riding includes a large number of civil servants — moved quickly to dispel word of deep public service layoffs. He insisted to the Ottawa Citizen around the same time of Flaherty’s intervention that “there will be some effects to the public service, but nothing like the slashing and burning of the Liberals in the ’90s.”
This was echoed in the messaging that accompanied the budget itself. Leaks in the 48 hours immediately before the budget’s release underscored that of an expected 19,000 public service job cuts, more than one-third would be achieved through attrition. And in the most explicit example of the government’s desire to cast a less menacing impression, the Finance Minister characterized his own budget cuts as affecting only government “back-office” operations, not front-line service delivery.
This awkward and somewhat contradictory mix of messages — austerity on the one hand but growth on the other — was not so much reconciled by the budget’s tabling as it was formalized by it. Jim Flaherty’s speech to Parliament opened with a determined focus on growth: “We have made our choice…We will take decisive action to ensure our economy will create good jobs and sustain a higher quality of life for our children and grandchildren.”
And yet it also quickly underscored the need for cuts — albeit couched carefully along the lines of the Minister’s earlier “back-office” commentary: “We will implement moderate restraint in government spending. The vast majority of the savings will come from eliminating waste in the internal operations of government, making it leaner and more efficient.”
This awkward and somewhat contradictory mix of messages — austerity on the one hand but growth on the other — was not so much reconciled by the budget’s tabling as it was formalized by it.
In the few short months from fall to spring, transformational ambitions had given way to a transactional effort. A new Conservative agenda for change had morphed into a commitment to continuity. And one clear message had been supplanted by the need for a more nuanced balance of two.
The unforgiving test of clarity that faces any budget is to be found in the day-after coverage. In communication terms, a budget that is reported consistently across media outlets — one that, for example, inspires congruent headlines in multiple papers — is one that has succeeded in having its main message well understood and efficiently echoed.
This was not the treatment that Budget 2012 inspired. The headlines varied widely as reporters, editors and producers struggled to reconcile what they expected with what they encountered. Despite the clear warnings of the Finance Minister in the days immediately preceding the budget, the inclination to presume austere, historic actions proved too compelling for many media to resist. Some practically bemoaned the absence of a more punishing set of measures, as is shown in the following sample of the headlines:
Globe and Mail: From the Harper Conservatives, a budget that dials back the role of government
Montreal Gazette: Nothing revolutionary about this plan
Ottawa Citizen: Job cuts expected to hit Ottawa hardest Saskatoon
StarPhoenix: Budget proves to be non-event
National Post: Conservative budget takes the long view; Fiscal fight for another day; Politics trumps immediate restraint
The verdict in the media was unveiled in the breadth as opposed to the consistency of reportage. There was no single theme to the media’s interpretation and if there was any common thread to the tapestry of columns and editorials produced, it was that the budget had failed to deliver as promised. This was not what most practitioners would usually characterize as a communications victory.
Consideration of Budget 2012 would be incomplete without some comment on the document’s signature policy proposal. If the budget’s core narrative seemed opaque and fragmented, the communications management of reforms to Old Age Security (OAS) was, at times, downright halting.
To all appearances, the Prime Minister’s speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 26 was a classic example of budget preconditioning. Unveiling the government’s intention to use the upcoming budget to tackle this pillar of the country’s retirement income system, Harper pledged “major transformations” were on the way. And he was explicit in saying that limiting fiscal exposure over the long term was the required remedy. Immediately, speculation ensued that the age of eligibility for OAS would be raised by two years to 67.
Instead of softening up public opinion for this undertaking, however, the Prime Minister’s speech seemed to harden resistance. This, in turn, provoked a period of uncertain and improvised government messaging. If the objective of preconditioning is to ease people’s fears about a pending initiative, the Davos speech appeared to have the opposite effect — creating confusion about the scope, extent and arrival of such changes. In the aftermath of the speech, the government dedicated considerable energy to explaining what the policy would not be and who it would not affect — not typically a sign that all things are unfolding as planned.
The speech also served to reinforce the narrative of a historic, austere budget that would confront so-called sacred cows — the same narrative the Finance Minister would be seeking to mitigate a month later. OAS reform had been contemplated by both Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin. Both had retreated from it. Was Harper, determined to create fiscal flexibility, prepared to gore oxes that others had not?
In retrospect, it is now obvious that the Davos speech was flawed by at least three miscalculations.
First, using an exclusive gathering of the world’s most wealthy and powerful was an ill-chosen backdrop to warn Canada’s working middle class that their retirement benefits were set to be curtailed. If the reasoning was that Europe’s excess would contrast ideally with Canada’s discipline, it was largely lost in the face of more retail communication considerations, at which the Conservatives usually excelled. Simply said, people were less worried about comparing favourably with Europe than about the impact of the potential reform on their own retirement planning.
Second, the language employed by Harper was aspirational and sweeping. It immediately triggered expectations of radical change and even politically difficult sacrifice. Harper’s office, seemingly surprised at the strength of the reaction, scrambled to point out that the Prime Minister had also spoken of sparing “current recipients.” But, in this respect, the government failed to appreciate the obvious muscularity of the narrative frame within which they were operating. Media were already convinced the Conservatives would use this first majority budget to take tough and even unpopular fiscal action. Employing words like “transformational” was the rhetorical equivalent of tossing lit matches on dry timber.
Third, the government’s response to concerns the speech generated was so immediate and insistent that it gave rise to the appearance of a full-scale retreat. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) issued talking points within hours that signalled they had, in the words of one parliamentary columnist, “scuttled into damage limitation mode.” Government representatives fanned out to media panels in the days that followed to deliver messages of reassurance. The impression that the PMO had miscalculated flowed primarily from the government itself and the flurry of responsive tactics it employed — leaving media to speculate by early February that OAS changes had merely been a trial balloon that, having attracted substantial enemy fire, might well be abandoned.
Of course, the budget itself would deliver on OAS reforms but by the end of March, the government had learned its communications lesson. Gone was the pronouncement of historic change. Absent was the image of a brave prime minister prepared to tilt fearlessly against entrenched interests. Reassurance was the prime imperative of the OAS message track by the time of the budget, as the Finance Minister laboured visibly to guarantee boomer and zoomer-generation voters that their benefits would not be affected. That this sizable carve-out undermined the already dubious policy rationale for such reform was beside the point. For the time being, at least, the government had managed to shave some of the sharp edge off the communications blade that had drawn political blood in Davos.
In light of all this, the questions need asking: What happened? Why was the government’s budget messaging so mixed? How could the government have allowed expectations of frugality to rise so greatly without an earlier check and balance? And why was the messaging in support of OAS reform so inconsistent?
Public opinion and consumer confidence surveys over the past months have betrayed little enthusiasm for a fiscal focus that might come at the expense of jobs.
In fashioning an answer, let’s begin with the obvious: the world had changed on them. Since 2008, the global economy had been largely dancing on a knife’s edge. Recovery was unsure, sporadic and fragile. Flaherty repeatedly indicated throughout January that his budget would be delayed to make maximum accommodation of developments overseas, as euro-zone economies struggled to manage their debt crisis.
Although Europe’s troubles were frequently held up as evidence that Canada stands as the strongman of the G8, this introduced an element of unpredictability to the entire budget process. The inevitable impact was increased caution and decreased enthusiasm for austerity. In the face of such overwhelming global uncertainties, the government surely felt it could not risk the ripple effect of a contractive fiscal policy. That all this unfolded in a series of sequenced spasms would also help explain the gradual evolution in Finance’s message track away from austerity and toward jobs and growth.
The second explanation is equally practical and circumstance-based. Public opinion and consumer confidence surveys over the past months have betrayed little enthusiasm for a fiscal focus that might come at the expense of jobs.
Indeed, to the degree to which true fiscal retrenchment at the federal level would have to rely — in the absence of adjustments to provincial and territorial transfers — on public service pruning, it is likely that the Conservatives realized they would have to embrace far more job cuts than the public would welcome. Decoding the not-so-concealed message of the “back office” budget, it is clear the Conservatives felt that Canadians would tolerate some but not a great deal of job reductions, even at the public service level. These harsh realities of public opinion may have been at odds with Conservative impulses, but the overall emphasis on job growth combined with the scramble to downplay even public-service job reductions was telling. In an other circumstance, where demand for fiscal discipline might have been paramount in Canadians’ minds, the Conservatives could have opted to position the 19,000 federal government job cuts and OAS reforms brashly. As it was, they felt compelled to qualify those moves as moderate and modest.
Ironically, the public’s reluctance to bless more severe budget cuts may have been rooted in the Conservatives’ past communications success. After three years of persistent messaging that our country has been outperforming the rest of the world, Canadians were prepared to accept overnight that a series of steep sacrifices were justified. Four years of being told the crisis was elsewhere laid little groundwork for a public push against spending.
The final argument that must be considered is this: maybe the government didn’t — and still doesn’t — care. No grand narrative? So what? Contradictions between austerity and growth? No one is listening that carefully anyway. Is it possible that the government’s uneven approach stemmed from a certain degree of diffidence in the first place — possibly combined with a relative satisfaction that it was doing “well enough”?
On the face of it, that seems almost absurd. After all, this is a government that revels in its machine-like focus on consumer contact with voters and carefully targeted micro-messaging. Simplicity, clarity and repetition have been the hallmarks of its communications approach in office — sometimes to the point of frustrating and paralyzing its opponents and the media alike. That it would strike a casual attitude toward something as important as the communication of such a signature budget seems entirely counterintuitive. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the suggestion is not so preposterous. First of all, there is plenty of evidence the government believes its core narrative as a sound steward of the economy is already firmly set in place. After six years of facing Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, the Conservatives have outright owned the issue of economic management. Provided the budget steered clear of any major errors and kept on track toward budget balance, the internal demand for a superintending storyline was quite likely very minimal.
Gaining possession of economic stewardship as a fundamental attribute is an envious political advantage. Holding onto that attribute requires no small amount of consistent communications skill.
It is also worth recalling that, whether it’s the first of a new majority parliament or not, this is the seventh consecutive federal budget delivered by Jim Flaherty. At some point, a certain complacency takes grip. And truth be told, Flaherty’s budgets have always had more stevedore than poet about them. It hardly stretches credulity to imagine that he and his team would shrug off imperfections in their own preconditioning efforts when they’ve never actually demonstrated much preoccupation with the unblemished orchestration of the media and public landscape.
The other reason to suspect that the government harbours a sanguine attitude flows from its relatively unprecedented attitude toward earned media. With the exception of local and targeted multilingual outlets, the Harper Conservatives do not allow the obsessions of the working media to much distract them. Instead, to indirectly fortify their position they rely on a sweeping — and entirely lawful — program of taxpayer-funded government advertising.
No government in Canadian history has invested in paid media advertising remotely on the same scale as the Harper Conservatives. In 2009/10 alone, the government spent $53.8 million in advertising and in promoting its Economic Action Plan. Prime-time television advertisements were unleashed with impressive weight, including during premium viewing segments such as NHL broadcasts and the Super Bowl.
What the government likely realizes (and that the rest of us sometimes forget) is that its popular support on economic management is not derived from press gallery dispatches about the shape, tone and content of any given budget. Overwhelmingly, its economic imprimatur is secured through the large sums expended on supportive advertising. Seen through this more practical lens, a choppy media relations effort around the budget — while inconvenient — is hardly cause for grave concern. Take away those advertising dollars, however, and then there would be a genuine calamity with the government’s communications approach.
All of this leaves open the question of whether the government is correct. Is it really possible to shuffle through a budget season and not care when opportunities are missed? Or when crossed signals are sent? And are we witnessing the birth of a precedent — a reliance on paid media to offset the press gallery’s influence over Canadian attitudes that future governments of other stripes will also follow?
At the end of the day, the budget’s communications flaws cannot simply be dismissed. Whether by design, indifference or error, the reality is that it could have been better.
In the first year of a four-year mandate, such a failing will likely count for little. But if the government persuades itself that such shortcomings are inconsequential, it will eventually suffer an unpleasant lesson. Gaining possession of economic stewardship as a fundamental attribute is an envious political advantage. Holding on to that attribute requires no small amount of consistent communications skill. It cannot be taken for granted that an insufficient media and communications effort in the future won’t risk a loosening of that hold and create opportunity for others.
In other words, communications still matter. Even if they didn’t seem to count for a lot in Budget 2012.