The grand communication strategy that carried Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to a second minority government was part intricate timepiece and part blunt instrument
This was, arguably, the longest election campaign in Canadian history. It began on the floor of the Liberal leadership convention in December 2006 when Conservative Party operatives passed out buttons mocking Bob Rae’s stint as premier of Ontario. That tactic — to discredit Rae among Liberal delegates, help to polarize the vote between Rae and Michael Ignatieff, and contribute to a split that let Stéphane Dion run up the middle — set in motion a set-piece communication strategy that culminated almost two years later in a second Conservative minority government. It wasn’t supposed to end that way, even if the Tory spinmeisters claim otherwise. The Conservatives’ aim was always a majority, carefully crafted around strategies and tactics of image construction and demolition in support of a message-concept as highly charged as it is symbolically nebulous: leadership.
The message was deceptively simple: Stephen Harper is a leader; Stéphane Dion is not. Of course Harper, as prime minister, had the advantage of his position to practise (some would say over-practise) the art of leadership. While there are those who would say that muzzling cabinet ministers, trying to control and intimidate journalists, vetting every line of government communication through the Prime Minister’s Office and generally resorting to confrontation over consensus are hardly the attributes of a great leader, the time at the helm permitted Harper to acquire a track record and, by doing so, to position himself before the public as a distinct option. There would be time enough to massage, revise and reconfigure the less palatable attributes of the Prime Minister’s character. In the meantime, Stéphane Dion would be de-constructed.
The deconstruction started the minute Dion took up the Liberal leader’s mantle. By the time the formal election campaign was launched, the Tories had spent wads of cash on advertising campaigns aimed specifically at undercutting his position. Off the airwaves, questions were raised about the Liberal leader’s English-language skills, his effectiveness as a former environment minister, his problems uniting a party full of former (and possibly current) rivals. Is there anyone unfamiliar with the photograph of a shrugging Dion — arms outstretched, the very picture of haplessness — that seemed to pop up everywhere once he assumed the leadership? Does it surprise anyone that this image formed the visual centrepiece for virtually every negative ad the Conservatives commissioned for the campaign? In order to create a binary opposite to Harper, Tory communication strategists decided early on to frame Dion as a thinker rather than a doer, a pie-in-the-sky intellectual, a sissy.
The Liberals, via their leader, would stand in stark contrast to Stephen Harper when the time came to roll out a new and improved Conservative prime ministerial image.
Why did Dion’s team let it happen? The first rule of political messaging holds that it is imperative to establish and maintain the leader’s image lest your opposition define it for you. Yet Dion seemed oblivious to this tenet. And not just oblivious: at times he seemed to welcome selfinflicted damage. Conservative ads hit the airwaves to denounce the Liberal Green Shift environment proposal before Dion had a chance to make his official announcement. Aside from the juvenile vulgarizations that the Green Shift seemed crafted to invite, the Tory message track, relentlessly circulated, identified the proposal as “a tax on everything,” effectively blowing the proposal out of the water before it had a chance to enter the circuits of public discussion. It didn’t hurt the Tory cause that gasoline prices were peaking at record levels, making average Canadians with soft environmental concerns leery of any proposal, and especially one originating with the Liberals (shades of Gomery), that might take more money out of their pockets. Dion’s attempts to explain the complexities of revenue neutrality made little headway among distracted consumers. It contributed to the appearance (helped along by Conservative strategists) that he was out of touch with reality. Dion’s refusal to abandon the Green Shift, even when it became painfully clear that he had handed the Conservatives the stick to beat him with, seemed to confirm that Dion was tone deaf to public sentiment. It laid the ground for the tagline to the Tory campaign attack ads: “Stéphane Dion. Not a leader. Not worth the risk.”
At the dissolution of Parliament all Dion could do was to sputter about the “lies” that Conservatives had been telling about him. He wasn’t really that hapless fellow in the Tory ads and he would prove it to Canadians in person, as soon as the party could charter a plane.
Meanwhile, the positive construction of the Harper image was underway. Deceptively uncomplicated, it portrayed the Prime Minister as a steady hand at the tiller, the best choice to guide the country through the uncertain economic times that (everyone could see) were gathering at a distant point on the horizon. In a parallel line of messaging, Tory strategists re-presented the reputed bloodless ideologue, the parliamentary scrapper, control freak and sworn enemy of the Parliamentary Press Gallery as a softer, gentler Stephen Harper; a softaround-the-edges family man in a blue sweater; a reserved but strong member of the community not afraid (with appropriate reserve) to reveal a hidden musical talent. Quiet strength, transparent values, competence and trustworthy commitment would carry the day, especially among women and alienated right-leaning Liberals.
Yet even if the Conservative messaging strategy seemed bloodlessly straightforward, it concealed a risk. It is one thing to frame one’s political opponent and use a time advantage to pulverize him. It is quite another to construct a prime ministerial image out of thin air and in apparent contrast to all recent experience. Conservative strategists were betting the farm that the deconstruction of Dion would be so complete that voters would gravitate to the kinder, gentler Stephen Harper out of sheer relief that a credible option was available.
The trick would be to make Harper into a nice guy even as his communication team was dismembering Dion in plain sight. This is where the Conservative communication strategy started to run into trouble.
Election campaigns, for all their sound and fury, play out between the poles of distinction and credibility. A distinct position on any issue is useful only to the extent that it rings true at some basic level among the diverse publics that will ultimately come together to confer power or withhold it from a particular representation of political reality. Typically, this is why political parties stake out ground within registers — broad areas of thematic agreement such as law and order, social justice, a commitment to socialized health care, the environment, leadership and so forth. For obvious reasons, no party is likely to take a stance against, for example, law and order; however, within the register there may be many distinct positions on how law and order should be maintained and enforced. The true competition for votes takes place around the decision, in some form of public space, to confer credibility on one position or another. The Conservatives had spent a great deal of time and money to create a gulf — make that a continent — of distinction between Harper and Dion in the register of leadership, particularly leadership on economic concerns. But what about credibility?
Harper could certainly claim to be the credible option on the economic file. He had experience implementing tax policy, whether or not you agreed with his measures. He had successfully articulated and implemented various aims and objectives calculated to cut program waste, even if some of them offended “special interests.” Party operatives seldom referred to the Prime Minister without pointing out his credentials as an “economist by training,” an attribute that was readily picked up and circulated by reporters. The über-message — competence at the economic helm — played well, as it was meant to, across geography and demographics. Voters in Quebec, feeling the pinch of job losses and a general softening in the manufacturing sector, could not look to Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc for a nationally implemented fix. Likewise, in Ontario, the NDP’s perennial “tax the corporations” message seemed at odds with a call for government help for beleaguered industries. In the west, the first energy-driven boom in a generation was raising all boats. Harper would be “hands off” on this engine of growth even as Conservative tacticians circulated comparisons between the Liberal Green Shift and that other Liberal intervention: the National Energy Policy.
It almost worked. By the end of the campaign’s second week, Harper’s Conservatives were polling on the brink of majority-government territory. Then somebody drew attention to those clouds of economic uncertainty, the ones that had been on the horizon, and remarked how they looked to be much closer than previously thought. In fact, the clouds were very close indeed. And they looked a lot like a hurricane.
Much has been made of Harper’s twin gaffes, the ones that sent Quebec voters, particularly francophones, scurrying into the arms of the Bloc. Certainly, the arts community in Montreal showed that it is dangerous to pick a funding fight with people who make their living producing various forms of culture, particularly in the age of YouTube and viral media. And threatening to throw 14-year-olds in jail for life is just plain dumb when a savvy politician like Gilles Duceppe is on the other side of your message, ready to take that old suspicion of social conservatism and slam it together with word-pictures of helpless adolescents at the mercy of depraved older prisoners. These mistakes hurt the Conservatives in Quebec. But the Tories might have been able to control the damage if the main message, the leadership message, hadn’t run into a series of embedded negations that threatened to run their ship aground on the shoals of a self-made contradiction.
Simply put, having constructed the Conservative campaign around a single message and a single messenger, Stephen Harper stumbled badly when presented with the very conditions that he claimed he was best qualified to handle. More precisely, the Prime Minister’s credentials as a leader on economic matters were severely undercut when the markets went into free-fall, average Canadians watched their investments begin to evaporate, and the warm and caring human being in the blue sweater failed to materialize. Indeed, the Harper of the blue sweater seemed a persona of the distant past, replaced by a technocrat in a dark business suit. “The fundamentals of the Canadian banking system are solid” became the oftrepeated mantra of this “other” Stephen Harper. Yet how could that be with stock values crashing and the Americans acting to pump unimaginable amounts of cash into their credit system? And what about the biggest fundamental of all? If the American economy crashed, wouldn’t it take Canada down with it? On these issues the Prime Minister was mute. But he wasn’t mute about giving investment advice. When Harper advised a frightened electorate a week before election day that there were likely some “great buying opportunities” in a stock market that had plunged mightily for the fifth straight day, it seemed to confirm that he was missing the empathy gene. Not even the personalization of the pensioner’s plight — evoked through the anecdotal mention of Harper’s mother and her own concerns with evaporating wealth — could stop a slide in Tory fortunes. Too little, too late. Some polls put the Conservatives in the low 30s with the Thanksgiving long weekend staring them in the face.
In objective terms, Harper was absolutely right. Canadian banks were much sounder than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. And what could Canada be expected to do when the full force of the US Treasury had failed to ease concerns, restore confidence and stem the market slide? But the central message of the campaign was not about objective terms; it was about subjective credibility. With the Tories having constructed a leader who claimed to be competent and caring, Canadians expected a gesture, a symbolic statement of vision and understanding, that would ease the fears about financial ruin that were weighing on so many minds. Instead they got dribs and drabs of technical responses that only bankers could fully understand. They got a cut in the bank rate, an intended economic stimulant of great potential symbolic meaning that turned out to be a waste of time in political terms because the banks pocketed half the cut’s value.
Both Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton had seen an opportunity to capitalize on the apparent lack of empathy shown by the Tory leader. Dion’s stock was rising. People seemed prepared to listen to what he had to say. He seemed thoughtful and respectful of others and, of course, had promised to convene a panel of “experts” to come up with an economic action plan. The hapless guy with the shrug seemed to be coming on. Or at least he had a heart. Layton, with the bravura of the radical optimist, had jumped on the leadership bandwagon with the slogan “A Prime Minister who’ll put you and your family first.” He accused Harper of a “cold-hearted attitude” and a “sink or swim” economic policy for the woes confronting average Canadians. On Friday, October 10, with the market off a full 30 percent from its level at the beginning of the year, with four days to go to election day, the government announced that it would intervene to assume some mortgages held by Canadian banks.
The Thanksgiving weekend in Canada probably saved the Conservative goose. It gave the party a chance to regroup without the constant pounding of negative economic news. Harper began the final round of campaigning with stops in Ontario and Quebec, attempting to shore up his battered image in the latter by assuring his audience that he was not “the Devil incarnate.” In stop after stop, the Prime Minister reminded voters that Stéphane Dion had not renounced the Green Shift. That Conservative economic policy was sound. But the real symbolic action was happening in Washington, where Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had flown for an emergency meeting with his G7 counterparts. The photo of Flaherty on stage with the most powerful economic movers and shakers on the planet finally provided Canadians with a sense that their government was representing their interests in uncertain times, that it had matters in hand. It didn’t hurt that the symbol was circulated while Ontarians in the vote-rich 905 region were sitting down to their turkey dinners. And it didn’t hurt that the Dow Jones closed more than 900 points higher on the holiday Monday, a day when Canadian markets were closed, and that the bounce in New York was reflected in Toronto when the TSX opened on election day in Canada.
Given the investment of time and money, and the result on election day, it is worth asking whether the Conservative message strategy served the party well. If there is a lesson to extract from this campaign it is that it is not enough to simply project an image of leadership and expect voters to buy into it. The warm and caring Stephen Harper was a mediated construction, a symbol for a leader that was shown to be fictional when circumstances demanded proof of this empathetic “hidden” self. This seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears, especially in Quebec, that Harper and the Conservatives really do have a hidden social agenda; that they will make nice to your face while cutting your budget, or that they will put your wayward 14-year-old in a prison full of hardened criminals for a long, long time. But the decision to embrace leadership as the full-frontal message of the campaign also paid dividends, both to Canadians in general and to the Harper Conservatives in particular.
The “pure” tactics of discredit that have characterized the recent past in Canadian election campaigns — those aimed at wrecking an opponent’s day rather than advancing a communicative aim — were largely muted this time around. Those responsible for pooping puffins, or assigning partisan motives to the grieving parent of a dead soldier, were quickly dispatched. After all, it would not do to have small and nasty counter-messages undercut the meta-message contained in the leader’s new image construction. This doesn’t mean that the tactics of discredit disappeared altogether. The Prime Minister couldn’t resist the temptation to take a kick at Stéphane Dion when a taped interview surfaced, showing multiple retakes of Dion struggling to understand a question from the Englishspeaking interviewer. It was a cheap shot, taken when the chips were down, but nonetheless more reflective of Stephen’s character than of Stéphane’s. And lest the Liberals get off scot-free, how was it that Bob Rae ended up taking the lead on the Harper plagiarism file? Were we to believe that Stephen Harper spends his nights cutting and pasting provocative passages from the speeches of those who supported George Bush’s invasion of Iraq? It was a cheap attempt at guilt by association that didn’t work except, perhaps, to give Rae a bit of opportunity for payback over the button incident at that Liberal leadership convention so long ago. Thankfully, the above incidents notwithstanding, this campaign measured its dirty tactics by the handful rather than the bucketful. This was largely because leadersin-making demand a certain amount of decorum, or at least the ability to deny any association with the more dreadful activities of underlings.
For their part, the Conservatives stand to reap a dividend that was always subsumed in their message strategy, one that managed to make it through the ups and downs of the campaign relatively intact. When the messenger became the message, when Stephen Harper in effect became the Conservative campaign, it channelled control of all other messages into his hands. Where was John Baird on the Conservative plan for the environment? Where was Tony Clement on health care? Where was Gerry Ritz, that inimitable jokester, on listeriosis? A full and frank public debate on these matters of public concern never occurred because the leader, Stephen Harper, had framed leadership as the issue of the day and leaders set the agenda. If Harper didn’t want to talk about something, it didn’t get talked about. At the end of the day, absent a public record of prime ministerial intentions on files of considerable concern, Canadians have been left with a prime minister who can pretty much govern as he sees fit, or at least to the limits of what his minority will allow. He will implement (circumstances permitting) the rather tepid promises contained in the Conservative platform and follow through on the tinkering-aroundthe-edges that characterized the rollout of the leader’s daily campaign sub-message. (A reduction in the excise tax on diesel fuel, anyone?) But having made a maximum of statements and a minimum of promises, especially on his intentions with respect to the economy, the leader is now free to lead. For the time being, the actual meaning of leadership, its very definition, lies solely in the hands of Stephen Harper. Will it be the cold, calculating Stephen, or he of the blue sweater? Stay tuned.