Communications is key in our modern political world and the importance of having a clear message cannot be understated. That’s always been true in politics long before now, but in this age of social media and 24/7 news, it’s all the more important because there are so many ways for that message to go wrong. And let’s face it, the fact that we live in an age where people don’t trust what they hear as much as they did in the past doesn’t help that fact.

So it’s important that clear, consistent messaging be at the centre of any political campaign these days. For candidates and campaign teams, that can be hard because admittedly it can get very tedious repeating the same things over and over again. You get sick of it very fast. But that kind of message discipline is important because despite how many times you’ve said it yourself, it’s probably someone’s first time hear it. Also that consistency is important because when you start to change the message, it leaps out to everyone.

Before this weekend Liberals have been very consistent on their messaging around carbon pricing and the legislation they passed on it; it was going to top out at $50 a tonne and that was it. After it hit that mark, they weren’t going to raise it. While the Conservatives from the start have been telling people not to trust the Liberals, that they would eventually raise that price beyond that and that they just aren’t telling you because of the election. To that message, the reply has been consistent; no we won’t. Well, at least it was consistent before this weekend:

Folks, I cannot understate the size and importance of this communications screw up, assuming it was a slip of the tongue and not a formal change of position. If it’s a formal position change, it’s mind-blowingly bad timing, which is why I assume a flub. The change came from comments made by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to the Globe and Mail, where she said “that while there are currently “no plans to increase it,” if the Liberals win a second term in office, a final decision on “future levels” would be made following further consultations.”

That folks is just bad comms work; they went from a firm, hard declarative statement of “No, we won’t” to “If we win, maybe we will, maybe we won’t depending on consultations”. That kind of a lack of clarity throws the doors wide open to speculation and imaginative postulating, the kind which the Conservatives have been doing for month but now have ammunition to continue to do with greater effect. You don’t think that’s the case? Look at what will be happening later today:

Sure it’s just a press conference from Pierre Poilievre and it usually doesn’t take much to make one of those appear, but in this case, Minister McKenna has given the Conservatives a real, serious thing to latch onto. And for what gain for the Liberals? If there is one, I don’t see it. What I see coming is a series of attack ads coming to TV and social media, staring Catherine McKenna and her quotes to the Globe, calling the Liberals liars and saying that they will send the price of everything through the roof if given another mandate. That could potentially be lethal in the hands of a party who makes good use of such comments, and the Conservatives have a long history of that; just ask Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Going into a campaign where the cost of living and the household affordability figures to be one of the biggest issues that Canadians will be voting on, leaving the door open to attacks based on potential undefined tax increases is just bad for the Liberals. This is what the Conservatives feast off of and is exactly the kind of thing that brought us Premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. And what’s worse here? There is no real way to walk this back and undo this damage; the damage is done because the doubt about the intentions of the Liberals has been fed some red meat. Trying to walk that back now will just be more red meat and will further reinforce that view. And this is exactly why message discipline is so important. We’ll see how this plays out but I can’t help but think that we’ll be hearing those quotes from Catherine McKenna for the next two months to come. If the Liberals were tired of hearing them repeat the same lines about not raising the carbon tax, I guarantee they will feel much worse hearing those quotes from the Environment Minister ad nauseum until people vote in October.  

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