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Communications Failure, the Next Example

It was just yesterday that I wrote about a spectacular communications gaffe from the Liberals on carbon pricing, in which I talked about the importance of consistent and well prepared communications. But being politics, there are always going to be many examples of communications done poorly to go around. It’s more of a matter of waiting long enough for the next gaffe or example to come your way. And this week we didn’t even have to wait 24 hours for the next one to come and folks this one is a doozy:

Wow, this story is as close to a carbon copy of an example of yesterdays as one might get. Like the Liberals have been dealing with regarding carbon pricing, the Conservatives have been dealing with social conservative issues like access to abortion and LGBT rights. The Liberals have been talking all summer about the agenda of some Conservative, not so hidden in some cases, regarding trying to limit access to abortion services and rolling back LGBT rights.

In an attempt to defend against this, many Conservatives are saying that the Liberals are just making things up and that Andrew Scheer has no interest in re-litigating any of these issues. If this line of messaging sounds familiar, it’s basically exactly the same one that the Liberals have been using to defend themselves against allegations that they would increase the carbon tax after the election: We have been clear on this, we won’t do it. As we saw yesterday, that message can only work as long as the party in question stays consistent in what they say. The second that they break from that message discipline and say something else, like Environment Minister Catherine McKenna did in the Globe and Mail, you open the door to those who say you’re going to do something. Only this time, they will be quoting your own words to use against you as proof that you were lying to the public and trying to keep a hidden agenda hidden.

Amazingly the Conservatives managed to replicate this exact same scenario yesterday. Andrew Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant, MP Alain Rayes, admitted on Monday that he has “publicly misrepresented the Conservative leader’s policy on abortion.” You see part of Mr. Rayes’ duties as Quebec lieutenant was to help with candidate recruitment in the province. As a part of that work, he admitted that has been informing candidates and telling media that the abortion issue is dead and that MPs will be prevented from reopening it. As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly true and came as quite the surprise to Scheer’s team and to social conservative groups working to elect Conservative “pro-life” candidates.

You see Mr. Scheer has been trying to have his cake and eat it too on this issue, trying to walk a line where he doesn’t alienate social conservatives in his base that he needs to win while trying to seem moderate and reasonable to the public. It was an attempt that was probably always doomed to fail, as groups like “Right Now” have been organizing within the Conservative Party in an attempt to gain more power around policy and to elect anti-abortion candidates to run for the Conservatives in the fall. This has been an ongoing internal battle within the conservative movement, so it’s not shocking to hear that these groups were doing this.

But in places like Quebec, where the Conservatives are trying to make a breakthrough, issues like abortion are pretty settled and running on promising to re-open this debate can be a deal breaker. This helps to explain Mr. Rayes’ messaging on this, seemingly hoping that no one would ever scratch beneath the surface of the statement to check it’s veracity. But now that scratching has happened and the Conservatives are caught in the exact same trap that they were gleefully happy that the Liberals had fallen into. With this news, the Liberals now have the ammunition to point out that the Conservatives weren’t being truthful about this issue.

What makes this development all the juicier is the fact that this came out while the Conservatives were doing the media rounds with their newest big candidate, former Olympic Synchronized Swimmer Sylvie Frechette. Not only did this news step all over the roll out of that objectively big get, Frechette ended up being quoted on the record stating that Rayes’ line. She told a Montreal radio program that it was “false” that Conservative backbench MPs would be able to reopen the abortion issue going onto say “That’s totally false.” Hmmm, turns out it wasn’t that false now, was it? Adding to the pain of this development are quotes from actual Conservative candidates in Quebec who are now saying that they were assured during their recruitment that the Conservatives wouldn’t reopen this door. One candidate, when asked about this assurance earlier this summer, went so far as to say “There is no doubt. If I had one, I am telling you, I would not have run.” She wouldn’t have run for them if the party was going to re-open this debate? Ouch, ouch, ouch. The things that happen when you’re caught in this vise.

The end result of this development yesterday is that now both the Liberals and the Conservatives have proof points to be able to continue their respective attacks on the others “hidden agenda”. I’m not sure if that’s going to be great for the civility of the debate to come during this campaign but really both parties only have themselves to blame for this, as it was their own mistakes and actions that brought this upon themselves. We’ll see how this affects the race to come but again we see another great example of what it is so important to have message discipline and the consequences that come when that discipline falls apart.

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Communications Failure

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.  

Magpie Brûlé Podcast: The End of Summer & Manitoba Goes to the Polls

After a bit of time off today I was able to record and post the newest episode of the Magpie Brûlé podcast. In this episode I review the most recent events in Canadian politics, the latest LavScam drama, the run up to the Leaders Debates and the recent news around the NDP. Then I go into the provincial election taking place in Manitoba, the state of play going into it and about how offensive comments from Conservative Leader Brian Pallister have made the campaign quite nasty. You can download the episode on Apple Podcasts or just listen to it below. Enjoy!

Eight Years Ago…

In many ways, I consider myself to be very blessed and to be very fortunate. I have a loving family who I can always depend on, an amazing wife and best friend who I can’t imagine life with and a bubbly daughter who is full of life, curiosity and who continues to amaze me and make me so proud every day. I’ve also been so blessed and fortunate to get to live out a life long dream to work in politics, to call Parliament Hill my workplace and to get to take part in the policy and political discussions of our time. And in that job, I was blessed to get to work under the leadership of an amazing Canadian who we lost far too soon.

For my first two and a half years of working in the NDP caucus, I got to work under Jack’s leadership. From the time that I came onboard in late 2009 until his passing on August 22nd, 2011, I got a seat close to the front to witness an amazing example of what is possible and how politicians can be. And when I saw close, well look for yourself:

Yep, I remember so clearly the day that I saw that image flash into my personal email, part of an email blast from the party, my pudgy face in the background. Not my best picture, but something that reminded me of where I was. Working in Jack’s caucus was an amazing experience. It didn’t matter how big or small your job was, Jack wanted to talk to everyone. I still remember one time in early 2011 when I was working for John Rafferty that Jack called our office. I answered the phone, and as we started to talk, I said that John was out of the office and that he could get him on his cell phone, presuming that was his reason for calling. In response to that, he just said “Thank you” and continued to speak to me, asking me what was going on and my thoughts on this and that. That conversation was less than 10 minutes, but it stuck with me because here was this guy, the leader of a political party with the balance of power in a minority government, and here he was talking to little old me, the guy whose job it was at the time to answer the phone, manage the budget and write correspondence. That short conversation made me feel a thousand feet tall, but also a real part of a team.

It was moments like those, and through my involvement with the NDP’s Aboriginal Peoples Commission over the years, that showed me just how wrong I was about Jack at the start. It’s true, I became a card-carrying member of the NDP in the leadership campaign that elected Jack. I joined to support Bill Blaikie, who I liked a lot and had huge respect for. But I also joined because I was opposed to Jack. Being from Northwestern Ontario, I saw Jack as this downtown Toronto, city slicker know it all who had no clue about what it was like for people like me. And honestly, I’ve never been so happy to have been so horribly wrong about something. Over the years, Jack proved to me just how wrong I was, by his actions, his words and his hard work. He didn’t presume to know it all and he took the time required to not just know something but learn it and feel it. His example stuck with me and is something I keep going back to today.

And it was eight years ago today we lost him, a day I still remember so vividly. I came into my office in the Confederation Building on the Hill that morning at my usual time around 8 am. I turned on the TV in my office, as I did each morning, and put on the news. I was into my usual routine of signing onto my computer to check my email when I caught something out of my left eye; it was Peter Mansbridge. I didn’t see anything else; I was just thinking how odd it was to see Mansbridge on at 8 am. At that same time my email came to life, with a copy of a press release with the news. Then I finally noticed the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen. Then I just sat, stunned, teary.

When we last saw him at his press conference that July, we knew how bad things were. Some of us had been there for his first bout with cancer and had been through this before. Right before that press conference we staff were called to an important, last minute staff meeting, which had all the hallmarks of a similar meeting we had back when Jack’s first cancer fight was announced. I remember saying to a couple of colleagues that day about that experience, saying that it will be alright. He fought this before and won, and he will again. But when we saw and heard him, I was stunned. Despite that, we were hopefully; Jack had fought this before and won, so he would again.

So when that news hit on that morning, it brought a pain, sadness that was hard to explain but a feeling that I remember so vividly to this day. I remember a friend and colleague who worked across the hall coming into my office, wondering what we should do. We weren’t going to be working that day so what should we do? Go home? Stay in our offices? That didn’t feel right. So she had an idea that we acted on. I called the House of Commons folks and asked to get access to our caucus room. She called the food services people to get coffee and tea delivered there. Then we invited everyone who was there if they wanted to be there to talk or just be together. So there we were, in the Centre Block of the House of Commons, in the same room where Jack had presided over his new 103 person caucus just a couple of months before. We were sad and stunned. People started to share stories, telling everyone their experiences with Jack. Those stories started to help the healing process, filling everyone with good memories of this great man to build upon their own.

I won’t lie, it’s hard to believe that it’s been eight years since that day. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long and that so much has passed in that time. Jack made a huge impact on so many and set an example to follow, not only for those of us who got to know him, but for those coming behind us in our footsteps.

I now get to talk to my daughter about those times, that experience and what Jack stood for. In our bedroom at home, my wife has the now-famous words of Jack framed, which my daughter has asked about. When talking to her about this man, this leader, I showed her a picture that her aunt took in the past. It’s of my girl in Toronto, posing on a statue of a two-person bicycle, with a mustachioed man behind her. I told her that man was Jack and that her dad was lucky enough to get to spend time working in his caucus. So today I remember Jack, but I also take today as a chance to re-dedicate myself to the ideals that he stood for, what we all did together. I also take the chance to share that with my young one because that is how we ensure that Jack’s work and message continues to move forward. Thank you Jack for everything, thank you so much.

The Opening Act

It was just last week that I went into the news surrounding the Federal Leaders debates, who was in and who was out as of that moment. In that piece I mentioned the about how 2015 was different because we saw multiple debates organized by multiple groups, beyond the usual major English and French debates. One of the questions going into this campaign was whether that would happen again this time, or would we go back to the old standard. Well last evening we got an answer to that question, and it’s an interesting development:

Yep, we’ll have more again in this campaign, with Maclean’s and CityTV hosting their own debate. Respected journalist Paul Wells will moderate the event, which will take place in Toronto at CityTV’s studios just a block away from Yonge-Dundas Square. While the news that there will be another debate is pretty big all onto itself, there are a few details from the announcement of this debate that were very notable.

First thing was the date; Thursday September 12th. That date jumped out because everyone has been speculating about when the writ for the campaign itself might drop and when the campaign would officially be on. The latest the writ can be dropped to meet the minimum standard of a 36 day campaign is Monday September 16th and many have assumed the Prime Minister wouldn’t drop the writ before Tuesday September 10th, which is the day of the provincial election in Manitoba. That has left many to assume the writ would drop sometime between September 11th and the 16th. So it’s quite possible that this debate will happen pre-writ, which is interesting.

But the date of this debate also ensures that this debate will be the first leaders debate of this campaign, making it a huge event in a tight race. With the two other currently scheduled leaders’ debates happening on October 7th and 10th (towards the end of the campaign), this debate will have a big chance to set the tone and narrative of the campaign for the first few weeks. For the Liberals and Conservatives, it marks a chance to try to break away from one another in the polls. For the Greens, it would present a chance for Elizabeth May to re-boot her stalled momentum and present herself as the alternative. For the New Democrats, it would give Jagmeet Singh to staunch the bleeding, reverse the current trend and show that he and his party are the real alternative.

The timing of this marks a huge opportunity for all parties invited, and conversely a huge risk. A great performance could boost a party’s fortunes and jumpstart their prospects, but a bad performance could sink a party’s campaign potentially before the writ even drops, supercharging the bleeding of votes to other options. It could be very high stakes and could go a long way to determining what the campaign looks like.

But for that to happen for a party, you need to be on that stage, which brings us to the other piece of news on this announcement. It was announced that only the Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens have confirmed their attendance, while they were still waiting for a reply from the Liberals. Maclean’s made it clear that this debate will go ahead, Trudeau or no Trudeau, so this is happening. That makes it weird that the Liberals haven’t given an answer yet and while I’d be surprised if they said “no” to taking part, the fact that a “yes” hasn’t come already is an interesting thing to note.

Beyond the Liberals though, it’s also notable that neither the Bloc nor the People’s Party have been invited to take part. The Bloc wasn’t invited in 2015 as well, so it’s not a shock that they weren’t invited to take part in a debate being broadcast from Toronto. But when it comes to the PPC, this would have been an open question as to what Maclean’s might do here. Being that this debate doesn’t operate within the new results of the federal leaders’ debate commission, Maclean’s is completely at their own discretion to invite whomever they want. There are no pre-set or prescribed criteria for them to follow, giving them a completely free hand. And with that being the case, they seemed to have made the decision that Maxime Bernier shouldn’t be there. Personally I’ll be interested in hearing the explanation as to why he would be excluded, as it could set an interesting precedent going forward. Beyond that though, I would expect that the PPC will start making a stink about this lack of invitation and given that there are no formal criteria to speak of, they will probably try to pressure their way into this thing. Will it work? We’ll see, but this seems sure to be a part of the discussion.

Now we have a much better idea about when the 43rd General election will launch, either officially or unofficially. This first debate will go a long way to determining the course of the campaign for all of the parties involved and will be a big “make or break” moment early in the campaign. So mark your calendars, were about three weeks away from the fireworks beginning. After a long wait, the campaign is almost here and the rubber is starting to hit the road.