Posts Tagged ‘federal election’


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

On Monday, in a comment piece published in the Globe and Mail, Don Tapscott lamented that our national parties had missed an opportunity to use social media to engage Canadians in this election.  In making his point, Tapscott refrerred to Barack Obama’s groundbreaking use of social media in the last presidential election–he didn’t have to go that far back. Just last fall, and right here in Canada, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi went from long shot to mayor, largely thanks to smart, funny and personal social-media engagement.

Three things distinguished his use of social media from that of our federal parties in this election: content, tone and genuine engagement. Mr. Nenshi was able to use social media to engage with a growing audience because, from day one, his message was positive, fresh and, most important, sharable. His commitment to dialogue built political capital and most importantly, trust. Ultimately, that translated into boots on the ground, contributions to the campaign and votes.

Social media in this federal election was used largely as a one-way bulletin board for partisan talking points and videos. Absent, for the most part, was any genuine engagement or content with broad non-partisan appeal.

To paraphrase Jack Layton in the leaders’ debate: By using social media as partisan echo chambers, our federal parties missed an opportunity to transform their campaigns and scored a big hash-tag fail.


Friday, April 1st, 2011

One of the most important functions of the campaign war room is to monitor the media in real time.  Every story, every clip and every broadcast is read, watched and heard and summarized.  To borrow a metaphor from the new computer lingo, the media reporting represents a cloud and clouds tend to drift and rarely, if ever, drifting back to the same position in the sky. 

The Media unit has to see both in detail and overall where the cloud is heading and whether it is darkening or letting more sun shine on the campaign below.  More importantly, the Media unit has to make sure that the senior campaign team have the media meteorological forecast as soon as possible. The campaign managers and the senior advisors will be doing a thousand other things and have to rely on others to keep them up-to-date.  The internal e-mail traffic in the war room is unrelenting: it is not unusual to have 15 to 30 messages per minute.

In a marked difference from earlier campaigns, in 2011 new media has become the dominant tool in terms of media response. It is not just Twitter or its variations. You can set alerts into Google news, Yahoo news or even proprietary aggregation programs that will let you know when stories break. Though of course the best way is still to talk to the reporter before he or she even files the story.  The best Media and Issue Management workers “know” long before the story goes on line. 

If a story breaks into the news cycle, a scramble begins to counter, correct, corroborate or deny. This is where the Issue Management team kicks in. The Issue Management manager, once alerted, will unleash the researchers first.  The facts have to be right – right from the start of any response. Facts in politics are extraordinarily elusive.  It is surprising at first how much of what is “known” is skewed, incomplete and just plain wrong.  With a bit of experience, one quickly learns to trust nothing until it has been researched, double-checked and re-checked, and even then you need to be wary because the sources might be suspect, mistakes are made when people are in a hurry and most fatally partisan researchers will read or hear a positive interpretation into the information which can distort their report, even if the report is just a collection of web links to previous stories.  The Issue Management researchers will at best have 15 minutes to get the “facts” and the background.

The emergence of the Internet has complicated matters in that time has become very elastic.  For example, the story of Stephen Harper’s “agreement” with the Bloc Quebecois in 2004 or a speech in 2003 can take on a contemporary life of its own long after even the people directly involved have forgotten all but the most elementary details.   

Historians will one day debate the “facts” around the 2004 “coalition” letter at length, meanwhile let’s get back to the war room and how it likely responded to Mr. Duceppe’s accusations.   

In that case, following the necessary due diligence, the Issue Management manager probably presented the findings to the senior campaign advisors who debate quickly their significance and formed a preliminary response.  The senior campaign advisors, typically 4 to 5 individuals, will have among themselves over 100 years of experience so matters moved swiftly. 

Typically then, the recommendation goes “to the bus,” the leader’s entourage.  The campaign manager alone will do the call. A lot rests on his – and it is usually a “his” shoulders – it is personal, urgent, important and consequential.  Frankly there is no room for mercy. None asked, none given.

With the basic response strategy agreed upon between the war room and “the bus,” the campaign advisors will craft the media messages.  They will be short, terse, and consistent and pointed.  The lines will then go back to “the bus” for final approval and a bit of a tweak and may be a little off because the “bus” folks usually do not have all the facts the war room folks have but believe they have the better instincts and experience– sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no.”  The leader as the one to be ultimately responsible for any media release – for which he or she will be held responsible for the rest of their political lives – has the final say.  

Then the pushback begins. The Issue Management managers will start with calling up the higher echelons of news editors and television producers in order to pave the way for the Media Unit personnel to start phoning reporters to let them know that a media release is due in moments.  Everyone will be a little edgy.  A media release can bounce well or bounce badly, or just be ignored completely. Reporters are inherently skeptical about party communications and fearful for their reputations if they are seen to being “played.” Still the great void which the modern media apparatus has created must be filled.  The spice must flow. And it does until the next issue appears on the event horizon.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Behind Michael Ignatieff’s snappy “Jack and Gilles” one liner dismissing Stephen Harper’s coalition charges, or explanations for Manitoba Conservative MP Shelly Glover’s “past her expiry date” comment, are dozens of Liberal and Conservative party operatives toiling in utter obscurity. 

Today’s major party campaign “war rooms,”  the partisan nerve centres  of the 2011 election, are objects of fascination for the media but for the most part retain an air of mystery. 

That not much is known about the war rooms, how they operate and who is behind the Great Oz’s curtain, is precisely how the parties prefer the situation.  While the media may be invited to an initial tour in order for the party to prove it is competent and well-funded enough to have a war room,  access to the sanctum is strictly forbidden once the campaign begins – other than of course for tightly scripted media briefings.

The machinery of campaigning was first portrayed in literature by James Joyce in the short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”  In the nearly 100 years since The Dubliners, much has changed  in the management of election campaigns, still the essentials remain – the division of labour into myriad small tasks, the importance of the campaign manager to bring all the pieces together and the need for a cause to motivate people to work much harder than they normally might at their regular job. 

An updated view of the “committee room” would start with a basic definition of what is the purpose of the war room.  It is a) the headquarters of the national campaign and b) the central office for the 308 constituency campaigns.  For the party in power, the war room is the bureaucracy of a government-in-exile: for the opposition it is the bureaucracy of a government-in-waiting. 

Physically, the war room is generally a floor in an inexpensive and non-descript suburban office building full of mostly young men and women with a few old guys lurking in the back.  The furniture is rented and the trappings are sparse and functional.  All of which raises the question why the government itself cannot be run in such a cost-conscious manner.

If you were to somehow get past the electronic keypad and the bored security guard, you could wander through the floor finding these islands of clumped work stations.  The largest unit is the leader’s Tour office.  Their responsibility is to make all the arrangements for the hundreds of meetings, greetings and speeches that the party leader will make during the course of even short campaign. 

Pressure to perform permeates the air in Tour: Either the leader gets to Saskatoon or he or she does not and the media lie in wait for such little slip ups as the leader in St. John and the luggage in St. John’s.

 As the leader’s schedule can change daily and rapidly, the Tour department work the longest hours and only get a breather when they are certain the boss is in bed, with the door locked from the inside.

Next in the archipelago of the war room will be the isle of candidate support.  These people liaise with the local campaigns making sure they have signs and brochures, are ready should the leader or an important speaker come to town and more or less stick to the script of the overall campaign.  The latter always causes headaches.  Constant tension arises from what the local campaign thinks they need to say to win support in the constituency and what the national campaign thinks they need to say to bolster and amplify the national messages. 

It is the bane of the war room when a local candidate decides that what he or she heard from a cousin has more appeal to voters than the messaging for which the top campaign officials will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to write, test in focus groups and polls and most importantly convinced the leader to approve.  A party cannot afford one war room staffer for each constituency so an individual worker will cover generally 8 to 10 constituencies grouped by definable regions within the province.

Working closely with the Candidate Support desks will be much smaller provincial and regional desks that look after broader political and message issues.  For instance, a Quebec desk and a British Columbia desk are set up in order to deal with the insular dynamics of those duchies.

A bigger island next door will be the Media Unit.  The leader’s campaign bus, plane or hay wagon will have its own elite media unit including a couple of official spokespersons.   The Media Unit in the war room is well away from the spotlight of the leader’s tour (of which more will be written later).  They monitor the local media, push out media releases following up with phone calls to receptive reporters and field the hundreds of media questions that flow in every day. 

They also run the now obligatory party television studio which besides serving as a media centre for press conferences also produces television clips to send to local TV stations.  The national television news services tend not to run these clips preferring their own tapes. However, a television station in rural Ontario is not going to send their one camera person on any leaders’ campaign bus.  They appreciate a bit of unique tape to which they can add their own commentary.

Our tour of the war room is not complete, but no one spends just one day visiting the Hawaiian Islands. More to come on the InterChange tour of backroom Canada.


Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In my previous post I spoke of the overall reasons why a federal election this fall was unlikely – a lack of a mandate issue and no compelling damage to the Harper government.  Still the media continues to report the possibility of– to use the old Frank magazine lingo– “another running of the lizards.”  Perhaps a deeper examination might find reasons why an election may (or may not) occur. A place to start is an impressionistic evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties.

First the standard observation that political parties are waning as vehicles for public participation.   Robert Putnam in his well-received 2000 book, Bowling Alone, documented the loss of social capital as Americans, and though not mentioned specifically Canadians, have retreated from civic engagements in clubs, associations and particularly political parties.   More Canadian specific analysis comes from an IRPP 2006 report including two fascinating articles, “The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life” by R. Kenneth Carty and “Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity,” by William Cross and Lisa Young.  

They elaborate a point made earlier by University of Moncton professor Donald Savoie, that the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has emasculated many of the regional and issue-based political power centres represented within parties.  Parties, by this analysis, have largely foregone a policy role and simply become the machinery of electioneering. That’s a desirable outcome if the average Canadian is looking for some kind of government largesse, but less so if they actually want to have some influence upon policy decisions.  If an election becomes under the radar of what H.L. Mencken described as “a futures market in theft,” then political policy is far less important than brute marketing.

Here is the Conservative advantage. Not only does the Conservative party have a vestigial policy base they also have the marketing capability of at least a mid-sized supermarket chain. 

The Conservative party’s advantage, however, is limited by the very source of its success to date – rural Canada. It can put together a coalition, team and resources necessary to win a minority, but to get into majority territory requires something that has proven elusive for the Conservatives– the support of city voters.   The Liberals, and to a lesser extent the NDP, hold sway with urban voters at least in English Canada (which includes l’Isle de Montreal)

The situation is complicated by the fact that rural Quebec with its surprising, and perhaps artificial, urban outlook is quite content to park its vote with the Bloc Quebecois. The Conservative formula works everywhere in Canada, except where the party really needs it–Quebec. The Liberals and NDP, in the face of a united Conservative Party, face slow attrition back to their urban – read Toronto and Vancouver lairs – with not much hope of gaining more than the other’s seats.  As to the much ballyhooed coalition talks, the Liberals are simply too big to merge with the NDP and just won’t.  In short, the situation seems uninteresting and static.

In such a state, what is the point of an election?  For the Conservatives, they can possibly pick up a few seats in rural English Canada and lose some in Quebec. For the Liberals – as Liberals alone – they consolidate their base as the Toronto party but not much else. For the NDP, it is a risk to be pushed out entirely by vote splits. For the Bloc it is just another day at the office.

Not surprisingly, Canadians are unenthusiastic at the prospect of an attempt– it would be the fourth–to produce a different outcome.  

It may be that Canada becomes the North American equivalent of Belgium, doomed by ethnic and regional politics to a perpetual deadlock. For everyone’s sake, our political leaders should just stay quiescent until a decisive moment arrives.

Time is the great innovator and the current stalemate may not last longer than it already feels to have – about two decades. Advantage rests with the Conservatives but not in perpetuity.


Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

In series of blog posts starting today, InterChange Associate and long-time Conservative strategist Owen Lippert,  will look at the current Canadian political landscape and how it affects calculations across the political spectrum. Today, he discusses the likelihood of a fall election.   

Last week,  Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and former campaign chair of the Conservative party, published an insightful piece in the Globe and Mail, “One Election: Three Scenarios.”  In it, he outlined the various coalition possibilities which could develop in advance of a fall election. He drew heavily on his 1998 book, Game Theory and Canadian Politics.  I once told Tom that I had bought and read the book to which he replied “Ah so you are one of the twelve.”  (It is, I am afraid to say, a bit dry and the best parts have nothing to do with Canadian politics but with why there are so many left-handed pitchers in baseball and why hiking trail signs give the length in metres and the elevation in feet.) 

The article for me provoked two reactions:  The first is that Canadians really do not like talk of coalitions before an election. My sense is that they consider that such discussion takes their vote for granted, particularly before they have cast it.  Not only that, the whole issue seems vaguely European and self-absorbed.  My second reaction is “Good Lord, are they really planning on a fall election?”

Election speculation has always fascinated me as a student of politics, though I am not a professor of the stuff as is Tom.  Undeterred by any sense of inexperience and shame, I offer the following reasons why there will not be an election this fall.  First reason: what drives the election talk at the moment is the media’s sense that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is somehow politically damaged.  The opinion mavens report that he does not have a strong lead in the polls and the recent G8/G20 Summit eroded some of credibility on fiscal issues.

My gut instinct is that they are wrong and perhaps a bit biased.  A more accurate assessment is that in terms of public perception Stephen Harper is pretty much where he has been for the last six years, oscillating in a narrow band of public approval in the low to mid-thirties. He has his “blue sweater” blips which push him a bit higher and his “prorogue this” moments which dip him a bit lower.  Without significant movement in either direction, up or down, the supposed wear and tear on this government is unlikely to precipitate bold political challenges on the part of any of the players.  

The other dampening issue, besides the state of the parties themselves, is that no compelling issue has emerged on which to base an election. 

The economy is improving and no further intervention is likely to make much of a difference, at least in the short run.  One suspects all the parties and all their big thinkers would joyously embrace any big vote-getting idea, but the only one with any real efficacy – tax cuts – does not produce an immediate result capable of generating a political return.

There are always lots of suggestions for how to spend more money on any number of worthy projects but neither the general public nor even the politicians, themselves, see these times as right for engaging in much more spending. The PM just squeaked over the line with the Maternal Health Initiative because it literally was motherhood, though not apple pie.  Yes, there are plenty of second-tier issues of importance, but no urgency.

The fate of a fall election rests on an issue emerging into public consciousness.  Of course, an election can always be about nothing in its Seinfeldian sense, as recently discussed by of all people, the former Clerk of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb in The Mark.  But Canada just witnessed an election “about nothing”  in 2008 and there is a risk that trying that again would harm not only the instigating party, but all political actors as cynicism, scepticism and apathy could increase to a distressing point.   Canadians want a “something” election and one suspects they are prepared to wait for it.  Parties have their own internal calculations on how to create “something,” sometimes from nothing.  More on what those “things”  might be in the next installment.