Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Harper’


Sunday, March 16th, 2014

When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.

Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”

Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.

To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.

Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.

For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.

With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.

And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.

Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.

The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.

Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa.  But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.

Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.

The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.

It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.

The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of  stimulus spending.  But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.

With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up.  If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.



Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The announcement last week by federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel that the federal government was kick-starting a process to develop a new long term strategy for public infrastructure investments was quickly dismissed by critics as smoke and mirrors.

With the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at his side, the minister announced a three-step, year-long plan designed to take stock of the situation and align federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure efforts into a common strategy by 2014 when the current suite of federal programs expires.

But with Canada’s infrastructure deficit topping the $ 100 billion mark  and compounding daily, many had hoped that the federal government would announce something more definitive than studies and intergovernmental consultations.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as just  an example of Ottawa fiddling while our cities crumble. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a
government announced studies and consultations as a way to try and make an issue go away.

This time however, that would be wrong. In fact, last week’s announcement — if followed through – could just be the fix for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure and broken funding system.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, no amount of federal foot-dragging or magical thinking is going to make this particular issue go away.

By the time the current programs run their course in a couple of years, Ottawa will have been in the infrastructure funding business for two decades and will have invested over $ 30 billion while leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.

Yet, not only do the problems that spurred the creation of the first infrastructure program in 1993 remain, but they’ve gotten worse with, as the collapse of a Laval overpass a few years ago reminds us, potentially deadly consequences.

In the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal help for their crumbling infrastructure, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion, by 2007 studies showed the so-called infrastructure deficit had broken through the $100 billion mark. And that’s just for municipal infrastructure.

Add to that the bill for federal and provincial roads, bridges and other assorted structures and it’s easy to understand why no one level of government has claimed ownership of the problem or the solution.

Second, an overhaul of the existing programs is urgently needed.  The current system of short term, ad-hoc programs favours spending on new infrastructure more than repair, and because the focus is often on getting shovels in the ground quickly, it also tends to favour spending on second and even third tier priorities.

The minister’s commitment to taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the old programs should lead to a basic re-think of how Ottawa delivers infrastructure funding.

Third, mayors and councillors have rightly been pushing for this kind of long term thinking from Ottawa for the last ten years and, without any new funding programs in the pipeline to act as sweeteners it’s not likely they will let the government off the hook without something tangible to bring home.

Fourth, it is in the provinces’ interest to accept the minister’s invitation and come to the table and have a say on how federal infrastructure largesse will be doled out, first to try and secure the largest possible share of federal dollars for provincial infrastructure, and second, in order to finally have a say in what the programs will look like.

Finally, the growing pressure on the Harper government to deal with a number of major infrastructure challenges – the replacement of the Champlain Bridge comes to mind– gives the minister and the government a powerful incentive to try and spread the fiscal and political burden for Canada’s infrastructure building and repair more evenly across all jurisdictions. This should be a major incentive for real progress.

But what of FCM President Berry Vrbanovic’s comment that last week’s announcement amounted to “a promise to put aside band aid solutions and find the cure for the infrastructure deficit once and for all”?  Wishful thinking on his part?

I’m not sure that the infrastructure minister  would  echo those words exactly–we all remember Paul Martin’s promise to fix health care “for a generation”.  But his commitment to engage all levels of government in a collective re-think of how we finance our roads, bridges and water works, is pragmatic, gutsy and long-overdue.  And it may just work.


Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.

The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.

He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.  And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.

This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall.  And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.

They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities?  Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.

More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.

Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes.  So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.

Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?

Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with. 

It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.

Those are the symptoms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.

For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule.  His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.

Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.

Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.

There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.

Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago.  Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.

But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill.  Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.

The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money.  It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.

Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.

But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.

And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.

So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?

First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.

Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.

Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.

Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.

Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.


Monday, September 19th, 2011

As MPs return from their summer recess, a number of storylines—from Nycole Turmel’s political inexperience to Bob Dechert’s flirtations to turmoil at National Defense HQ–are coming into focus and will bear following.  None will be as important for the future of the government however, as how Prime Minister Harper stickhandles his deficit reduction agenda through a fall sitting that will likely be dominated by sour global economic news.

The Prime Minister has a lot going for him at the start of this session. He enjoys a healthy majority in both the House and Senate and is in the enviable position of being the only non-interim leader of a major party in the House.

With the stronger legislative engine the May 2 election gave him, some observers suggest that the road is clear for an ambitious agenda that includes a massive overhaul of Canada’s crime legislation and policy, Senate reform and a markedly slimmer federal government.

That is far from certain.

While rent-a-cops may be pulling traffic duty on the Opposition benches, they are still in a position to slow the government’s legislative plans, particularly if their arguments gain traction in public opinion.

Majority or not, the Prime Minister runs the risk of seeing his agenda of institutional change run aground if Parliament becomes gridlocked because of worsening economic conditions and political opportunism.

After all, who wants to see their government push Senate reform when the economy is tanking?

For the Prime Minister, how well he finesses this will be measured less by the level of short term political pain than by how well he safeguards his ability to implement key planks of his non-economic platform and lay the foundations for a lasting conservative legacy.

The challenge for Prime Minister Harper and his government this fall will be to craft a narrative and a policy approach that balances political and economic imperatives.

As currently crafted, the dominant story—going from funding roads and bridges to cutting government workers and programs–won’t be an easy one to explain or sell to Canadians.

First, the public can be forgiven for not “getting” this coming policy shift as the same conditions that are now creeping into daily newscasts–a stumbling economy and flat jobs growth–were cited as the reasons for the 2009 stimulus-laden Economic Action Plan.

Second, the story coming from the U.S. is all about stimulus, as president Obama is taking one more kick at the Keynesian can. His massive economic package, unveiled last week, aims at recovering jobs and boosting consumer demand.

While Obama’s approach sets his administration apart from many European governments that have opted for austerity measures, the news from Washington has more immediacy and impact for Canadians than stories from Berlin or Paris.

The task for the Prime Minister and his front bench lies less in attacking the Opposition–of whom the public care little about–than in reassuring Canadians that they have a plan and explaining how it will work to safeguard jobs of which the public cares a great deal about.

With the economic news continuing to be gloomy–the Toronto Dominion bank revised its 2011 growth forecast from 2.8 to 2.2 percent and its 2012 forecast from 2.5 to 1.9 percent—in the next few days look for a subtle shift in the government’s narrative away from strict deficit reduction toward a balanced approach that includes protecting jobs.

If there is no marked improvement in the economic outlook by early November, expect the government to take a page out of Jean Chretien’s 1994-95 playbook and push a new government narrative revolving around cutting unnecessary expenditures—getting our house in order–while spending on public infrastructure and jobs.

While we are not likely to see the stimulus spigots opened to the extent they were under the Economic Action Plan, we might see the renewal of elements of the Building Canada Fund, the government’s flagship infrastructure program.

Although the government’s deficit reduction action plan may be temporarily sidelined as a branding narrative, every indication is that all federal departments and agencies will continue to have all of their spending—program and operations—placed under a microscope, and a scalpel.

A subtle shift in tone and policy will provide political cover for the government’s austerity plans, and more importantly, help keep Prime Minister Harper’s transformative legacy agenda on the rails.


Friday, May 20th, 2011

One test of the significance of the appointment of a new federal Cabinet is the amount of time in which the personnel choices and portfolio alterations remain newsworthy.   By that measure, the announcement of a new Conservative Cabinet really only lasted one news cycle. The media attention during the build up lasted longer than the interest shown after the fact. 

In large part, the Cabinet did not really change all that much and the changes that did take place were largely predictable once the election results were known.   For example, the sole Conservative MP from Newfoundland, a credible First Nations leader, was a pretty much a given to make the Cabinet cut.  To not make a bad situation worse, Quebec was certainly going to receive additional Cabinet seats as was British Columbia.  Ontario had to be rewarded in much the same way it used to be under Liberal governments.  What does the lack of surprises tell Canadians about Prime Minister Harper’s current assessment of the situation and his intentions moving forward?

A first observation is that the PM probably correctly assessed that the current composition of House of Commons still remains only a minority Conservative government, despite a clear seat majority.  The dramatic rise of the NDP at the disproportionate expense of the Liberal Party represents more of a sudden hail storm rather than a more profound result of “climate change. “  Minority governments one would guess face a risk in any major Cabinet upheaval of creating too many questions as to new faces, new agendas and new potential leaders.  In other words, the Cabinet announced was largely the one that the PM would have announced if he had only won a minority.

The benefit of caution and minor tinkering is the ability to send the message of stability, “business as usual.” For many Canadians that approach provides a level of comfort.  They can rest assured that not much will change for good or for ill.  Given the history of the unintended consequences of government ambitions for “change,” a small “c” conservative approach will likely keep the Harper Cabinet from becoming much of a topic of political let alone public discussion.

Yet the “steady as she goes” approach does have risks. It may potentially be interpreted as complacency and a lack of new ideas to face new challenges.  With the exception of Maxime Bernier in the small business portfolio, it is hard to think of a new Cabinet minister bringing any new ideas to the table, or at least any new ideas with any lasting impact.

John Baird as Foreign Minister will do what he has done well in previous portfolios – slap down the opposition attacks and keep repeating the mantra of the government’s basic competence. 

Ed Fast, the new Minister of International Trade, will almost certainly not address the fundamental weaknesses in Canada’s trade agenda, agricultural, communications, procurement and transport protectionism,  that has left officials to over-negotiate bilateral trade deals of questionable significance at least when compared to the stalled Doha Round, the talks with the European Union and the newly emerging Pacific Trade Talks.   Whatever vision the Prime Minister has for the next four years remains in his head and not expressed by any endorsement of potentially transformational cabinet ministers.

The reason for such an approach lies with the priority given to returning the government to a balanced budget.  For Stephen Harper a balanced budget must be achieved by the time of the next election or he will have failed his own criteria.  If he balances the budget, he can rightly claim to have brought Canada out of the worst recession of recent memory and left the country stronger.  If he fails to balance the budget, Canadians will have a right to ask, “Just what have you achieved over the last almost ten years?” What is at stake is not just the Conservatives’ fate in the next election but also Stephen Harper’s legacy.

It is no coincidence then that the Prime Minister has turned to two Harris Ontario stalwarts, the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, and the Treasury Board Minister, Tony Clement.  They may not be terribly exciting political leaders but they have proven over their respective careers to deliver what their leader wants and to make sure he gets the credit.  Money is policy and right now Flaherty and Clement are the two most significant policy leaders in Ottawa other than of course of Stephen Harper.

What may surprise some in the years ahead is that Harper will leave much of the financial detail to Flaherty and Clement while he himself concentrates more on international affairs using Baird as his interlocutor.  Harper knows that whatever international capital Canada has gained in Afghanistan, Libya and the G-8 Maternal Health Initiative will simply dissipate without forceful interventions as once more the United States of America under the activist leadership of President Barrack Obama looks to likely once more re-order fundamental global relationships in the Middle East, Asia and Europe – even as the US economy struggles to improve.

Harper needs a balanced budget and a clear presence of Canada on the world stage in order to ensure the Conservatives win a majority in the next election based on a fundamental shift in voter alignment.  He needs both to prove his leadership mattered to the future of Canada.  Ultimately he knows history remembers Prime Ministers and only rarely Cabinet ministers.  And history sometimes is only one news cycle.


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.


Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

You would think that if ever there was a time to talk about open government in Canada, it would be now.  After all, this election was triggered by a contempt of parliament motion resulting from the Harper government’s failure to disclose information to the House of Commons–a dubious first in Canadian (and perhaps Commonwealth) history. 

Yet so far, after a week of campaigning, the only party leader to even mention open government has been Liberal Michael Ignatieff. This is disappointing, since the first week in an election campaign is when parties try to frame their narrative, but not really surprising–and open government activists have only themselves to blame.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks.  And yet,  a compelling, street level narrative to help create political space for such dramatic change is still missing in action.

Tomorrow, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff marks a more positive first in Canadian history as he unveils his party’s platform live on the internet  and takes online questions from Canadians. Details leaked through various news outlets suggest that the platform will feature a number of  open government commitments. 

The Liberals released an  open government position paper  last October, so it’s a safe bet that their platform will not have have many surprises; although one of the leaked tidbits, a “people’s question period”, suggests the party may have held back a few of their more intriguing proposals to give tomorrow’s announcement an air of freshness.

It will be interesting to see if Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and help create political space for a debate of open government during the last four weeks of this campaign.

It is no longer enough for tecchies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves  about the virtues of open government.  Let’s not kid anybody, open government is all about politics.

Open government is not a bureaucratic or technical issue. From the decision to move forward and make data available, to the choice of data, to the terms of use, to more citizen engagement, all these are highly political decisions and, in Canada, would involve the consent of Treasury Board and cabinet.

Anyone wanting to see government opening up, needs to explain why it matters in a way that is easily understood. They have to move the discussion out of the boardroom and into the kitchen, and they have to do it now.

A little over a week ago the government of Canada fell because it was too secretive. The question is will the open government movement in Canada  seize the moment, or will this historic opportunity to engage Canadians on a re-think of the foundations of Canadian parliamentary democracy be wasted.


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.


Monday, February 7th, 2011

The federal Liberals yesterday launched “pucapab“, a French-language social media campaign they hope will become a “viral cri du coeur”.  While it may be too soon to say whether this latest  attempt to leverage social media for partisan purpose  actually catches on or fizzles out like so many others, this campaign  may yet prove that when it comes to online attack ads, less is more.

The name of the Liberal Facebook-based campaign is based on a colloquial contraction of the words “plus capable”, which translate roughly into “I can’t take it anymore”.  The animated YouTube video  at the centre of the campaign features a catchy tune and lyrics taking issue with Conservative policies on a pencil-sketched backdrop of  fighter jets, gallows and a padlocked Parliament.   

The  reason this latest effort may fare better than earlier online efforts by either party, is that the video is eminently sharable. It’s fresh and has one other thing going for it other online attack ads did not: It’s humorous without being mean-spirited.   Because it avoids harsh personal attacks, this is one video that moderate partisans will feel comfortable sharing with family and friends.

In an earlier blog post looking at Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s use of social media I said that an explanation for his social media success was that by being fresh and interesting, his campaign content encouraged sharing and in so doing tapped into the full power of social media. 

By being original, humorous and moderate this video campaign may just spark online (and off-line) conversations across a larger segment of the population and succeed where other harder-hitting campaigns failed. Will it go viral?  Time will tell.