Why the Next Liberal Leader Needs to be More Like Stephen Harper
By: James Di Fiore
It was the worst kept secret in Ottawa – that former Ontario premier, Bob Rae, who used to don NDP orange, would eventually be able to run for the leadership of his new party: the recently decimated federal Liberal Party of Canada.
To the Harper conservatives, it is an early Christmas present. But they have their own issues to sift through.
The Omnibus Budget
When Harper was the leader of the loyal opposition, he had many things to say about the ability of a majority Parliament to consolidate seemingly unrelated bills into an omnibus collage.
“First, there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bill we have before us attempts to amend several different existing laws.
Second, in the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?”
It is the kind of quote that should be repeated over and over again. But this is Canada, and only one party is effective at branding their opponents. For Thomas Mulcair and Bob Rae to capitalize on this hypocritical stance regarding omnibus legislation, they would need a competent communications strategy. Neither party can make such claim, and unless Harper decides to commit suicide, this hypocrisy will end up like the rest of his scandals and missteps: forgotten.
Bob Rae’s Leadership Goals
The conservatives, who have trumped all other federal parties in effective communications for the past 15 years, already banked on this happening months ago when they released a preemptive ad asking Canadians if Bob Rae can be trusted as Prime Minister. After all, he left Ontario with one of the largest deficits in its history and took a policy swipe at his own base while doing so.
A first school of thought, and one which seems to be the prevailing opinion in political circles, is as follows: a track record as rocky as Rae’s will not be able to escape the relentless negative branding by Harper’s conservatives and still emerge as a leader Canadians can trust. Conservatives are great at attack ads, and with Harper’s insatiable lust to ultimately destroy the Liberal Party, Canadians are about to witness a new age in negative advertisements. We are at the very beginning of a political era in Canada where parties will begin crucifying their opponents even when the next election is still years away. In fact, it would be a good bet to believe the conservatives already have a few ads in the queue, trickling them out every time a new opportunity materializes.
After the Liberal convention last January, when a staggering number of red faithfuls made their way to Ottawa to reignite their party, whispers already began to persist regarding Rae’s ambitions as leader. He is a solid speaker and made his mark that weekend, leaving skeptics wondering if he could effectively combat the attacks from Harper and the newly invigorated NDP. That momentum was squandered, however, as the Liberals decided to go into hiding instead of striking the hot iron the convention had provided.
But there may be a chess game quietly taking place at the Liberal executive these days. Most sources indicate the Liberals are universal in their confidence in Rae. This is probably more of a communications strategy than a reality as other insiders are concerned Rae is simply damaged goods. What is obvious is that Liberals need to become more savvy in their public relations, cementing themselves as the only moderate alternative to two opposite yet equally ideological counterparts. This goal of becoming a more effective party in the world of sound bites and ads is a steeper climb with Rae as leader. Rae will keep the Liberals on the defensive for the most part, constantly being badgered about his time as Ontario Premier. The conservatives are masters at getting the press to parrot their criticisms of other politicians (see Michael Ignatieff) and will leave little wiggle room for the Libs to navigate through.
Justin Trudeau’s Leadership Moxie
After the announcement of Rae’s leadership eligibility a media coup took place. On the day it was announced, polls began popping up showing Trudeau as the de facto favourite if he chose to run. His positives are higher, his negatives are lower. And as a sitting Member of Parliament, he is more popular than his 307 colleagues. In short, he is Canada’s only political celebrity.
And he acts like one too.
Trudeau has a lot going for him – his charm, his name recognition, his age – and he has a lot going against him – his charm, his name recognition and his age. Alberta and Saskatchewan, still bitter over the National Energy Program ushered in by Pierre Trudeau, point a finger at Justin as if he was pulling the levers of power for dear old dad. Justin was 9 years old when the NEP was enacted, but this is another example of the savvy, if not Mad Men inspired communications of Harper’s conservative party: brand your enemies so that when decades go by folks will only remember our version of who our enemies are.
It’s working. Ask any Albertan about Justin Trudeau and they will almost certainly begin with his father’s policies. Rae’s name is now synonymous with his 5 years as Ontario Premier (ending 17 years ago) and the tribulations that went along with his administration. Harper once again was able to frame his opponent into the most unflattering career snapshot available and get people to numbly agree.
But what if that worked the other way? What if Harper was asked to brand his own persona in the worst light possible? What would it look like?
If we were to begin in the present day political climate in Ottawa, with the Omnibus Bill being fillibustered in Parliament as we speak, the aforementioned quote would be the singular message coming out of conservative rank and filers.
Reporters would get tired of the repetition, but that’s how you know it is working. Harper has made a career out of his non-interaction with the media, so it seems like a great tactic when trying to brand him as a hypocrite. If the question is “How are opposition parties going to do anything other than stall this bill?” Opposition MPs should reply, “The Prime Minister himself is against omnibus legislation. He has questioned how constituents can feel represented when so much legislation is crammed into one bill. That’s the Prime Minister himself talking. He is either a hypocrite or against his own legislation.”
And so on.
But try as they may, opposition parties in Canada are impotent in cementing an idea for the public. They are also undisciplined. Without an effective voter relations strategy and the ability to stay on message, even when it feels wrong to do so, they simply cannot overcome the machine the conservatives have been building for decades. As it stands, Stephen Harper is the only politician in Canada who could destroy Stephen Harper. With that kind of reality, there’s no wonder he is getting cocky on his perch.