Saturday, September 13, 2008

On fast-talking politicians

Shorter Elizabeth May, circa October 7, 2008:
I know how it's funny how it sounds like I said "vote Green" before, but I really said "vote Liberal". Just another problem with my talking too fast.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reason for optimism

For those wondering just how likely it is that the NDP might end up winning up to a dozen seats in Quebec as predicted by Thomas Mulcair, consider how the latest polling numbers compare to some of the results from 2006.

Recent polls have put the New Democrats as high as 18% in the province, with obvious room to grow within the province as the campaign progresses and the party's star candidates are introduced to voters.

In 2006, the Bloc, Cons and Libs between them split over 87% of the vote. The Cons, with 24.6% of the vote, won 10 seats; the Libs, with 20.7% of the vote, won 13 seats. And each won several landslides, suggesting votes that weren't as efficiently distributed as they could have been.

So if the NDP can even maintain its current polling numbers with the vote now split four ways, it's in effectively the same place that allowed the Libs and Cons to match Mulcair's targeted seat total in 2006. And if by some chance the NDP can keep pushing its numbers up, it may well be able to match another part of the Cons' 2006 performance in winning seats which it didn't even have on the radar when the campaign began.


The prospect of an internal Lib coup against Stephane Dion has never struck me as particularly plausible, based mostly on the lack of any internal mechanism to carry it out. But the possibility of Lib candidates striking out on their own in countering the party's message - and particularly the carbon tax plan - has always been far more plausible and feasible. And the first indication of that kind of movement seems to have arrived:
Tony Bullman of Charlottetown says that last winter many seniors had to choose between drugs, food and heating their homes. He said seniors can’t afford the additional tax.
Murphy said low-income Islanders would benefit most through the tax cuts.
“This winter, I don’t think you’re going to see the green shift even if the Liberals got elected,” Murphy responded.
Now, it's bizarre enough to try to argue that voters shouldn't worry about the Libs' plan simply because it could be pushed into the future. And that goes doubly when the Libs have tried to claim that a carbon tax is their preferred means of shifting carbon consumption precisely because it could be put in place faster than a cap and trade regime.

But what's even more important is that Murphy seems to have broken the ice in campaigning on effectively the opposite of the party's campaign theme. While Dion tries to sell an urgent immediate need for the Green Shift scheme, Murphy has apparently concluded that his self-interest as a candidate lies in saying that his constituents don't need to worry about the Libs following through particularly quickly.

Mind you, it's worth noting that Murphy's own statement was included within an attempt to sell the carbon tax generally at a later date. But the more candidates end up testing the waters of how far they're allowed to distance themselves from the Libs' central policy, the more likely it is that Libs generally will follow suit as part of an "every candidate for himself/herself" mentality. And that would put an end to any hope the Libs may have of pulling their party together to try to stand up to Deceivin' Stephen.

Open questions

Greg has offered his suggestions for the first question Elizabeth May should expect to have to answer about the Red Green pact. But particularly based on today's La Presse report, here's another suggestion for the debates or elsewhere:

You have talked about the importance of preventing Stephen Harper and his Conservative government from being re-elected, and entered into a special arrangement with the Liberals intended to make that happen. In the interests of stopping Harper, do you plan:
(a) to order your party to stand down against New Democrat or Bloc candidates who have a chance to defeat Conservatives to the same extent as you do with Liberal opponents?
(b) to endorse Jack Layton for Prime Minister if the New Democrats are polling ahead of the Liberals by the end of the campaign?
And if the answer to either is "no", then why does your concern with stopping Harper extend only to parties who are willing to help you win your seat?

Perfectly Lined Up II

Once again, the contrast between the Harper government's obsession with making big-money interests even bigger and the NDP's focus on the economic issues facing all Canadians couldn't be much more striking. From the Globe and Mail:

Tories: Harper to relax foreign investment rules
NDP: Layton vows to fight for consumers

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Attacking themselves

Ryan Sparrow's suspension has already attracted plenty of discussion. But it's worth noting that Sparrow didn't just attack the father of a deceased Canadian soldier; instead, he attacked the father of a deceased Canadian soldier for spreading a message which the Cons themselves have pushed. Here's Gordon O'Connor in the wake of another soldier's death in 2006 (and just before the first Afghanistan extension vote):
More than ever before, we must stay the course so that the sacrifices made by the members of the Canadian Forces are not made in vain.
As a result, the story isn't just another example of the Cons reflexively picking partisan fights with anybody who dares to say anything which doesn't suit their political purposes - though it works on that level as well.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, it also highlights how little grounding the Cons actually have in the principles and positions which they've tried to sell as part of their party brand. And the fact that the Cons now consider the same words they themselves used not long ago as justification for attacks today should make it clear just how little reason there is to take seriously what they have to say during the campaign.

On disarray

I naturally don't agree with all of Steve's analysis in his post this morning. But it leads at least tangentially to one significant point worth highlighting about the election campaign so far: the Libs have managed to be disorganized and uninspiring enough to see their support collapse even without the type of gaffe or scandal that's tended to shift momentum in past campaigns.

Contrary to Steve's message, though, the Libs' problems aren't merely a product of the media. So far in the campaign, while every other party has rolled out a message which fits into the election narrative which it wants to build, the Libs have been pitching little more than a grab bag of unrelated policies with no evidence of a broader theme or vision (other than maybe "Harper bad", which fits equally well into the NDP's wider message).

Mind you, anybody would think twice about trying to tell that story if the Libs were showing any signs of having thought out their campaign and inspired their supporters. But it makes for an irresistibly convenient narrative when the Libs' scattershot approach to policy and amateurish messaging is combined with anything along the lines of the logistical issues or limited crowd support which the Libs have faced.

What's more, matters only figure to get worse for the Libs. After all, when Dion and his entourage haven't been able to plan out an effective campaign over the course of the past two years, there's no reason to think they'll suddenly be able to throw one together over the next month. And that means that when the Libs eventually run into some more traditional gaffes - as any party is bound to do at some point, particularly with a rookie leader - they'll be singularly ill-equipped to minimize the damage or shift the focus elsewhere.

Of course, plenty can happen during the course of a campaign to change its initial course. But once again, the Libs have shown that they're staking their chances on little more than the bare hope that matters beyond their control will break their way - and one can hardly fault the media for seeing that as a more significant story than the occasional glitch elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Perfectly lined up

If one were to ask the NDP campaign to write three stories it would like to see making the news together at the same time, it could hardly do better than these ones which all appeared today on National Newswatch:

NDP would boost ‘green sector' jobs...proposed $8-billion spending program which he says will create 40,000 new jobs to replace those that have been lost across Canada

Can't guarantee jobs, PM says...Harper had a blunt message for Ford workers: "We can't guarantee your job."

Study: Tories made $19.2b in pre-election announcements...Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the Conservative government has made a whopping $19.2 billion worth of pre-election spending announcements since June.

Which means that for those able to draw the link between the stories, Harper is now left to try to defend his track record of manufacturing job losses, even as the NDP puts forward its plan to turn around the decline for less than half the cost of the Cons' pre-election vote-buying spree.

Naturally, it remains to be seen whether the Cons' attempt to brand themselves as competent economic managers will be held up to the scrutiny it deserves. But if there's anything that can highlight just how laughable the Cons' claim to responsible management really is, it's that kind of connection between the Cons' wild spending and their simultaneous lack of positive results.

Conservative management in action

The man appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper so that he could be put in charge of all government contracting serves up another reminder of just how responsible the Cons are when it comes to managing spending:
Oops. Now (Michael Fortier is) being questioned about a funding announcement that the government made last week that, apparently, had his name on it. “I announced that?” He muses. Yes, minister.

Building credentials

Murray Mandryk comments on the NDP's well-placed move toward a more populist campaign, pointing out that Jack Layton's campaign has gone out of its way to be accessible to the public both in message and in fact:
This time around, the NDP is clearly running its leader as a populist with hardline views on the environment and a hankering to take on the rich corporations. Once past the NDP cliche of speaking for Canadians at the kitchen table rather than the boardroom table, Layton hammered away at corporations gouging us at the gas pumps, through text messaging charges and additional banking fees...

(M)ake no mistake that the blue-collar socialist we saw at the Regina pub Tuesday differs from the white-collar intellectual presented by Liberal leader Stephane Dion or the white-collar business-man of Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

For instance, after Layton mingled with supporters Tuesday, he lingered to take questions from reporters, participated in interviews with editorial board members and talkshow hosts and even found the time to meet with less-than-hostile striking Grain Services Union members. Contrast that with Stephen Harper, who on Monday feigned a newly found common touch for the evening news cameras that carried the event at a local farm quonset live. Unfortunately, what Harper couldn't be bothered to do was actually answer any questions while campaigning on Saskatchewan soil.
Now, Mandryk's column shouldn't be taken as an indication that Layton can't go further in pushing a populist line. To date any anti-Ottawa messaging from the NDP has been fairly reserved, as usual hot buttons like corruption and patronage haven't been dealt with substantively and even the NDP's first platform plank has been introduced mostly in a positive, "you and your family first" context.

That said, there should be plenty more room for the NDP to move onto populist ground as the campaign progresses and the conversation around the kitchen table focuses a bit more on what's currently being done wrong. And the fact that pundits like Mandryk are already picking up on the message even in its early stages can only bode well for its ability to resonate later on.

Directing traffic

The NDP's move to get its website into the search results for key search terms in the federal election campaign has received plenty of positive attention, most notably at Posted. But it's worth noting that the strategy goes far beyond just Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion's names.

Instead, anybody Googling Gilles Duceppe will also see the NDP's ad link back to the party's home page. And some searches for Elizabeth May and "green shift" did yesterday as well - though those seem to have changed overnight.

It remains to be seen whether the strategy will be kept up throughout the campaign, as well as just how many terms may already be included. And it goes without saying that the results of pulling in Google traffic will depend heavily on having consistently interesting content on the target page - making it doubly important for the strategy to be part of a strong general online presence.

But the focus on Google looks to be an ideal way to ensure that the NDP gets its message out to people who are obviously interested enough in the campaign to be researching its key players and issues. And if the move works on a national level, it would also seem to show loads of potential at a candidate level if search results for competitors in key ridings can similarly result in links to the NDP's candidates - making the initial ad buy so far just one more step in a complete online strategy.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Cheating at cards

Michael Geist has already pointed out the privacy implications of Stephen Harper's reprisal of the Rosh Hashanah mailout which caused so much controversy last year. But in the midst of a federal election campaign, there's another issue which may be even more important: namely, how the latest card mailout fits into Canada's campaign financing rules.

After all, the message seems to have been timed to put Harper's name and face in front of voters during the course of a federal election called at a time of his choosing. So if anybody but Harper or the Cons is footing the bill - or if the Cons are trying to keep the mailout off the election books by pretending it's not related to the campaign - then this may be just the first sign that Conadscam was just the beginning of Harper's contempt for Canada's election laws.

Just a bit more lead, and then it'll fly

With the Cons apparently following through on a diesel tax cut as their first policy announcement of the election campaign, I'll point back to what I had to say when the idea was first mooted:
(A)ny reduction in consumer prices resulting from such a cut would depend on the oil industry, the shipping industry and retailers all choosing to pass along any reduced costs rather than taking profits for themselves - which is what makes such a cut a poor measure from a policy standpoint. Needless to say, there's little reason to think any of them would hesitate to take as much of the gain as possible.

What's more, even if any of the cut did manage to filter through to consumers, the effect would take at least some time to work its way through the supply chain. Which means that any potential benefit for consumers at large would be a remote possibility in both likelihood and time.

Meanwhile, the immediate costs to Canada would be obvious. After a summer where there's been plenty of attention to the possibility that the Cons have already mismanaged the country into a deficit, a move to drain another billion dollars from the federal treasury could only make Harper look even more reckless when it comes to Canada's finances.

So would Harper put forward a low-reward, high-risk strategy solely for the sake of drawing a stronger contrast to the Libs' carbon tax? If so, that can only signal that the Cons are even more bereft of ideas than any of us had already suspected.
Of course, we received added confirmation of the latter point this morning.

But while one might be able to excuse some juvenile behaviour from the war room of a party which actually had some desirable policies to offer, the Cons have publicly declared that they're down to trying to pump yet more lead into a failed trial balloon for their first major promise of the campaign. And it shouldn't take more than the slightest bit of scrutiny for Canadians to notice both how little the Cons have to offer, and how likely it is that working Canadians will be the last to benefit from their idea of a populist measure.

Delayed accountability

In case we needed another example of how the Cons' onetime promises of accountability have given way to a culture where independent bodies are afraid to do their jobs, another one has surfaced this week. Shorter budget officer Kevin Page on why his office is delaying the release of a report on the real costs of Afghanistan:
An election campaign is no time for accurate and non-partisan facts.

On succession

Whether or not the final result comes as a surprise, it has to be a good sign that the NDP's Halifax nomination race featured two extremely well-organized candidates who look to be entirely united in purpose for the general election. Congratulations to Megan Leslie on winning the nomination - and hopefully it won't be long before Alexis MacDonald is back in the fray as well.

Monday, September 08, 2008

On multitasking

Can anybody remember the last time a federal leader turned a campaign flight into more than just a means of getting from point A to point B? Because it looks like the NDP managed to make Jack Layton's flight to Fort Smith into an opportunity for the press on board to find out just what kind of environmental damage is being caused by the Alberta tar sands:
In a pitch that seemed more in tune with voters in environmentally sensitive Central Canada, particularly Quebec, Layton vowed to shut down further expansion of Alberta's tarsands development.

He is also promising to force big oil companies to clean up and reclaim vast swaths of land that has been strip mined for petroleum production.

"This development has to be brought under control, otherwise we're going to have a legacy for the next generation that's too toxic to clean up," Layton said as his campaign plane swooped low over a portion of the 47,832 hectares of land ripped up by tarsands development.

With the national media already a captive audience, Layton saw the flyby as a perfect opportunity to make a point...

Over the cabin speaker, Linda Duncan - the party's candidate in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona and a long-time environmentalist - gave an aerial guided tour of the scarred earth below. She pointed to gaping brown holes in the landscape and huge, inky-coloured, man-made lakes of waste water...

Duncan said the gouging of the ground isn't the worst environmental damage. Oilsands development requires a huge amount of water that eventually ends up in gigantic toxic holding ponds that communities downstream from the development say are polluting their waterways.
Of course, there's only so much awareness a party can raise with a direct audience limited to its campaign plane. But it's still a creative and worthwhile move to ensure that the media covering Layton's campaign gets a close-up look at some of the most immediate dangers which his environmental message is intended to deal with. And if the rest of the campaign is similarly well-planned in highlighting the New Democrats' causes even during what would normally be idle time, then the press closest to Layton may be far more inclined to see the party as ready to take on the responsibility of governing the country.

On last gasps

I'm not sure whether the Bloc is sitting on numbers that look far worse than the polling that's been made public, sees a little more truth than it's prepared to deal with in the NDP's critique of it, or simply figures the rest of the campaign isn't going to go well. But can Gilles Duceppe's plea to federalist voters in the early stages of the election campaign be seen as anything but a sign of desperation? And isn't it entirely likely that Duceppe will end up losing far more support by telling separatists that his party is irrelevant than he can possibly gain by begging for strategic votes from federalists?

Similar problems

Jack Layton has already responded to the Cons' attempts to criticize him for telling a story about workers being told to pack up their equipment to be shipped overseas based on some similarities to an anecdote included in Barack Obama's acceptance speech. But it's worth pointing out another side of the story.

Namely, how out of touch with the problems facing the manufacturing sector would anybody have to be to think it's a matter of suspicion that more than one North American business might have shipped its equipment to China?

How anti-worker does one have to be to think it's a scandal if more than one employee who's gone through the anguish of packing up the equipment he's worked on to be sent halfway across the world (along with his job) manages to get that story told on the campaign trail?

And how clueless would one have to be not to notice that the similar problems facing workers in both Canada and the U.S. have come from the same kind of failed corporatist economic theory?

For the record, even a minute of Googling the core terms of the story would have turned up this passage from a Layton speech in July:
I’ve stood with proud Steelworkers who have worked for generations in factories that have outperformed all other plants in their class but whose owners are shutting down. They make these good people put moving stickers on the equipment they’ve worked on for years, so that it can be shipped to some low-wage, exploitative, unsafe workplace somewhere else in the world.
So even the slightest bit of research would have shown the attack on Layton to be completely unfounded.

But the more important message is that it's long past time for workers whose jobs have been outsourced to have their stories told and their concerns dealt with. And both Layton and Obama deserve credit for doing that - regardless of who mentioned it first.

On coverage

The CP points out some positive news in media coverage of the campaign, as the Cons' attempt to manipulate early-morning coverage was an utter failure due to a refusal by the major networks to air new attack ads on the Cons' terms:
The Tories hoped to drive the daily news agenda with the planned 6 a.m. news conferences at their sophisticated campaign headquarters several kilometres away from Parliament Hill.

But today's unveiling of a new series of campaign ads attacking Liberal Leader Stephane Dion received no live coverage on any of the major national television networks.

Instead, Newsworld cut to the question-and-answer session after the announcement, when Conservative MPs Jason Kenney and Lawrence Cannon faced a series of tough questions.

The pair made no substantive policy announcements, choosing instead to target Dion and the main plank of his campaign platform, The Green Shift.

Reporters all but ignored the now-familiar attacks and instead questioned the two candidates on gas prices, tax policy and purported attempts to muzzle Tory candidates.
It remains to be seen whether the pattern will continue as the campaign progresses. And as the Con spin went following the appearance, they did manage to get some major network exposure later on - though it's not clear that the coverage was substantially different from that which every party has received so far.

But today's example may still serve as an important precedent where Canada's media refused to meekly carry out the Cons' public relations strategy. And that may turn out to be a serious obstacle for a party which is counting on enough coverage of its top-down messaging to make up for the fact that candidates aren't allowed to speak for themselves.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Apparently the NDP's ads aren't the only part of the campaign that's striking straight for the Cons' seeming strengths, as Jack Layton's early itinerary also looked to be aimed directly at Stephen Harper's stronghold:
Mr. Layton did not take questions from reporters at the morning event. That opportunity was promised for later in the day when the party's plane lands in Mr. Harper's home town of Calgary.
Now, it would take some radical changes in vote shifts to put even a single Calgary seat in play; indeed, no other major Canadian city figures to make for less fertile electoral ground for the NDP. And one would have to expect Calgary's media to be about as unfriendly to Layton as any local group in the country - making it counterintuitive to give them the first crack at asking questions about the New Democrats' campaign.

But while the choice may be a curious one at first glance, it certainly drives home the point that Layton won't shy away from the task of taking on Harper and his home base head-on. And sending that message from day one may wind up paying huge dividends as the campaign evolves.

Line of the day

From commenter d at Macleans, on Stephen Harper's view of his children:
Stephen Harper. Proud father of two “campaign assets”.
In fairness, though, at least Harper still sees his children as positives for his campaign. Because if that ever changed, it surely wouldn't be long before Doug Finley would shuffle them away in favour of somebody more photogenic.

Campaign Vignette: Harper Chauffeured Across the Street

Following up on the multiple live blogs from this morning's writ drop, let's point out what may be the first image worth pushing to point out Stephen Harper's detachment from the reality of everyday Canadians: rather than walking to Rideau Hall to request the election, Harper was chauffeured across the street within a four-vehicle convoy.

So how can that image work for the opposition parties?

Step one would obviously be to cite this as an example of how far Harper is out of touch with people in general. "While you wonder how to pay for your next tank of gas to get to and from work every day, Stephen Harper loads up two sedans, an SUV and a cargo van to cross the street to quit his job."

Then there are the tangential issues which can be linked in. "Fighting climate change requires every Canadian to do their part in using resources more responsibly. For example, using four vehicles to travel a block is a bad idea."

And then toss in the opportunity for reply lines when Harper goes on the attack. "Why don't you have your chauffeurs drive you across the stage so you can say that to my face?"

Of course, there are many more ways the image and message can be used to help define Harper as the campaign goes forward. But the central point is that the opposition will need to seize on these kinds of moments to help shape how Harper is perceived - and it could hardly have asked for a better start to the campaign.