Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On conduits

With yesterday's whiff out of the way, let's move on to the more important issues surrounding ten-per-centers. In this post, I'll take a look at the strategic implications of the Libs or any other opposition party seeking an end to them, and follow up with another post on the principle of the matter.

At the outset, let's draw a distinction between three types of communication which are used by federal politicians to get their message out to the public. The first is government-based communication, which takes up by far the largest share of cost - and which, while theoretically neutral and limited to informing the public about federal programs, is bound to at least somewhat support the interests of the party in power. Of course, under the Cons this type of advertising has tilted as far toward partisan messaging as Harper and his party can get away with.

On the opposite extreme is party-based communication, which is at least nominally privately funded (though of course publicly-funded tax credits, rebates and subsidies play a significant role in their distribution) and by definition intended solely for the purpose of partisan advantage. There too the Cons are largely able to dominate the field due to their historical fund-raising advantage.

The third type is then MP-based communication, consisting of householders and ten-per-centers. In theory, this type of communication lies on the middle ground between the other two in terms of content and focus: it's naturally more partisan than government-purchased messaging, but in theory shouldn't be as much so as the material that parties purchase for themselves. (The "middle ground" theory does break down in terms of cost, but only because there's almost certainly less money spent on MP-based communication than the other extremes - which hardly seems like reason to focus on it as the most deserving of limitation.)

And most importantly, MP-based communication is also the type where the Cons have the least relative advantage in getting their message out: one could assume in theory that it should roughly reflect the proportion of seats each party holds in the House of Commons, but in fact the ten-per-center system as it stands is probably best seen as a potential equalizer between all of the parties in Parliament.

Mind you, it's probably true that the Libs have failed to maximize their use of the medium. But surely that can be seen as a problem worth fixing rather than an inevitability.

Indeed, it would seem obvious that the Libs and the other opposition parties are in fact best served defending the type of communication which theoretically allows them the best chance of countering the Cons' control over the federal government and their party-level fund-raising strength. But that fact likely hasn't been lost on the Cons as well - which may be one of the main reasons why the Cons have effectively turned the medium into a purely partisan one featuring their most odious attacks and lies.

For the Libs to attack the medium rather than the Cons' misuse of it then completely misses the point. Particularly with another reorganization in the books, the Libs should be eager to look for ways of spreading their message - not publicly demanding that they be silenced in one of the few formats they currently have available to make their case to voters in Con-held ridings. If anything, the Cons are probably doing Ignatieff a favour by not taking up his invitation, as any restriction on MP-based communication only means that the material available to Canadians will include more from the categories where the Cons are able to completely dominate the field.

Even if the Libs have no idea what they want to say for now, they surely can't believe that they'll ever get back to power without someday coming up with a message which they'll need to put in front of Canadians. And the more the Libs do now to limit their means of spreading any consistent theme later on, the more likely they'll make it that the Cons' message will continue to win out for far too long to come.

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