Framing the Ballot in Campaign ‘15

Paul Stanway
September 1, 2015
Long before the writ dropped August 2, election planners for all the parties began drafting their messaging strategies and scripting the daily campaign events and policy announcements. At the very top of their agenda was the job of “framing the ballot” – the subtle and sophisticated art and science of trying to define the choice voters will make on election day. Over a long career of covering elections as a journalist and planning them as a senior political staffer, Paul Stanway has developed a deep understanding of how this process works. His analysis of where the Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties are currently positioned in their quest to frame the ballot kicks off C2C Journal’s comprehensive coverage of Campaign ’15.

Framing the Ballot in Campaign ‘15

Paul Stanway
September 1, 2015
Long before the writ dropped August 2, election planners for all the parties began drafting their messaging strategies and scripting the daily campaign events and policy announcements. At the very top of their agenda was the job of “framing the ballot” – the subtle and sophisticated art and science of trying to define the choice voters will make on election day. Over a long career of covering elections as a journalist and planning them as a senior political staffer, Paul Stanway has developed a deep understanding of how this process works. His analysis of where the Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties are currently positioned in their quest to frame the ballot kicks off C2C Journal’s comprehensive coverage of Campaign ’15.
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At the end of the second week of the 2015 federal election campaign Stephen Harper became the first party leader to make a stop in Winnipeg. Speaking to an invited crowd of about 300 Conservative supporters, the prime minister gave the sort of focused and polished performance we’ve come to expect of him after so long in the political spotlight, nailing his theme of proven, dependable leadership in troubled times. The audience was enthused, the media was grumpy, and outside the oblivious residents of the Manitoba capital made plans for the upcoming weekend.

Welcome to Election 2015 – the first ‘fixed-date’ federal election and the longest official campaign in 142 years.

Conventional wisdom says you don’t kick off an election in Canada in August, when most voters are tuned out and making the most of our short summer. So why do it? Harper contended that the unofficial campaign was underway well before the writ dropped August 2, so it was time to impose some order on the process. Happily for him, the early launch also effectively shut down third-party advertising, most of which had been union-backed attack ads aimed at the Conservatives. Plus his party happens to have more money than their two major opponents, which should give them an edge over a longer campaign.

Naturally these strategic considerations went unmentioned in the Winnipeg stump speech – localized variations of which he’ll deliver dozens of times at Tory rallies across Canada during the 78-day campaign. But the underlying theme was clear – that the election would be, should be, a referendum on almost 10 years of Conservative economic management. Harper’s main objective – and challenge – would lie in getting voters to look beyond the mountain of complaints that have built up over a decade in government and focus on that central issue.

It is hard to overlook all the political baggage the Tories have accumulated, including the recent millstones served up in testimony at the Mike Duffy trial. But it mercifully recessed August 28, and the Conservatives are banking on all that unpleasantness disappearing down the memory hole over the remaining seven weeks of the campaign. If the economy is in the center of the ballot frame on October 19, they believe, Harper has a good shot at a fourth consecutive term – a feat last achieved by Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1908 – and a chance to vault past Jean Chretien to become Canada’s fifth-longest serving prime minister.

“Change” vs “proven economic leadership”

Voter “fatigue” with the Tories is real and the argument for change is persuasive. At least two early polls indicated that some two-thirds of Canadians want the Conservatives gone. That’s why both major opposition parties chose that theme for their primary election slogans: the NDP under Thomas Mulcair is Ready For Change while the Liberals under Justin Trudeau are promising Real Change.

Anything that highlights the similarities of their opponents is welcomed by the Tories, whose electoral calculus in many parts of the country is to come up the middle between a split centre-left vote. The same strategy kept the Liberals in power for 13 years when the Canadian right was split between the Reform-Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties. Early polling for the current election suggests, however, that the opposition parties are strong in separate fiefdoms: the Liberals in the Maritimes and Ontario, the NDP in Quebec and B.C. Everywhere the anybody-but-Conservative vote consolidates around one of the opposition parties, the Tories will be in trouble.

But those same polls indicate that no matter how weary many voters are of the Conservative government and its austere leader, they still trust them with the keys to the economy more than they do the opposition parties and their rookie leaders. Small wonder. Almost from the day they first took office – and likely well before then – the party has made a sustained effort to position itself as the ne plus ultra of fiscal rectitude and economic managerial competence. As a result, deservedly or not, the Conservative economic brand is solidly ahead of its competitors in the political marketplace.

It’s a good thing they made that effort, for in 2015 the economy has not performed as they hoped or expected. As recently as last summer the government was still loudly boasting that Canada had weathered the 2008 global economic downturn better than any other major western economy. The Tories’ economic credentials looked unassailable. But in case anyone had forgotten how much Canada’s resource driven, export dependent economy depends on external economic conditions, the past year has been a salutary reminder: a precipitous drop in oil prices, depressed international demand for Canadian resources, lacklustre demand in the United States for our manufactured goods, and a falling loonie.

Predictably, the NDP and Liberals have been working very hard to make the Conservatives wear this year’s barrage of bad economic news, including recent gyrations in stock markets and the September 1 announcement from Statistics Canada that the economy shrunk marginally during the first two quarters of 2015 – which meets the technical definition of a recession.

Thus in the first month of the campaign what should have been the Conservatives’ sturdiest asset looked pretty limp, and Harper had to fall back on some of his 2008 rhetoric, blaming external factors beyond the government’s control and warning that electing an untested leader committed to increased taxes and spending would make a difficult situation worse. (His stump speech invokes the specter of Greece, where a new socialist government took over a faltering economy and made things “much, much worse”.) Of course that narrative proved effective in 2008, and still had legs in the 2011 election campaign. But one wonders, how many times can a government cry wolf?

Do ISIS and Putin matter?

In case stoking fear of economic calamity might not be enough to return the Conservatives to power, the party has another frightful narrative that runs second only to the economic nightmare in its messaging: global insecurity.

When Conservative election planners started drafting the campaign script last fall, Canadians were reeling from the murders of two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec by two aspiring Canadian jihadis. It’s difficult to imagine a more explicit challenge to our collective security than an attack on Parliament, or a more emotional one than the killing of an unarmed volunteer soldier on the steps of Canada’s national war memorial. At the time, our elected representatives were suitably united in their sorrow and outrage, but the fundamental disagreements between the major parties on how Canada should respond to terrorism and other international security threats soon re-emerged.

On this file Stephen Harper has arguably been Canada’s most outspoken leader since… well, ever. He has ditched the “honest broker” diplomacy long favoured by the Liberals and NDP for a more pugnacious, unambiguous approach: opposing Russian expansionism in Ukraine, staunchly upholding Israel’s right to self-defence, committing Canadian Forces to the campaign against ISIS, and presiding over Canada’s long war in Afghanistan.

In short, Harper has led Canadian foreign policy to a place where the NDP and the Liberals will not follow, which once again leaves them competing against each other for more dovish voters. NDP leader Mulcair has muted his party’s traditionally strong pacifism, couching his opposition to the Harper doctrine in legalistic terms and emphasizing that he opposes Canadian military involvement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria because it is not sanctioned by the UN or NATO.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are, if anything, now to the left of the NDP on foreign policy. He has been unambiguous in opposing the ISIS missions and loud in his calls for Canada to return to its role the world’s peacekeeper. It may have been a mistake, but it was probably no accident when he slammed Harper for “whipping out his CF-18s” to show the world how big they are. His evident goal on the campaign trail is to portray Harper as a warmonger, and himself as heir to late 20th century Canadian Liberal pacifism.

The Conservatives’ domestic anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, also cleaved a sharp divide between the governing and opposition parties. Mulcair’s NDP opted to oppose it outright, while Trudeau’s Liberals tried to have it both ways, voting for the bill while promising to gut it if they form government.

All of this has allowed the PM to forcefully argue that an NDP or Liberal government would compromise the security of Canadians with their wishy-washy approach to external threats. Many Canadian voters, particularly among the 1.2 million of Ukrainian descent, likely find it hard to imagine Mulcair or Trudeau publicly snubbing Vladimir Putin and telling him to “get out of Ukraine”.

But will any of this significantly influence votes in October? An Angus Reid poll published August 28 pegged terrorism and security as the top issue for just six percent of Canadians, far below the economy, health care, jobs and several other issues. It appears it would take a Russian invasion of the Arctic or an ISIS beheading on Bay Street for security to materially affect the ballot frame.

Chickens for every pot

In the first weeks of the campaign all the parties rolled out initiatives they hope will bolster their core support and attract swing voters, with the CPC making an early attempt to set the agenda (10 significant Conservative campaign announcements by mid-August, compared with four each from the NDP and Liberals, and just one from the Greens).

As befits a party stressing fiscal responsibility, most of the Conservatives’ announcements so far have been modest in scope and cost: bolstering the ranks of the Canadian Forces reserve, improving benefits for disabled veterans, improved apprentice tax credits, banning “terror tourism” to extremist-controlled countries, and increased aid for persecuted religious minorities.

Some have been more substantive: the promise to raise the amount that first-time home buyers can withdraw tax free from RRSPs should appeal to some younger voters; a permanent home renovation tax credit, although modest, will help satisfy Canadians’ prodigious appetite for upgrading and improving their homes; and pledging to resurrect “life means life” sentencing for the most heinous murderers signals that the Conservatives are still pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda – another popular stance that sets them apart from the Liberals and NDP. Their resolute stance on marijuana prohibition is part of that, and although it defies a seemingly inexorable trend towards decriminalization and legalization in Canada and elsewhere, it is said to play well among many ethnic communities – particularly Asian and South Asian – which are an essential part of the Tory electoral coalition.

Perhaps in an effort to neutralize the opposition “change” narrative, many Conservative announcements have been future-focused. Harper’s promise to halt Senate appointments is clearly an attempt to address widespread public unhappiness with the upper house (and a tacit admission that the appointments of Senators Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau et al were a mistake). Likewise the promise to pass legislation committing any future government to a national referendum on changes to the electoral process forces the Liberals, in particular, to explain why they wouldn’t want Canadians to vote on, say, a move to proportional representation.

All of this builds on springtime pledges to deliver family income splitting, raise TFSA thresholds, and hike the Universal Child Care Benefit. The opposition parties have worked very hard to portray all these as disproportionately benefitting the rich. But the fat UCCB cheques that arrived in the mail this summer were undoubtedly welcomed by rich and poor households alike.

This aggressive agenda has largely sidelined opposition attempts to portray the government as old, tired and out of ideas. The opposition parties have been forced to spend much time reacting to Conservative announcements, which was surely the CPC’s goal. The first national televised leaders’ debate in August was largely fought on preferred Conservative ground and the remaining ones – including one on the economy and one on foreign policy – should reinforce this strategy.

For their part, both major opposition parties also laid out their main planks in advance of the writ: Mulcair with his $15 daycare and $15 minimum wage plans and tax hikes for large businesses, and Trudeau stressing increased taxes on “the wealthiest Canadians” to fund a new tax-free Canada Child Benefit and lower taxes for “middle class families”. This bidding war for parents’ votes is probably unprecedented in Canadian electoral history, and a measure of how far the Conservatives have set and moved the agenda.

Where the Tories are manifestly not setting the agenda is on environmental policy, ranked as the top issue by 14 percent of Canadians in the Reid poll. Both major opposition parties have promised to “kickstart” renewable energy production, drive down “climate-changing emissions” and generally bolster Canada’s green credentials. Their cause may soon get a boost if, as expected, U.S. President Barack Obama vetoes the Keystone XL pipeline, which will likely be portrayed as punishment for Conservative foot-dragging on carbon regulation.

On, off, and back on message

So how is all of this playing to a distracted electorate? From a Conservative perspective, in the early going you would have had to say “not well”.

The malodourous and overtly political Duffy trial allowed the opposition parties to characterize the Prime Minister as devious and undeserving of public trust. The only thing missing from the courtroom was a likeness of Harper in the dock.

But then something remarkable happened. The Duffy trial went into hiatus and the disappointing economic indicators morphed into a dramatic, if temporary, stock market panic. In the space of 24 hours, all anyone was talking about was the economy – and which leader and party was best qualified to weather the turmoil.

The response from the NDP and Liberals may ultimately define the election campaign of 2015, with both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair forced to address the issue of federal deficits.

Trudeau was first out of the gate, with an explanation that a Liberal government would run deficits of up to $10 billion a year for at least two years to prime the economic pump and finance increased infrastructure spending. Harper giddily responded that Trudeau has finally figured out that deficits “don’t take care of themselves,” and in a remarkably animated, apparently unscripted moment, he mocked the Liberal leader’s “modest deficit, a tiny deficit, so small you can hardly see the deficit”.

Mulcair’s response was as uncharacteristic as Harper’s glee, vowing that come hell or high water an NDP government would not run a deficit. His opponents immediately toted up the cost of NDP promises and proclaimed them unaffordable without a massive tax increase.

The Conservative gamble that the campaign focus would eventually settle on the economy appears to be working. The sweet spot for them is economic news that is bad enough to underscore their message that a change of government is risky, but not so bad that a change seems necessary. As luck would have it, the day after Trudeau promised deficits the federal Finance department announced a $5 billion budget surplus for the second quarter of the 2015. This may have hurt Trudeau’s bold attempt to outflank the NDP on the left, but if it peels off NDP votes for the Liberals in enough tight three-way races, that probably augers well for the Conservatives too. All the parties and leaders will face bumps and blow-ups over the next seven weeks, and there will be more conflicting economic data. But as the campaign begins in earnest, the ballot frame setting up as well as Harper’s team could have hoped.


Paul Stanway is a veteran columnist, editor, and author of several books on Canadian history. He has worked as a communications consultant for major corporations, and from 2007 to 2010 served as Communications Director for former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

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