Opinion » Editorial

The government is the message



If Canadians lose their frigging minds and elect the NDP the tax increases brought in by a Thomas Mulcair government will send the economy into a nosedive faster and deeper than the Greek tragedy currently playing out in Europe.

This not-so subtle message is currently being broadcast, inferred and propagated by the Conservative Party of Canada. The Conservatives, in case your thoughts have been occupied by politics south of the border or snow from above, have governed Canada for the past six years and after last year's election hold a firm majority of seats in the House of Commons. They are in no danger of losing their majority anytime soon as the next federal election is not expected until 2015.

So why are the Conservatives spending time and money on ads (and other campaigns) attacking Mulcair and the NDP?

Because the first order of business for a government — of any political stripe — in the 21st century is to make sure it's re-elected. That the Conservatives are buying ads at a time when there isn't an election on the horizon is just the latest escalation of this axiom.

As former CBC reporter Denise Rudnicki pointed out more than three years ago, political parties are way ahead of the public and the media when it comes to understanding how messages shape reality.

Rudnicki, who spoke at a Canadian Association of Journalists' meeting in Vancouver in May 2009, made several interesting points. She'd covered Parliament Hill for years but it wasn't until she took a job as director of communications for the federal minister of justice, under a Liberal government, that she really began to understand how government communications work.

"This involves a sophisticated, government-wide, coordinated communications apparatus, well-resourced and professionally staffed, and designed to persuade people of the rightness of the government's position by marginalizing the views of opponents and by using the media to shape and manage public discussion of policy. Calling this effort 'spin' is like calling a tsunami a wave."

Every issue goes to cabinet with a detailed communications plan, even at its earliest stages, Rudnicki said. The plan lays out detailed objectives; it recognizes opponents and deconstructs their arguments; it includes details on key media's position on the issue; it targets audiences and reactions and takes into account regional differences; so-called third party independents are conscripted to write letters to the editor and opinion pieces; politicians are provided with talking points. All of this is backed up with extensive polling data and media monitoring. Before the campaign is launched focus groups are used to determine how issues should be "framed." The last Liberal government's same sex bill was framed as a "rights" issue, Rudnicki said. It came with a 15-page communications plan. Communications plans are considered "advice" to ministers and therefore are not subject to freedom of information requests.

As an academic, Rudnicki tried to determine how much money the federal government spends on communications. She found the task analogous to peeling an onion. There is a communications department within each ministry but there may be communications contracts for individual initiatives within a ministry; there are campaigns that overlap ministries and there are consultants independent of the government but charged with overseeing the communication of the government's agenda.

Lawrence Martin, writing in the Globe and Mail this week, pointed out how important images are in communication and how effective the Prime Minister's Office has been in getting warm, flattering photos of Stephen Harper out to Canadians.

"Although Mr. Harper is a reticent man, not given to smiling, notice the great number of photos you see of him sporting a wide grin," Martin wrote.

The Globe and Mail also analyzed the Conservatives' attack on the NDP this week and delved into the origins of the Conservative hypothesis that a Mulcair government would tax Canadians into oblivion.

While launching attack ads years prior to the next election is relatively new in Canada it is yet another signal that modern governments operate in a permanent campaign mode — at the expense of long-term planning.

But for governments to put any less effort into communication, said Rudnicki, would be irresponsible.

Of course, federal governments are not the only organizations that extend this much thought and effort into communications. Which suggests it's the responsibility of all of us to think more critically about where and whom our information is coming from.