Ensight’s John Delacourt takes a look at the tea leaves and where the government is at mid-mandate in a new media landscape.
It was just last September that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in Ontario seized the opportunity of a mid-mandate Speech from the Throne to counter a significant wave of attacks – from both the Opposition and the media – with regard to Wynne’s future and her inner circle of advisors’, given a recent by-election loss in what should have been a safe Liberal seat (Scarborough-Rouge River) and a series of missteps and scandals that had put the Premier’s approval rating below twenty percent. The “social justice Premier” announced her government would remove the provincial sales tax off electricity bills and create 100,000 new child care spaces. This should have been a quick win, red meat thrown to her base with such widespread appeal it would halt, if not reverse, approval numbers that were in free fall.
The rationale to put such people-pleasing “retail” political announcements in a mid-mandate speech is both tried and true; a government can shake off issues that stubbornly refuse to die and remind voters of all the appealing things about the government’s brand that got them elected in the first place. But now, fast-forward a year later, and Wynne’s approval rating has only gotten worse, key members of her Cabinet have announced they’re not running again and the former Liberal stronghold of safe GTA ridings has eroded beyond recognition. Confounding mid-mandate wisdom, the “retail reset” was a bust.
Though the Trudeau government is in a very different place mid-mandate, the Wynne example is instructive. Given the new media landscape where, via social media platforms, supporters by and large only read supportive pieces and opponents of the government are able to bypass everything but the negative because of the “filter bubbles” created in what shows up in our news feeds, the opportunity to sway public opinion with such retail resets is limited to a subset of the electorate that is less committed – but also less engaged. The power of momentum with regard to corrosion of a government’s brand qualities however, has, unfortunately, only increased.
Negative momentum matters more than ever, and, as Hillary Clinton will confirm for you if you mention James Comey, scandals can’t be dismissed and made to go away quite like they used to be.
Two years before the next campaign here in Ottawa, the Opposition’s litany of Liberal reversals, failures or “betrayals” if you will, is established and frequently cited by the pundits. Electoral reform, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry, the Innovation Agenda and the big social infrastructure spend that has yet to kick into high gear … these issues should be seared on the minds of voters by now.
However, as James Carville, former advisor to Bill Clinton famously said about Democrats in Opposition, “they produce a narrative, we produce a litany.” All polling numbers affirm that the Liberals’ overarching narrative of fairness for the middle class (yes, “and those hoping to join it”) still coheres effectively, bolstered in this week’s fiscal update by the increase to the Canada Child Benefit payments and the expansion of the Working Income Tax Benefit program. Most important, factoring in the true indicators on the economy’s bill of health – the job creation numbers and the declining debt to GDP ratio, it’s a rosy picture indeed.
And yet … about that villa. And the blind trust thing. And oh yeah, that stuff about loopholes the one percent were taking advantage of, told to us by the guy with the villa …that he seemed to forget he owned … and then the conflicts with those government contracts for his family’s firm … all these revelations start to take the shape and form of a scandal, the government’s first. It is too early to tell if the opposition finally has a narrative it can latch on to and not simply a litany anymore. But when real brand corrosion begins, well … just ask Kathleen Wynne what that might mean.
A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.