Elect Us™

Values politics, branding, and the 2015 federal election campaign
May 1, 2015

Illustration by Nancy Reid

Since assuming power, the Harper government has consistently sought to convince Canadians that Conservative values and Canadian values are one and the same. The Globe and Mail journalist John Ibbitson recently agreed with that assessment, noting in a column this February that Harper is the most conservative prime minister this country has ever seen and that contemporary Canada reflects his values. The proof, according to Ibbitson, was that the two major opposition parties have essentially adopted his platform. “Like it or not, Stephen Harper’s Canada is everyone’s Canada now,” he wrote. 

The government’s critics and political opponents maintain it is Harper who is out of touch with Canadians, arguing that the prime minister has radically transformed Canada (or is trying to), though not for the better. They are clear: Harper is outside the Canadian value set. Indeed, recent books by Michael Harris (see my review of his Party of One in the February 2015 Monitor), Donald Gutstein, Karl Nerenberg and Mark Bourrie have sounded the alarm as the 2015 federal election nears. This arguably plays to the prime minister’s advantage. Current debates about Bill C-51, extending Canada’s mission against ISIL, public safety and security, getting tough on crime and defending Canada and Canadians against those that wish to do us harm, all framed around the question of who has Canada’s best interests at heart, allow Harper to define the debate—and Canada—on his terms.

This pole position is fuelled by recent debates over the right of new Canadians to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Canada’s courts have declared the Conservative-imposed guidelines outlawing this option for women inconsistent with actual legislation. In response, Prime Minister Harper stated, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?” (emphasis added). Conservative backbencher Larry Miller was forced to apologize when that same week he said on live radio such women should “stay the hell where they came from.” 

That these views are inconsistent with broadly accepted notions of diversity in multicultural Canada, a country that also accepts and promotes freedom of religion, goes without saying. Philosopher Charles Taylor told CBC’s Power and Politics it was “dumb” to claim wearing a niqab was anti-women, since it could make it easier for terrorist recruiters to attract disaffected Canadians to their cause. Indeed, the prime minister’s statement on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination clearly contradicted his views on the niqab. “We are proud of Canada’s diversity and inclusiveness,” Harper said. “The promotion of these values has helped to build our great country where pluralism thrives.” 

So why would the prime minister make such statements? Clearly, short-term political interests are involved. A discussion about “values” places the opposition parties on the defensive given broad public support for the prime minister’s position. It also distracts from a meaningful debate—a debate Canadians want to have—about the public policy record of the government, which on the economy in particular is less than stellar. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the reality is that employment gains have not been substantial (and are dropping for manufacturing), economic inequality is growing, and the collapse of oil prices will have a devastating effect on western provinces. Harper’s claim that Canada was an emerging clean energy superpower has not proven to be true. 

The Canadian public is fundamentally anxious about the country’s economic prospects, as reflected in a number of polls over the last few months putting the economy and jobs as the major issues for the next election. For example: 

  • A significant and growing number of people believe that economic conditions will worsen and feel they have “fallen behind” financially over the past year.
  • Consequently, Canadians are the most pessimistic they have been about the economy since 2009, and are feeling “tapped out,” with two out of three people saying we need a new perspective on the economy.
  • Thus, while Canadians are concerned about security, they feel overwhelmingly that the top priorities for federal politicians should be unemployment, the economy and health care.
  • And now, Canadian business executives have become more pessimistic about the prospects for economic growth, given current economic conditions, with nearly 40% anticipating economic decline in the next year. Of note here, the governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, called Canada’s first-quarter economic results “atrocious.”

Frank Graves of EKOS summed up the zeitgeist when he said: “Canadians may be parking the smugness they felt about how our economy performed immediately following the 2008 market meltdown. They’ve been watching the U.S. economy growing at double the rate of Canada’s, while enjoying significantly lower unemployment. They’ve started feeling the slide in the Canadian dollar in produce prices and the cost of travel.” 

Yet there was Finance Minister Joe Oliver recently proclaiming that while election campaigns normally focus on economic issues, this one would also focus on security. It’s an interesting strategy. Harper usually tops polls on the question of which leader would make the best economic manager. So why change the channel? 

Clearly there is some concern that, in the end, Canadians are more likely to vote out of economic fear—of job loss, economic insecurity and higher prices—than exaggerated fears of jihad on Canadian soil. Keeping the major opposition parties on the defensive, by focusing on terrorism and the niqab, and questioning the patriotism of anybody who challenges this approach, leaves the remote firmly in Harper’s hands. Thus, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson stated in the House on March 26, “ISIL has declared war on Canada by name and seeks to wage its jihad against our people. No matter how these facts are communicated, Canadians know that the leaders of the opposition parties will dismiss them and with that are dismissing Canadian values.” 

Shrinking Terrain

Progressive Canadians interested not simply in a debate about “Canadian values,” but also in economic fairness, full (and meaningful) employment, and a return to the mixed economy (if not more) face a tough decision: who should get their support in the next election. For as much as there is some space between the three major parties on the question of defining Canadian values, there is less of a gap than meets the eye on economic issues, reflecting a persistent neoliberal consensus, and the rise of values politics in Canada and most western countries over the past few decades. Both the NDP and the Liberals are treading carefully, trying not to minimize security concerns while also convincing the public they can form a majority government. For each, though, the stakes are different. 

The meteoric rise of the NDP and the stunning collapse of the Liberals in the 2011 federal election, along with the emergence of the Green Party and the implosion of the Bloc Québécois, led some to believe that a fundamental realignment was underway in Canadian politics. This has influenced how each party is acting in the lead up to the 2015 election. The resurgent Liberals under Justin Trudeau are trying to reclaim their label as Canada’s “natural governing party.” Trudeau has framed the Liberal economic message around helping the middle class, pointing to growing income inequality as a Harper problem. However, he has been short of specifics, perhaps fearful that laying out policy options too early will allow the Conservatives and the NDP to gang up. Most importantly, he ignores the fact that economic inequality increased during the Chrétien years, as CCPA economist Armine Yalinzyan began exploring in 1998 with the first Growing Gap report

Tom Mulcair’s NDP is trying to prove that the 2011 election results were not a fluke, that the NDP is in fact the natural alternative to Harper’s Conservatives. It has been courting the middle class vote by speaking of pragmatic economic policy that is progressive. The party has announced that, if elected, it would introduce small business tax cuts, innovation tax credits and an extension of the accelerated capital cost allowance for manufacturing equipment. Following the Quebec model, the NDP made a pledge to introduce $15/day child care and it has proposed a $15/hour federal minimum wage. All of this would be accomplished with a balanced budget and no tax increases save for reversing corporate tax cuts and cancelling the proposed income splitting scheme. Most recently, Mulcair announced that funds to combat child poverty would be raised by making Canadians pay taxes on all stock option benefits. 

These proposals build on earlier NDP discussions about issues dear to consumers, such as high ATM fees, credit card rates and gas prices. Mulcair is continuing the NDP’s recent efforts to mainstream their policy agenda, and to present themselves to Canadians as credible economic managers who can relate to the concerns of “average” Canadians and consumers—a long-time weak spot for the party. In this, they are distinguishing themselves from the Liberals by offering a fairly detailed plan that would serve as the basis of a new government. 

There was little discussion of fundamental economic issues in the 2011 election, nor was there much articulation of distinct approaches to the economy. Discussions on raising the corporate tax rate were an exception, though in the big picture this would produce limited new revenue in a multi-billion-dollar economy. This time around, the Conservative proposal for income splitting serves as a proxy for party positions on the economy. Whereas Harper frames these measures as sound social policy that also provides relief for taxpayers, the Liberals and NDP condemn the tax cuts as wasteful or beneficial to only a few—15% of households, according to Parliamentary Budget Office estimates.

Ironically, perhaps, both opposition parties are challenging Harper (on taxes and other issues) through values politics and the appeal to Canada’s “middle class,” which, in their view, seems to embody and define Canadian values. Why this emphasis? Because again, in many ways, their economic strategies are not radically different from the governing Conservatives, nor, for that matter, the Chrétien Liberals or Mulroney Progressive Conservatives of earlier times. 

While Mulcair’s child care and federal minimum wage measures begin to flesh out an activist plan, much of what has been discussed so far involves cancelling cuts announced or implemented by the Tories (e.g., to the CBC, Old Age Security, etc.). The NDP leader seems committed to fiscal orthodoxy, at least rhetorically. Unifor economist Jim Stanford, for example, has proposed a massive $30 billion infrastructure program, but worries the NDP might be hesitant to implement it because it would involve a deficit. The reluctance of the government and opposition parties to promote deficit spending to stimulate the economy is odder still when both mainstream and labour economists are now agreed it would be very helpful.

For another example of something approaching economic consensus, where the Conservatives are also driving the debate, look at tax policy generally. To those on the left who express concern about Harper’s stewardship of the economy, arguably the biggest damage came from the two-point cut to the GST, which has reduced the federal government’s ability to spend dramatically—by an estimated $14 billion annually. By point of comparison, Mulcair’s plan to tax stock options would only raise $600 million to $1 billion annually. So far, no opposition party is prepared to talk of returning the GST to 7%. 

Though the loss of revenues from Harper’s tax cuts are significant, those outside partisan circles would do well to remember similar measures brought in by the Chrétien and Martin Liberal governments. Between fiscal years 2000–01 and 2004–05, the federal government’s revenue-raising capacity dropped by $31.1 billion in 2004 dollars ($37.68 billion when inflation is factored in). This occurred in a period of large federal surpluses, 90% of which were put onto Canada’s debt when Martin had promised to put 50% into new social spending. A survey commissioned by the Broadbent Institute in 2012 found that 23% of Canadians were “very willing” and 41% “somewhat willing” to pay slightly higher taxes to pay for social programs such as health care, education and pensions. Yet the NDP plan to further lower small business taxes if elected—trumped somewhat by the Conservatives in the 2015 federal budget—would disproportionately benefit higher-income Canadians with uncertain impacts on job creation.

Not surprisingly, many analysts recognize that rhetoric aside there is not much difference between the major parties. Kelly McParland of the National Post wrote in January that since NDP plans help the rich, and the Liberals have quietly adopted major elements of the Conservative economic agenda, the opposition parties are left talking about how they are different without actually being so. Campbell Clark of the Globe and Mail has similarly argued that Mulcair’s economic plan sounds like Harper’s. This is why leaders focus so much on values: it distracts from the fact that economic policy differences are not as great as they are often presumed to be. This leads to an emphasis on leaders as brands.

Looking at a recent study by Abacus Data we can understand why the parties would adopt this strategy. Mulcair is seen as “competent” and a “good guy,” although with tired and old-fashioned ideas. Trudeau is seen as modern and likable, but inexperienced. Harper is seen as serious and competent, but self-centred and not trustworthy. John Geddes of Maclean’s explained Canada’s electoral decision this way: “Harper as the safe choice, Mulcair as an ordinary guy, and Trudeau as a restorer of balance.” 

When ideas mattered

It was not so long ago that Canadian election campaigns were marked by vigorous debates about Canada’s future, centred mainly, though not exclusively, on economic visions. While the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives never differed radically on broad ideological grounds, they occasionally adopted fundamentally different approaches to economic issues and challenges. For example, the parties took opposing stances on free trade with the United States in the elections of 1911 and 1988, and they have differently embraced (and later scaled back) Canada’s mixed social welfare state. The ability of the more centrist Liberals to veer left or right of centre, depending on where political pressures lay, reflected the real but minimal impact of the CCF and early NDP, which offered a social-democratic alternative vision of the Canadian political economy. 

Indeed, the 1988 “free trade election” might have been the last gasp for this type of ideological politics. As the two major parties brawled over the Canada-U.S. FTA, on the cusp of a new era of globalization and emergent neoliberalism, the NDP was criticized for not engaging fully with the issue—of effectively ceding the anti–free trade position to the party that once advocated for it. Dreaming of power and hoping that the demise of the Liberals would lead to a classic left-right divide in Canadian politics, the NDP had become “liberals in a hurry” in more ways than one. 

In 1987, Maclean’s magazine featured NDP leader Ed Broadbent on the cover with the heading “On the March.” Teasers promised to explore the NDP’s “quest for power” and “how they would govern.” The NDP’s approach to the 1988 election foreshadowed the emerging trend in Canadian politics: a new emphasis on tactics and strategy in order to “win.” The mantra of speaking for “ordinary Canadians” emphasized values that connected parties to voters, rather than seeing the party as an institution that represented a relatively coherent set of ideological principles and associated policy proposals. Alas, overlooking the major issue of the election (free trade) in order to appeal to “average Canadians” did not help the NDP, as the party descended into near-oblivion for almost two decades.   

By 1993, Canadians seemed to have had enough of Mulroney’s neoliberal continentalism—the prime minister used the FTA as a leaping off point for the North American Free Trade Agreement—and supported, in three elections, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, with their promise of restoring hope and economic prosperity to the country. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the Liberals were adept at framing neoliberal messages within a value set that the public, or at least that portion of it living in vote-rich Central Canada, identified with. This explains why the Liberals and NDP are currently fighting over the middle class and whose policies best reflect their interests, and why, given the nature of Conservative attack ads, both parties are reluctant to offer a radically different economic platform to that of the current government. 

Advances in technology have contributed to this phenomenon. New communications technologies like the Internet, mobile communications (telephony and computing), powerful computing hardware and software, and the advent of social media have changed the game for political parties. It is that much easier to reach political “consumers” when you have reams of personal information sitting in searchable databases, as Susan Delacourt shows us in her book Shopping for Votes. At the same time, parties are less responsive to the demands of citizens. In our parliamentary democracy, it is only necessary to get roughly 40% of the popular vote to form a majority government. Parties often campaign and even govern as if all voters mattered, but the reality is that they target a much smaller body of movable voters through increasingly sophisticated techniques. The ongoing emphasis on wedge politics, in tandem with the “permanent campaign,” has contributed to the dilution of party differences on ideological grounds. We emphasize tactics. Pundits play up strategy. We rarely debate policy. 

In a transformation that is tied up with the triumph of neoliberalism, party differentiation now has a symbolic versus ideological basis. The rise of “brand politics,” in which parties emphasize values, not ideas, reflects the post-ideological nature of Canadian politics. Just as branded products develop long-lasting loyalty via intense relationships with consumers, parties hope that by narrowcasting messages to strategic constituencies voters can develop the same emotional relationship with a leader and party as they do their car, mobile phone, running shoe, etc. Ironically, as this narrows the real choices (over policy) voters have at the polls, it has further blurred the lines between parties that all claim to embody “Canadian values,” specifically those held by the middle class. 

Corporate branding of products and services succeeds not by duping consumers. Branding is the art of offering high-quality goods embodying specific values to consumers willing to pay a premium for being a part of it all. That is why the “Think Different” philosophy of Apple ultimately made it the world’s most valued corporation. Political brands, be they a leader or party, aim to have the same effect on voters. The appeal to values is the new form of political competition in an era of low faith in the political system and the ability of politicians to deliver change. Hence the mantra “they are all the same” is perhaps less cynical than representative of a real systemic blandness in party politics. It explains how many voters can choose Conservative one election and NDP the next. The choice is not about ideology, but about trust, belief and efficacy. It is emotional, which is the foundation of all brand relationships. 

But it is also not only a matter of finding the right brand: your marketing strategy needs to work, too, even if the rhetoric often does not match the reality behind it. Although consumers will often stay loyal to a product as long as it is high quality, allowing the corporation to grow, as the case of Apple shows, they will rapidly abandon it for something new if the emotional trust is severed. We saw this when the Coca-Cola Corporation introduced New Coke in the 1980s. In politics, as we know, trust is at record lows, which is intensified by a short-term focus on the next election versus, say, the long-term vision of corporations trying to develop a lasting market. Much like the consumer willing to give new brands a shot if they are disappointed in what they’re buying now, voters can tire of their favourite party for reasons unrelated to policy. 

What are they selling?

So if we are staking out political brands, with relatively minor differences, what do Canada’s political parties have to offer? We can think of Harper as a “steady at the till” leader, the man to keep us safe; Mulcair as a “progressive” guy whose heart is in the right place; and Trudeau as the modern man who “gets” contemporary Canadian values. The dilemma voters face as the election nears is that we are not always sure what these brands embody—what they have to offer beyond the marketing pitch. 

For Harper, there is clearly a short-term political advantage in trying to carve out distinct positions on terrorism and values consistent with his political strategy of presenting Canada as a muscular power that acts in principled ways. This isolates and undermines his opponents politically. The tough posture is part of his brand, though critics quickly point out that he is very selective when upholding the principles underlying his foreign policy. Still, it is much better for Harper to stay on the defensive on his own terms than to have to contest the next election on terms set by the opposition, whatever they may be when the writ drops.

I may be criticized for downplaying party differences. To be fair, they differ notably on social policy, crime, the environment and foreign policy. However, concern over wedge politics and the permanent campaign often dilute those differences, in Canada as elsewhere. (The U.K. elections offer a beautiful example of sameness on the part of all three major parties.) And it is important to remember that current Harper positions, in a wider historical context, often look familiar, having been introduced or embraced in some form at some point by the opposition. 

For example, on the environment, the Harper government has undermined programs and regulation, but Canada’s poor environmental record has roots in Liberal governance. Take the Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation, which increased industry involvement in the regulatory process and further shifted the basis of federal health and safety measures from precaution to the evidence of risk. Though introduced by the new Conservative government in 2007, the directive was only the end result of four years of work by the Chrétien and Martin Liberals. Moreover, the Liberals are endorsing new tar sands pipelines—Stephane Dion, when he was the environment minister, told the San Francisco Chronicle “there is no minister of the environment on Earth who can stop this (the tar sands) from going forward, because there is too much money in it”—and calling for a rather decentralized approach to carbon taxes. 

On security, Liberal support for Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, despite modest calls for more oversight, probably reflects the party’s complex experience drafting very similar anti-terrorism legislation, on a similarly expedited timeframe, in the post-9/11 era. And while Harper is tilting Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East to favour Israel, in other areas he is hardly more radical (or self-interested) than the Liberals were in power. In 1995, Chretien’s foreign policy was framed in terms of how it would benefit Canada economically, and the 2005 Martin vision suggested moving aid to countries where Canada could be seen to be making a difference. The dramatic decline of foreign aid and peacekeeping occurred largely under the Liberals. The Liberals often spoke of internationalism, but they acted as if not quite committed to its principles. 

It remains to be seen if Harper’s campaign of fear, flag-waving and defending Canadian interests and values, under the banner of “strong Conservative leadership,” will beat out the increasingly pragmatic politics of the NDP and the Liberals. The recent Ontario provincial election suggests the opposition will need something more, since it reminds us that voters will respond to starkly different economic visions and are open to an active government role in the economy. 

Andrea Horwath’s political gambit—the Ontario NDP leader was accused by Rick Salutin of campaigning from the Progressive Conservative’s right flank—should be a caution to the federal NDP. In the quest for power, does abandoning traditional economic positions help or hurt a party? Can the NDP articulate a broader vision and policy platform that appeals to both centrist and left voters? Or has it abandoned the latter? Similarly, Trudeau may want to take note that Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne won by pitting her proposal for interventionist government (and deficit spending if necessary) against the austere federal and provincial PC model—this after her predecessor, like Martin in Ottawa, took billions out of provincial revenues in corporate tax cuts. 

There is potentially more room for the NDP federally on the idea of progressive governance. Harper’s national vision is ultimately restricted to reducing the role of government and, to a lesser extent, returning to a more classic sense of Canadian federalism. Here the Conservatives are hardly out of step with the Liberals. But the NDP has been shy about making the case for bigger government—a sign of the poverty of a strategy that vaguely declares the primacy of middle class values. Both opposition parties are ignoring the instruments and institutions of public policy that historically shaped the values Mulcair and Trudeau harken to.   

Despite the drama of recent months (the ISIL mission, C-51, the limits of multiculturalism), the polls indicate the three major parties are very close, with support for the Bloc Québécois and Green Party increasing. While the former is probably linked to debates, much hotter in Quebec, about the niqab, the doubling in Green support since the last election points to a thirst for innovative public policies that reflect the values of many Canadians. We are reminded of this with each new poll showing the importance of the economy to voters over almost all other concerns. On April 1, the Globe and Mail reported that 90% of respondents to a Nanos poll it conducted think “the party or leader with the best plan for the Canadian economy will be more important in determining who wins than the party with the best plan to fight terrorists.” In contrast, only 4% in the Globe poll said fighting terrorism is more important than the economy. The question is: can one of the other parties take hold of the remote and flip the channel from jihadi terrorism to something most of us would prefer to watch? 

Richard Nimijean is a professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University. His teaching and research examine the phenomenon of branding Canada and the politics of the brand state, including the intersections of Canadian politics and society, national identity and public policy.