Have a look at the web sites of the three main federal parties and you will see some marked contrasts not only in political philosophy, but in personality and style.
The Conservatives are – not surprisingly – heavily into attack and simple, bumper-sticker messages.
You open their site and, bang, there’s the cheesy and amateurish "Hallowe’en" graphic of "Thomas Mulcair’s [obviously scary] NDP."
Then there are slogans and photos evoking a couple of very broad brush stroke themes: "Strong support of victims of crime," "A strong, responsible, plan for responsible resource development," and – the only topical item on the top half of the home page – some "news" that fits right in with the Conservatives’ patriotism and military branding: a bulletin on the Prime Minister’s speech on the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Conservative brand
Scroll down a bit and the only legislative accomplishment the Party vaunts on its home page is scrapping the long-gun registry.
Instead of devoting precious screen space to the accomplishments of the Harper majority government, the Conservatives' home page offers yet more bashing of the other parties. In this case, they attack the NDP and Liberals for their supposed "plan to hike gas taxes."
The only mention of the Conservatives’ centerpiece legislation, the monster omnibus Budget Bill (C-38), is a bland box announcing "Economic Action Plan 2012." Not a single provision in that action plan is apparently worthy of featuring on the Party’s home page.
In many respects, the Conservative site looks like what you might expect from an opposition, not government, party. It is much more specific in its attacks on the other guys than in its presentation of the Conservative Party’s own accomplishments.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the Conservatives still have a sort of Rodney ("I don’t get no respect") Dangerfield self image. Even after six years in power their messaging conveys a note of insecure truculence. They still seem to suffer from the feelings of unworthiness that can turn some children into schoolyard bullies.
Keep it simple and repeat, repeat, repeat
But you can’t escape the fact that the Conservatives have mounted what is, by their own lights, an effective communications strategy.
Their messaging is dead-simple, repetitive and coherent within itself. They use a few words over and over again: "jobs,” "growth," "low taxes," and they have a special penchant for the word "strong," quite often paired with "majority."
As Thomas Mulcair recognized when he became leader of the NDP, the Conservatives’ reputation for "strong economic management" is their brand.
One can understand why the Party chooses to tout that brand, in general terms, rather than draw attention to the many provisions of the 2012 Budget that have virtually nothing to do with economic management, whether strong or weak.
The Conservatives are, in fact, operating on two parallel tracks.
The first is the governing track, and their aim as they roll along that one is to make as many radical and irreversible changes to Canada as they can, without attracting too much attention to themselves.
That’s why they try to shut down debate as much as possible and frequently choose to announce major initiatives somewhere other than Ottawa, where they would have to cope with the (at least sometimes) inquisitive national media and the pesky opposition.
And that’s why they crammed all those environmental, social policy, immigration policy and other changes into a single Budget Bill that will get a hearing only at the Finance Committee. (And when that Committee had the environmental provisions on its agenda, three Ministers turned up unannounced, and virtually talked out the clock, leaving hardly any time for Opposition questions.)
The other track is the permanent campaign.
The goal here is to establish and reinforce the Conservatives’ "strong and responsible manager" brand and to "define" their opposition.
In the days of Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff, the Conservatives focused on defining the leader.
Until recently the current tactic has been to define Mulcair’s team as dangerous and radical and out of the mainstream. We may see a shift if they come to believe the "Dutch disease" controversy has any resonance.
The NDP: respecting its audience's intelligence
As for the NDP, its web site, too, focuses on the other party.
But it is almost devoid of simple messaging and slogans.
The NDP site features a prominent link to a participatory "speak out on the Conservative Budget" section, which invites Canadians to submit their own comments on Bill C-38.
After a few clicks one gets to a series of sharp, clear and very damning facts about the "Trojan Horse" budget that the Conservatives are trying to hide - but only after a few clicks.
The Party groups these messages about C-38 into a series of boxes: "environment," "natural resources," "health care," "jobs and pensions," and "ethics and democracy." Click on any box and you get the straight goods.
For instance, when you click on "environment," the Party tells you the Trojan Horse budget will: "repeal The Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act; dismantle The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act; exclude concerned citizens from assessments of major projects like the Enbridge pipeline; download responsibility for most environmental assessments to provinces; give final say over pipeline projects to Conservative cabinet ministers—regardless of environmental impacts."
Click on "jobs and pensions" and the NDP tells you that the Conservative Government plans to: "force Canadians to work two years longer, to age 67, to qualify for Old Age Security; cut workers off Employment Insurance if they don’t take any job the Minister of Human Resources deems 'suitable'; repeal The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act; remove federal contractors from the protection of The Employment Equity Act."
It takes three clicks to get to the meat
It is all fair, factual, accurate and scrupulously responsible.
The NDP doesn’t seem to want to convince you of anything; it wants to reason with you. There are no catchwords or slogans; virtually no appeal to emotions.
There is, in effect, a comprehensive critique of the current Government’s centrepiece legislation. In fact, the NDP tells you more about what the Conservative Government is doing than the Conservatives’ themselves do.
Now, you do have to click quite a few times before you actually get to that comprehensive critique. What the NDP actually features on its front page, aside from the big box that links to all of the "Trojan Horse" budget stuff, is a series of recent news releases and announcements that are not related to each other and do notseem to tell any kind for coherent story.
These include, most prominently, MP Jasbir Sandhu’s call on the Prime Minister to apologize for the 1914 Komagatu Maru incident in which South Asian passengers were prevented from disembarking into Canada.
There is also a Megan Leslie news release on the cutting of the Freshwater Institute, a Mulcair statement on homophobia and a news release applauding a coming study (by the Federal Languages Commissioner) on access to justice in both official languages.
Is there a focus here?
It is all very worthy stuff, and does give some impression of the range of issues that the Party considers to be important.
It is also all over the place.
The NDP’s site does not have the single-minded clarity of focus we find on the Conservatives’. It deals in admittedly complex subjects without too much effort to re-frame them in simple, "bumper sticker" terms.
The real radicals these days may be the sneaky and stealthy Conservatives, but, unlike the Conservatives, the NDP does not resort to powerful emotional triggers to communicate how radically scary this Government really is.
When the Party’s strongest epithet is a reference to Greek mythology ( the "Trojan Horse" budget – and is Jim Flaherty the "face that launched a thousand hidden items?") you know it is not exactly looking to rhetorically bloody anyone’s nose!
If the Conservatives project a message more appropriate to an opposition party than one in power, the NDP’s messaging almost seems more appropriate to a think-tank or advocacy group than an Offiicial Oppostion.
The Party seems more interested in providing its already engaged audience with facts, figures and arguments than in convincing anyone of anything, at the visceral level.
Liberals in the middle - of course
As for the Liberals, they fall somewhere between the other two.
The Liberal web site certainly doesn’t beat around the bush about the Budget.
Upfront, it says: "Harper is ending environmental protection." You don’t have to click three times to get that message; you can’t miss it. The NDP buries its version of that message – or assumes visitors to its site have the commitment and patience to work their way through to it.
For the rest, though, the Liberals have a bit of a grab bag of unrelated items, ranging from a story about a group of Calgary Liberals engaging in a local pathway and river cleanup, to a series of Bob Rae reflections on such subjects as water for First Nations communities, the power of the Prime Minister and a woman’s right to choose, to a speech by new Party President Mike Crawley, and an appeal to the "supporters" urging them to sign up ahead of the coming leadership race.
For the Liberals, what appears to be a significant degree of focus on the already-converted is understandable. The Party is in consolidation and rebuilding mode. It hasn’t yet given up on its aspirations to power; but it has other more urgent priorities right now.
The NDP is, par la force des chose, the alternative government.
It sits in Official Opposition position with significant support across the country, not just in Quebec. The hopes of Canadians who are scared, angry, frustrated or outraged at what the Conservatives are doing to their country – without even the decency of allowing a full debate – reside, in large measure, in the NDP.
Can you win taking the high road?
For now, the NDP seems to have decided to take the long view.
As Mulcair said about the silly and largely shallow debate over his blurt about "Dutch disease": "We have three years to discuss this – in Parliament!"
The Party is resolutely committed to the high road. To a fault, it respects the intelligence of it audience – even its literacy (is it possible that not everyone knows the story of Troy?)
The Conservatives appeal to reptilian emotions - to fears, resentments, insecurities and prejudices.
They don’t try to rationally defend their efforts to effect radical changes. They try to obscure them in the dust of attacks on their opponents. And the Conservatives have many allies in the media to assist in their tactical communications battles (see under Murphy, Rex).
Now, while the NDP may be just a bit too high-minded, its leader does have a well-earned reputation for toughness and resilience. So far, for example, he has handled his end of the silly "Dutch disease" debate ably, with some humour and some grit. Shifting the argument there from the impact of resource exports on the currency to the more fundamental question of sustainable development is definitely a smart move.
It would help if that argument dovetailed with an unamiguous effort to arouse Canadians over the outrages of the Budget, especially the environmental outrages.
There are three years until the next election, after all
Perhaps, in the days and weeks to come, the NDP will choose to clearly outline for Canadians how the Harper Government is failing to uphold federal fisheries, navigable waters and other legislation as far as the tar sands are concerned.
And, maybe, in due course the Party will decide that you sometimes have to fight aggression with – if not an equal measure of aggression – at least an adequate degree of assertiveness.
A policy-focused approach to communications that appeals to the brain and not the gut is admirable and refreshing. Canadians who are growing increasingly queasy about this government might, however, hope for a bit more of an appeal to emotion as well as reason from the Official Opposition.