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Canada's Opposition Is Playing Communications Catch Up

09/12/2014 11:46 EDT | Updated 11/12/2014 05:59 EST
GEORGES GOBET via Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a press conference with European Commission President after a signing ceremony of a free-trade accord more than four years in the making, on October 18, 2013 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Many observers see a deal, which has proved difficult to conclude, as a possible template for EU talks with the United States on TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which is touted as one of the biggest free-trade accords ever. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

If there's one thing that the Harper Conservatives are good at, it's message discipline. Sure, they have taken this to the extreme of muzzling everyone else they can, but you have to admit that they bring logic and consistency to all their communications.

Less so Canada's opposition, which has some catching up to do.

A tenet of political communication is to define yourself before your opponent does, while seeking to do the opposite in reverse. The federal Liberals were reminded of this the hard way with Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, but have been recently fortunate that the Trudeau brand was already strong when Justin became leader, meaning that the latest round of Conservative attack ads have more to overcome. With lots of money on hand, though, they'll keep chipping away.

In a two party race, this dynamic of political self and other can be represented by a basic message quadrant of "us on us," "us on them," "them on us, and "them on them." You can see how this plays out with an example that most political junkies will be familiar with, the Obama-McCain presidential election race message battle, captured here by Kathy McShea.

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This is version 4.0 since things do shift during campaigns. The point of the quadrant is to use message discipline to push your own party's "us on us," while rebutting "them on them" and replacing it with "us on them." And, to do this well, the messages need to be based on logic and research, tracking how the voters you need are actually responding.

About a year out from a Canadian federal election, the Conservatives are well deployed in a message quadrant, while the opposition parties are still feeling their way.

By looking at party ads, speeches, and press releases, you can see what the parties are trying to put out there. With a (mostly) three party race in Canada, you don't get a tidy quadrant, but can get a messy one that's still illustrative. Here's my crack at one -- and feel free to improve on it in the comments section below.

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One thing that political watchers will notice is that they already feel like they know the columns on the left, since the Conservatives are so consistent with their messages. The columns on the right, though, are less familiar, since the messages themselves are in flux and/or aren't said often enough to penetrate.

Moreover, the biggest missed opportunity for the opposition parties is that they have so far failed to take advantage of Stephen Harper's personal unpopularity with consistent framing of him and his policies.

The Conservatives themselves seem to be trying to inoculate themselves against their leader's weaknesses with their new "better off with Harper" message that harkens to the Buckley's cough syrup ads -- "tastes awful, and it works." They won't campaign on likeability, but on competency.

The opposition parties have not yet properly captured why Harper is so unpopular and used that to their advantage. There are a few data points about the reasons why he is disliked in publicly available opinion research. Abacus found 68 per cent of Canadians don't find Harper "honest and accountable." Angus Reid Global found the most frequent adjectives used to describe him to be "secretive," "arrogant," and "dishonest."

Whether or not these are the most damaging ways to frame Harper would require more research, but you do not yet see the opposition parties using any of them consistently to describe either him or his policies. You can almost hear the high fives in the Conservative war room.

The federal Liberals perhaps feel that by running on "hope" they either can't or don't need to aggressively prosecute Harper. Indeed, Trudeau says so here. But they may want to talk to the BC NDP about how that approach worked out for them in the recent election there. Not well. Also, see above for how 2008 Obama, Mr. Hope himself, wasn't afraid to take it to McCain.

Meanwhile, our antiquated electoral system and vote splitting on the left leaves the federal NDP running more against Trudeau than against Harper. Yes, that's the sound of more high fives.

Unless things change, all this may well be a recipe for four more years.