David McLaughlin has worked in both federal and provincial PC campaigns and been Chief of Staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, and finance minister Jim Flaherty.
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak has set the focus of Ontario’s election campaign.
His platform – the Million Jobs Plan – is dominating the election narrative. Few other promises by any of the leaders have caught public attention; neither Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne’s provincial pension proposal nor NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s GST cut on hydro rates.
Mid-stream, this campaign is all about jobs. Specifically, one million private sector jobs Mr. Hudak hopes to create and 100,000 public sector jobs he plans to cut.
That plan is now under attack. That was to be expected and, indeed, welcomed. Cries that ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘don’t cut government jobs’ would simply validate their message and man. It was political catnip to the opposition and they predictably pounced.
Having successfully made its platform the defining issue of the campaign to date, it is the unexpected reasons that are threatening the PC campaign’s strategy. The calculations adding up to the million new jobs are being attacked as wrong. Not wrong in principle, but evidently wrong in math.
This is a dangerous moment for Mr. Hudak. His core campaign thrust and credibility risks being blunted. Never mind that neither the Liberals nor the NDP have provided full detailed costing of their platforms. The PC platform’s unapologetic brashness and clarity made it a target.
In politics, bold can easily become rash. The PC platform illustrates the perils when the former slides into the latter.
It need not be this way. Successful election platforms have their own strategic political calculus. Three factors matter most.
First, and foremost, platforms are campaign documents. They are a tool to win the election, not the full roadmap to govern after the election. They are meant to tell voters what issues matter during the election, not an exact plan for every government decision expected to be taken during the next four years. Their most important shelf life is about thirty days. That is why campaigns make conscious choices about what goes in a platform and what does not.
Second, platforms are communications documents, for voters and candidates alike. The words and messaging are meant to both resonate with targeted voters and keep candidates focused on the issues, promises, and language the campaign wants. They seek to tell voters what matters most for them in this campaign by setting out priorities, such as jobs or health care or education. Since 99 per cent of voters do not read a platform in its entirety, simple, activist language with lots of easy-to-follow bullet points is the norm.
Third, platforms are tactical documents, meant to shape the pace and pattern of the election, undermine opponents, while eliminating any weaknesses in your image or positions. The PC platform shows this in action. Releasing it first and early in week one, as Mr. Hudak did, shifted the focus to him and his party capturing the media oxygen that breathes life into every campaign. It undermined any momentum the Liberals had with their own budget just days before. And it addressed, at first at least, lingering doubts about Mr. Hudak’s readiness for governing by offering up a coherent plan.
The PC platform actually passes muster from this overall calculus. But, none of this matters if a platform fails to meet the iron rule governing all platforms: do no harm. An unexpected mistake, contradiction, or just an unambiguous promise can grow into something more meaningful and menacing to a campaign.
That is what the Ontario PCs now face. The promise to cut 100,000 government jobs was meant to be controversial. The million new jobs promise was not.
It is not often a party and a leader have so personified an election platform. Jean Chrétien did with his 1993 federal election Red Book and, of course in Ontario, Mike Harris did with his Common Sense Revolution in 1995. Both were successful.
Mr. Hudak and his platform are now one.
This makes it impossible for the PC leader to disown any or all of his platform, even if he was so inclined. Voters may prove to have a more benign view of the significance of this current controversy. Lots else can happen between now and June 12th.
However this turns out, one thing is clear. Mr. Hudak has the campaign he sought. But his opponents now think they do too.