Bruce Anderson: Conservatives squandered their moment

Special to The Globe and Mail

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon following the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday October 16, 2013. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It felt more like a Throne Drone. Or a Throne Mumble.

In the weeks leading up to the Throne Speech, there was speculation that this would be an inflection point in the life of the Harper Conservatives, the start of a drive to rejuvenate their electoral coalition.

With months to prepare, this speech would be latest illustration of how, just when folks are tempted to think the Harper team has run out of steam, we see again the cleverness, skill and determination of this franchise.

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In one sense, the only way this speech could truly fail is if it failed to sustain a new conversation. More than anything else, the goal was to get people talking about something different.

When the House prorogued, the government was reeling from self-inflicted wounds, spending day after day trying to square a series of irreconcilable statements with each other, and with public expectations of honesty and accountability. For the Conservative front bench, success was about getting to the end of each round, hearing the bell, and having a moment to recover.

The reset strategy had two parts. Part one: evacuate the city, denying the scandals the oxygen that every Question Period was providing. Part two: search for a new script, find sources of anger or hope powerful enough to make people want to turn their attention from the clumsily hatched and disastrously explained Duffy-Wright-Harper debacle.

Yesterday, the output of the rethink, all 7,000-plus words of it, was revealed.

It was telling that Conservative stalwarts were arguing, even before the speech was read, that the media was out to get them and wouldn’t accord the speech the respect it deserved. This was certainly a twist on the whole idea of managing expectations: encourage voters to pay attention to a sideshow, rather than the guts of the new agenda. Whether this was a carefully planned mistake, or just a mistake, we may never know.

Following the Throne Speech, reactions could be divided into two categories. Clumps of Conservative supporters were talking about how journalists were biased, and most everyone else fell to talking about the shortcomings of the speech.

What seemed unusually missing was a sustained, orchestrated, and clear message about why consumers should love what this speech promises. An elevator-ride version of what’s-in-it-for-you. In the absence of which, voters are left to choose among the following:

  • A new Canada-European Union trade agreement for which no particular effort has been made to educate the public and stimulate public support or demand. Already it’s clear that there may be opposition, including from the politically powerful Canadian dairy lobby.
  • A commitment to limit roaming charges for domestic wireless users. Many consumers have been expressing unhappiness with unexpected charges, but an argument can be made that the market has been working this tension out on its own of late. In fact, the Throne Speech more or less made that argument, noting that prices had been declining.
  • A commitment to force TV service providers to let consumers pick and pay for only the channels they want. The logical inference is that popular services will cost more and less popular services will face a clouded future, or worse. The government has obliquely committed to enforcing this change while “protecting jobs,” which sounds less like a free market and more like a free-ish market but with some sort of taxpayer-subsidized safety net. At the end of the day, will consumers actually save money or find the same bottom line, but with fewer channels on their dial? There’s potential here to puzzle small-c conservatives and disappoint voters in the middle.
  • A commitment to end the frustration consumers feel when they buy products in the U.S. and see the same products at higher prices in Canada. One can’t help but think that if Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau promised to do this, the Conservatives would call them naïve and lacking in understanding of how the economy works. The government has not really spelled out what it thinks is causing the problem and said even less about what sort of price control or rebate regime it might have in mind to solve it.

The Speech from the Throne did include discussion of ways to reassure Canadians about environmental protection and how this would be buttressed to support delivery of Canadian energy to new markets. Considering the importance of this agenda, a case can be made that these items deserve plenty of profile by the government, but this effort seemed lacking yesterday.

In focusing instead on sniping at the media, and heavily promoting a consumer-first agenda that involves awkward meddling in markets, the Conservatives may have squandered the moment that they took such pains to arrive at.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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