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Liberal leader Micheal Ignatieff speaks to the annual convention of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario in Ottawa on Friday, October 23, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick)
Liberal leader Micheal Ignatieff speaks to the annual convention of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario in Ottawa on Friday, October 23, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Robert Silver

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Over at Aaron Wherry's blog, he quotes London MP Glen Pearson's response to Andrew Coyne's latest column:

"Last week our Andrew Coyne argued that now is the time for Michael Ignatieff to deal honestly and directly with the deficit and the state of government finances going forward. In response, Glen Pearson wonders if the press gallery is ready to do likewise:

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Let's be honest: No political leader in their right mind dares to be as truthful as Coyne challenges because it would be the media itself that couldn't withhold its scepticism long enough to truly investigate the merits of that leader's case. Opposition parties would immediately pounce and all manner of bloggers, pundits and columnists would discuss the scary ramifications of such a daredevil proposition. I recall when Ignatieff came to London following a visit to Cambridge, in which he stated no leader would be worthy of the name if he or she didn't place the possibility of raising taxes on a long list of future considerations if a deficit couldn't be brought under control. Political staffers mulled around, worried that it would be taken out of context, which it inevitably was ... The very next day in the House, Conservative members used every possible occasion to ridicule Ignatieff, calling him just another 'tax and spend' Liberal. The media ate it up."

Glen seems like a smart guy but boy, is he buying into a false dichotomy here. And yet the dichotomy he is buying into is something of conventional wisdom now in the Liberal Party. It is also the dichotomy that, in my opinion, is responsible for most (though certainly not all) of the Liberal Party's current troubles.

The dichotomy Glen buys into is either you say nothing (the "safe option") or you put out lots of smart, detailed policies (the "risky option"). The risky option is akin to political suicide and therefore the safe option must be followed at all costs.

Well, first off, as the current polls show, saying little can be a pretty risky option too.

More importantly, folks are latching onto the wrong dichotomy entirely. It is not a trade-off between putting forward bold solutions for the problems facing the country or putting forward flaccid mush. Not even close.

The real dichotomy is between communicating your ideas well - whether those ideas are bold or more of the same - versus communicating your ideas poorly.

Take the example that Pearson uses to prove his point: when Ignatieff said "no leader would be worthy of the name if he or she didn't place the possibility of raising taxes on a long list of future considerations if a deficit couldn't be brought under control". Putting aside the merits of what Ignatieff said, please remind me what preconditioning was done with the media before Ignatieff made this statement? Oh that's right, there was none. Who sat down with key influencers to explain them the strategy as well as the policy? What key stakeholders had been lined up as endorsers? What caucus were put onto regional tours to spread the word? What was the social media strategy?

Oh, you mean it was just a random comment that came out of nowhere and was quickly dismissed - by us - five minutes later? Wow, amazing that didn't out work better then. Damn media and their unwillingness to cover serious, well thought through policy pronouncements!

So Glen is completely right - if the Liberal Leader adopts Andrew Coyne's suggestion - or any other policy or strategy, bold or otherwise - and has no communications strategy or tactics to roll it out then yes, it will end very, very poorly.

The Green Shift - the reason so many Liberals now accept as divine truth that we shalt not say anything of substance prior to an election - failed because we as a party, from the leader on down (and yes, it was a much bigger circle of people who deserve blame than just Dion) - failed miserably to communicate it.

Period.

Blaming the media for being unwilling to cover it just right is an excuse for our party's failure (and to be crystal clear, this is a general criticism of the Liberal Party, not a criticism of any communications staffers in particular).

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