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'bar fight' tactics

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a photo op in his office in Ottawa Wednesday January 11, 2012.

Building a storyline that sticks helped the Conservatives sink two successive Liberal leaders and they are using the same strategy early in 2012 on a pair of major policy debates facing Canadians.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's team has attempted to leap out in front of its opponents and shape the narrative on the hot-button issues of health-care funding and oil pipeline construction.

When Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver came out guns blazing over "environmental and other radical groups" and foreign interests who he said were trying to hijack the domestic debate, discussion immediately shifted away from the very concerns environmental groups have been voicing.

Critics and stakeholders were left struggling to poke holes in the government's logic – the involvement of Chinese interests in the process, for example – rather than leading the debate themselves.

Jim Armour, a vice-president at Ottawa public relations firm Summa and a former communications director for Mr. Harper, says the government cannily played a Canadian sovereignty card.

"I think by making this about foreign interests, U.S. money, not allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the U.S, the government's been very smart and been able not only to take advantage of an opportunity, but also take advantage of something Canadians are thinking anyway," Mr. Armour said.

On the issue of federal health-care funding for the provinces, Mr. Harper caught the premiers flat-footed. Without warning or consultation, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a new formula for health transfers into the future. Then, Mr. Harper really put the premiers on defence as he rejected their baleful, uncoordinated pleas for additional funds.

As they began a first ministers meeting this week, they were left reacting to Mr. Harper rather than setting the agenda for the debate themselves.

"I think it was incredibly well handled. The federal government and Minister Flaherty pretty well took health care off the agenda before any of the health stakeholders or even the provinces got to the table," Mr. Armour said.

"If it was a bar fight, it was all over before anyone got their coat off."

Ottawa lobbyist Geoff Norquay, who also once worked for Mr. Harper, agrees.

"[It]completely sidestepped everybody's expected narrative, and everybody's expectations as to how this particular issue would play out, and over many years," Mr. Norquay said, noting Mr. Harper put the division of provincial-federal powers front and centre in the discussion.

The communications strategy bears some similarity to how the Conservatives handled the more strictly political issue of how to critically maim their opposition opponents.

Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was hobbled by the "Not a Leader" ad campaign, and his successor Michael Ignatieff was never able to recover from the "Just Visiting" motto that labelled him an arrogant dilettante.

Those portraits were painted by an ad campaign funded by the formidable Conservative Party war chest before Mr. Dion or Mr. Ignatieff ever had a chance to make their own first impressions on voters.

Mr. Armour says the Conservatives have put three main principles at the centre of their communications strategy: message discipline, acting on insight and opportunity.

The message control has been well documented. The insight comes from properly reading and analyzing the landscape and the players, and the opportunity is the moment that presents itself to act.

Mr. Harper's summit next week with Canada's first-nations leaders will be another big communications challenge for the Conservatives on a complex, sensitive policy issue.

Unlike with the pipeline and health-care funding stories, Mr. Harper was forced to react defensively to the crisis in Attawapiskat after it exploded in the media. The unified message that emerged from government was that it was dealing quickly with financial mismanagement on the reserve.

Human-rights lawyer Paul Champ, who represents some first-nations communities, said that despite some key underlying facts about Attawapiskat, the Tories managed to shape the story about the situation.

"Even those Canadians who don't see themselves as being racist or having racist stereotypes, I think the are definitely susceptible to that frame that first nations mismanage money, or that first-nations bands are irresponsible or are wasting money," Mr. Champ said.

"I think those are regrettably very deeply rooted stereotypes in Canada. This government played on that."