Andrew Steele is a consultant at StrategyCorp in Toronto. He worked previously in war rooms for the Liberal Party of Canada.
In the lead-up to the Iraq War, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld startled reporters by talking about known knowns and known unknowns. Mocked as obfuscating, Mr. Rumsfeld was referencing the “Johari window,” adapted from psychology by NASA to understand risk in strategic planning.
In political strategy, the Johari window breaks-down knowledge into the presence or absence of awareness and understanding. This illuminates where the political-class consensus may be overemphasizing the potential impact of an issue on the election, and what they may be missing.
First, the known knowns – or the “arena” – are where Ottawa insiders possess both awareness and understanding: the constant debates around climate change, fiscal policy or SNC-Lavalin, for instance. Parties add new angles to give the issue continued prominence, but their well-worn talking points smoothly fit into the biases of partisans and party supporters.
When the 2015 election began, Ottawa insiders expected the economy to dominate the discussion, or perhaps national security due to the Islamic State and Bill C-51, or the Mike Duffy trial, with predictable benefit to certain parties. But instead, immigration, multiculturalism and tolerance for deficits determined the outcome.
Second, unknown knowns – called the “blind spot” – are issues understood in how they could play out but off the radar of the Ottawa political class.
A historic example is the Meech Lake Accord, the constitutional amendments Ontario Liberal Premier David Peterson played a role creating and sustaining. The Accord collapsed but contributed to Mr. Peterson’s defeat within months in a snap election, revealing to the political class the public’s anger at “11 men in suits” deciding the future of the country.
A likely unknown known is teacher contract negotiations in Ontario, so far largely ignored by the Ottawa media. Ontario classrooms look headed to work-to-rule or strikes, a looming crisis that would keep Premier Doug Ford in the news and put Andrew Scheer’s leadership pledge to fund private schools back in the spotlight.
Third, known unknowns – or the “hidden” – are issues the political class is aware of but doesn’t understand how will play out.
Donald Trump will certainly be a central issue to the Canadian election, but how? Will he attack Mr. Trudeau spitefully, rallying Canadians to the Prime Minister? What if China and Mr. Trump strike bilateral deals that affect Canada but pointedly exclude Mr. Trudeau midcampaign? Mr. Trump’s nature is to be unpredictable, the ultimate known unknown.
The other major known unknown is the economy. While the 2008 Canadian election began with the Liberals and Conservatives tugging over the economic stewardship mantle, with the Lehman Brothers collapse during the writ, the economy suddenly became central and each party improvised in a rapidly unfolding crisis. Now in 2019, recession is on the lips of political insiders, but the political response of the public to another sudden economic shock is unknowable.
Finally, there are the unknown unknowns – the “black swans” – issues we are neither aware of nor understand in terms of how they could play out.
For instance, in 2015, the tragic photograph of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi’s tiny drowned body forced refugee policy on the agenda. The Conservatives adopted hot-button immigration tropes that pulled them off their strategy of focusing on the economy. The result was driving down NDP leader Tom Mulcair in Quebec while creating a backlash in English Canada, supporting Mr. Trudeau’s rise to first place.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the United States, raising climate change concerns, focusing debate on Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s pledge to eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency and prompting Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie to praise President Barack Obama’s handling of the disaster.
The 2005-06 election featured an unusual Christmas hiatus, which began with the Liberals in a solid lead. On December 28, the RCMP Commissioner departed from past practices to telephone an opposition MP and confirm an investigation into government insiders potentially tipping investors about changes to income trusts. An issue that was not central to anyone’s campaign planning helped propel the Conservatives to a minority government.
The nature of politics is that we do not know with certainty the issues that will drive the ballot question until the election is well under way and the unknowns are all known.
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