Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Trudeau Illusion

It was just a little sign, taped to a Liberal Party recruiting booth, but it immediately caught my attention.

It read: “Enter to win a hat signed by Justin Trudeau.”

“Why,” I wondered, “would anybody consider a hat signed by a politician to be a prize?” 

Then I remembered, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is no ordinary politician, he’s much more important than that – he’s a celebrity!

He has a famous, former prime minster father; he has matinee idol good looks; he once pummeled a Conservative Senator in a boxing match, all of which makes him one part handsome prince; one part pop star; one part action hero.

This is why much of the media has bestowed upon Trudeau the kind of fawning coverage usually reserved for visiting royalty (such as Barack Obama) or for Rock stars promoting a trendy “celebrity-backed” plan to end African poverty, a plan usually involving creative Twitter #hashtags.

And make no mistake, celebrity-hood matters politically because in our modern, hi-tech, secular society, celebrities are the closest thing we have left to gods.

We see celebrities as heroic, glamorous, adventurous, beautiful, rich, privileged -- everything we aspire to be.

So we idolize them.

We buy the hemorrhoid products celebrities endorse; we dress (or in some cases undress) like them; we soak up their every word when they lecture us on the finer points of our national energy policy.

We even try to connect to them on some supernatural level by owning items they may have touched or signed, just as our ancestors in medieval times sought out holy relics, which is why people might covet an autographed Trudeau hat.

Part of this worshipping process includes transforming our celebrities into idealized versions of humanity.

After all, what’s the point of paying homage to a regular schmuck?

So it is that Trudeau’s celebrity status also confers upon him the aura of a perfect politician, a leader who is imbued with positivity and idealism, whose motives are completely pure, whose aims are utterly noble, and whose hair has achieved a divine level of flawlessness.

That’s why, unlike regular, run-of-the-mill, non-celebrity politicians, Trudeau doesn’t need policies or platforms or, you know, anything actually resembling a real idea.

Indeed, the implied Liberal “marketing” message is that Trudeau, through a combination of celebrity superpowers and Chinese-communist-style efficiency, will painlessly and effortlessly solve all our problems.

The budget will balance itself; Alberta will develop oil sands in a way that makes the air smell like roses; and once Trudeau discovers the “root causes” of evil, Vladimir Putin and ISIS will turn away from aggression and dedicate themselves to helping homeless puppies.

Who can compete with a narrative like that?  No wonder Trudeau is soaring in the polls.

Of course, somewhere deep in our hearts, we all realize the Trudeau story is really just a nice fairy tale, just as know that Kermit the Frog is really just a piece of felt with buttons for eyes.

But the Trudeau fairy tale is one we desperately want to believe. We want to believe there’s a leader out there who can magically make the country a better place, who can unite us all regardless of race, region or hockey affiliation, who can rise above partisan political bickering, who will let us have our cake and eat it too.

We don’t want to pull back the curtain and see Trudeau for what he really is: a likable but inexperienced, gaffe-prone politician who is probably incapable of uttering anything beyond carefully rehearsed platitudes.

That would force us to face the ugly truth: that no matter who is prime minister, no matter which party is in charge, politics is a messy, tough, cynical, scandal-prone business that offers no clear cut or easy answers.

Who wants to contemplate that harshness when it’s so much easier, so much more satisfying to believe in Trudeau’s rainbows and lollipops agenda?

As Oscar Wilde put it, “illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

Consequently, because it gives us pleasure, Trudeau remains firmly atop his celebrity pedestal, meaning he has a good chance of becoming our next prime minister.

Then, I guess, we will see what happens when illusion confronts reality.

(Spoiler alert: illusion usually doesn’t do so well.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Liberal Ad Not a Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she doesn't like political attack ads, which is why, I suppose, her own political attack ad is so terrible.

In fact, her ad is almost a textbook case of what not to do.

Check it out:

So the spot starts off with Wynne ambling along a bland suburban street explaining why she hates negative ads, which as a viewer sets me up to think she is going to spend the next 30 seconds or so explaining her positive vision for Ontario. But no! Instead, almost in mid-sentence, she goes from saying she hates attack ads to launching an attack of her own against PC leader Tim Hudak. That's a mistake because shifting gears and changing the tone of a message in such an abrupt way can jar a viewer and that's not a good thing. In this case, Wynne risks losing her audience in the crucial first seconds of the ad.

Then, after that odd start, Wynne proceeds to list a litany of "facts", which are supposed to convince voters that Hudak is evil incarnate: he hates labour; he wants to destroy jobs, he wants to eradicate youth employment; he wants to drive down wages; he wantzzzzzzzzzz.

Oops, sorry...  for a second there I dozed off.

But in my defence, this ad's style is conducive to napping. Wynne not only delivers her lines in a dull, boring monotone voice, but her list of Hudak misdeeds seems to go on forever. It's like Lord of the Rings! The average viewer is going to quickly lose interest. For a political spot, anything longer than 30 seconds is too long. (Even 30 seconds is a bit long.)

To be effective, to keep a viewer's attention, a video has to make its points briefly and with some sort of dramatic punch. Equally important, a good spot includes interesting visuals that reinforce the message. Even writing out key words on the screen helps. Just having one shot of a ranting Wynne strolling down a street doesn't cut it.

The biggest problem with this ad, however, is that Wynne herself is doing the attack. That's a major no no. Why? Well, going "negative" has a stigma attached to it, which is why the candidate must always be perceived as being all about rainbows and lollipops. If there's vicious knife work to be done, leave that to your allies in the media or to PR hacks or (most ideally) to Third Parties.

The more distance between negativity and the candidate, the better.

Mind you, what's truly troublesome about this ad is how much time it probably took to produce. I mean, there's always something that will spoil a shot when taping in the great outdoors: a car horn tooting, a dog barking, a plane flying overhead, kids making faces in the background. Plus, I'm sure Wynne, not being a professional actor, flubbed her lines more than once. All that translates into a lot of takes. That means a lot of time. Surely the Premier could have allotted that precious time for more useful government purposes, such as deleting emails. (Note to Liberal legal department: that's just a joke, so please don't sue me!)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

A look at Quebec Politics

My friend, Mat Vaillancourt, asked me to post his reflections on my blog, so I did.

Check it out:

Five Lessons from the Quebec provincial election

1) Campaigns matters
Pauline Marois did badly in places where she did not campaign like the Îles-de-la-Madeleine and the Abitibi region.

Otherwise, the CAQ leader won seats where he met people: shopping malls, at sugar shacks, at community centres. The CAQ seemed to have done well with people who voted the same day.

2)Trying to win everyone at the same time means pleasing no one at the end
The PQ is traditionally a centre-left nationalist party changed course in 2013 and started pushing a more ethnic nationalist platform, even more so than during earlier PQ stints in government.

The strategy behind this change was probably to win some regions in Quebec which are quite conservative.

Then came the billionaire Pierre-Karl Péladeau who is not seen as a big friend of the labour unions which were traditionally close to the PQ. Many labour unions were not keen on supporting the PQ this time because of Péladeau constituency and the charter of values.

At the end, this strategy backfired completely as the PQ lost on both sides. They did badly among what they already had and they did not win anything else even in areas where the PQ invested a lot of money in pork barreling projects. The party also had their worse score ever in Montreal being close to be a third party there.

3)The cool factor:
If you want to be PM or premier and you have a good lead at the polls, being cool, calm and seeming to be in charge of the situation could be a good strategy to win.

Philippe Couillard and Stephen Harper had the same strategy especially in debates. In both cases, it worked.

4)You have nothing to lose? Go for it.
If you are third and have nothing to lose, being on the attack could be a good strategy. Being low in the polls at the start of the campaign and having nothing to lose, François Legault had this strategy and it worked out really well for him to win more seats.

Even if he lost some seats in the Quebec City area to the Liberals perhaps because of anti-PQ tactical voting, he was able to win quite a few seats in the Montreal suburban areas because of the fall of the PQ and because he was able to be seen as the alternative to both the Liberals and the PQ especially in suburban and exurban areas.

5)Being seen as the anti-development party could hurt you.
The PQ had some major losses in Northern Quebec, especially in areas where mining is a major part of the economy.

Like for the BCNDP in the last provincial BC election, the PQ being seen as the anti-development party and the mine closings did not help at all to keep these seats. The PQ had a unpredictable policy on mines, which made Quebec a place which scared the mining companies to invest.

Ungava, the nothermost seat in the Quebec National Assembly was won for the Liberal for the first time ever since its creation in 1981.

The PQ also finished third in Nicolet-Bécancour, where closing the single biggest employer in the region (the nuclear power plant) the first day in power did not helpl the PQ in a riding which is traditionally péquiste and very rural.

Are these five rules only applicable in Quebec? Perhaps. But there is no doubt that some of these rules are also applying to other places in Canada and elsewhere in the western world.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Revealed: Table of Contents for Trudeau's memoirs!

Don’t ask how, but I managed to get my hands on the Table of Contents for  Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s soon to be published memoirs tentatively entitled, Fifty Shades of Yay!

If the chapter titles are anything to go by, it promises to be a fascinating opus. Take a look:

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Kindergarten Years

Chapter 2. What I learned from zany old Uncle Fidel

Chapter 3. Why I love Canada to my very bones, to the core of my molecules, to the roots of my incredibly thick hair.

Chapter 4. Discovering the Middle Class by observing it through the window of my dad’s limousine.

Chapter 5. Albertans running Ottawa! Not in my Canada.

Chapter 6.  Why “Open” Nominations are good for democracy

Chapter 7.  Why my power to arbitrarily veto Liberal candidates is good for democracy.

Chapter 8.Communist China: Admirable paradise of efficient state power.

Chapter 9. My take on foreign policy: Putin and a Ukrainian go into a bar…

Chapter 10.  The budget will balance itself and other economic theories I’ve devised while smoking pot.

Chapter 11.  Harper’s a big Meanie

Looks great, right? I suspect more chapters might emerge between now and the book's publication. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Oh no! Canadian Democracy is Doomed!

Our democracy is doomed!

For all the gory details of its demise, check out this column by the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hebert.

She explains how the Conservative government, in its “Fair Elections Act”, plans to – are you ready for this? -- forbid Elections Canada from launching “outreach campaigns”.

Imagine that! No more Elections Canada outreach campaigns!!

It’s outrageous! It’s scary! It’s Orwellian! (Note: George Orwell was a noted political writer who penned the classic anti-totalitarian novel about a wild college fraternity called Animal Farm House.)

If this news doesn't terrify you, it must be because you don't know Elections Canada’s outreach campaign is a campaign whereby Elections Canada tries to “reach” “out” and motivate people to vote.

This is similar to other government motivational campaigns such as its stop smoking campaign, its stop taking drugs campaign, its do more exercise campaign, its recycle your garbage campaign, and its pay more attention to government motivational ad campaigns campaign.

Technically, such government campaigning is known as “nagging.”

At any rate, an important part of that Elections Canada “outreach” campaign is its effort to convince young people that voting is cool and hip.

Now you might be thinking there’s no way middle-aged Elections Canada bureaucrats, whose idea of fun is coming up with “spoiled” ballot jokes, could ever be “groovy” enough to effectively reach out to today’s youth.

Well, if you watch this youth “outreach” ad you’ll see exactly how much Elections Canada is “with it.”

Yes, sir, with this ad airing on TV, it’s no wonder young people vote by the dozens.

Although admittedly some studies suggest that when young people are exposed to these hip Elections Canada ads, many of them not only don’t vote, they actually renounce the very concept of democracy.

But whether or not these ads work really isn’t the point.

The point is without the government telling them what to do at election time, an entire generation of young Canadians will lapse into an X-Box induced apathetic coma.

That means only non-cool old people will vote!

But wait, there’s more bad news.

As we all know, if young people don’t vote in large enough numbers, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau might (gasp) lose the next election.

And Hebert fears despite his Teenbeat model looks, despite his promise to legalize marijuana, despite his idealistic persona and despite his party’s sophisticated GOTV measures, without Election Canada ads to energize apathetic young  people, Trudeau won’t be able mobilize his Liberal Youth Legions.

In other words, stopping Elections Canada from advertising to help Trudeau probably violates the British North America Act, because surely the Fathers of Confederation never meant for us to have non-Liberal government!

So what can we do to protect our democratic values from this vicious assault?

Well, there’s only one thing we can do: wait for guidance from a hip and cool government ad.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reviewing the Year in Politics (Sort of)

Whenever a New Year approaches, I like to take my eyes off the road ahead and stare intently for a long period of time at the rear view mirror of history.

Yes, metaphorically-speaking, it’s reckless driving, but it’s also the only way to gather the facts needed for my annual “Year in Review” column, which highlights the key political events of the past twelve months.

And this year’s review of 2013 is chock-full of exciting highlights. Check it out:

(Please note: Nothing you read from here on is meant to be taken seriously and is for entertainment purposes only.)

* Idle No More movement leader, Chief Theresa Spence, threatens to “bring Canada’s economy down to its knees.” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair immediately objects saying: “Hey, bringing the economy down to its knees is my job!”

* NDP says a "bare” majority enough for Quebec to separate from Canada; nudists rejoice.

* Taking a cue from the Idle No More movement, the groundhog refuses to look for his shadow unless the Governor-General is present.

* The federal Liberals face lawsuits when their “imaginative” TV leadership debate format bores several viewers to death.

* During a speech before the House of Commons, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty admits the Conservative government’s entire budgetary plan consists of “putting up a bunch of Economic Action Plan billboards all over the place.”

* Justin Trudeau is elected leader of the Liberal Party, finishing ahead of Liberal MP Joyce Murray who wanted to co-operate with the NDP, proving once again that in politics having no ideas is much better than having bad ideas.

* The NDP holds a policy convention at which it drops the word “socialism” from its constitution and replaces it with the Canadian equivalent of socialism: “Economic Action Planning.”

* Toronto Mayor Rob Ford starts clever PR campaign, which successfully puts his city on the map.

* The Conservative Party, which had already adopted Liberal-style economic policies, decides to also adopt Liberal-style scandals. Enter Senator Mike Duffy.

* Prime Minister Harper leaves for Europe saying his visit will result in several key photo opportunities.

* Worried about its worsening image the Senate takes a pre-emptive step: it passes a resolution to abolish the NDP.

* Controversy erupts when it’s learned Liberal leader Trudeau received pay for speaking at charity events, leading many Canadians to voice a key question: why in the world would anyone pay money to hear a politician speak?

* Prime Minister Harper denounces those who say he is making government too partisan. Later that day Canada Day is officially renamed “Harper Day.”

* The media becomes completely obsessed with the "royal child," or as he’s otherwise known, Justin Trudeau.

* Absolutely nothing happens.

* After watching Russian President Vladimir Putin out maneuver President Barack Obama over the Syrian chemical weapon crisis, Prime Minister Harper asks Putin to negotiate the Keystone pipeline deal.

* Senator Mike Duffy stuns the country when he reveals that he taped the infamous Mayor Rob Ford “crack video.”

* The RCMP says it will investigate the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff for possible illegal activity, causing Harper to boast that his “law and order agenda is clearly working.”


* Conservative MP Michael Chong introduces a Bill to give backbench MPs more power; as a reward, he is quickly named Canada’s ambassador to Siberia.

So as you can see, 2013 was an extremely interesting year. And 2014 promises to provide us more of the same.

Oh well, try and have a Happy New Year anyway.

(This article originally appeared in the Hill Times.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tory fundraising Pitch Suffers from Blandness

Given that for the past ten years or so, the Conservative Party has been something of a fundraising juggernaut, I’m hesitant to criticize their methods.

Clearly, whatever they are doing is working.

Yet, a recent Tory fundraising appeal, which somehow made its way into my email inbox, leaves me cold. (Mind you, it’s possible my coldness might be due to the wind chill.)

At any rate, here’s the Conservative missive:


The success of our Party over the last 10 years has been a result of our ability to consistently raise more money than our opposition.  And as one of our key supporters you've been a critical part of that success.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have made fundraising their top priority, and they are working hard to close the gap.

We cannot let that happen.

Our Party can only win the next election if we keep our fundraising advantage and the 2015 election is right around the corner. If we want to win, we need to get ready now.

That's why we are launching the Seize the Moment campaign to raise $2 million by the end of the year.

This is an ambitious goal for our Party, but I know that you, my fellow members, donors and supporters will stand with us. I am asking you today – will you donate $5 or whatever you can afford today to help us reach our $2 million goal?

Make your $5 gift today and help us Seize the Moment – we're counting on you.


John Walsh
President, Conservative Party of Canada

So what’s wrong with this message?

Plenty, if you ask me. (Which admittedly, nobody did.)

In my mind, a successful fundraising letter has to make some sort of emotional connection with the donor while at the same time creating a sense of urgency.

This appeal does neither.

Instead, the Tories offer what I’d call a bland “structural” pitch, i.e. they are essentially saying give us money because: a) you are a Conservative, and b) we are the Conservative Party.

The only hook beyond that basic message is: “We can’t let the other team out fundraise us”.

That’s not exactly a rallying cry to political activists, who are seldom motivated by cold financial calculations and who don’t necessarily see politics as a fundraising competition.

They donate money because they want to advance an ideological agenda or because they want to defend their values or more bluntly they do it for primal emotional reasons: they are afraid, or angry or hopeful.

Asking them to “Seize the moment” so that the Tory balance sheet looks good might motivate accountants, but it will likely underwhelm a large chunk of the donor base.

Plus there has to be a sense that their support is needed right away, that they can’t put off signing that cheque or making that online donation.

But this Tory pitch is about amassing money in a bank vault for the 2015 election, which is more than a year off and I’m sorry that’s not “right around the corner.”

A better approach for the Tories would have been to say something like this:


As you know the left wing media has been unfairly attacking our party and our leader.

What’s more the Liberal Party has been inundating the TV airwaves with advertisements, promoting their new leader Justin Trudeau.

We need to fight back! We need to get our message out so that Canadians know what’s at stake.

That’s why our party has been running a series of our own TV ads to warn Canadians that Trudeau is “in over his head,” that he lacks the experience and expertise it will take to manage Canada’s economy.

We think our ads will work but they cost a lot of money.

In fact, the bills are landing on my desk right now.

I am hoping that I can count on your generous financial support so that we can pay for these ads and continue to stand up against those who want bigger government and higher taxes.

Only the Conservatives can provide the good government you deserve and Canada needs.

Please make a donation today.

OK that’s just a rough draft, but you get the idea.

To energize donors you need a little more punch, you need to give them something beyond an abstract far off goal.

All that said, this message will still garner the Tories lots of dough.

But they are also likely leaving a lot of money on the table.