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Andrew Tumilty: Two governments, two parties, one problem: bad issues management
Both the Ford and Trudeau governments missed opportunities over the last week to choose less-bad responses to crises.
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By: Andrew Tumilty
To be an issues manager is to be continually shocked, and yet rarely surprised.
Shocked by the choices people have made, and not at all surprised by the outcomes of those choices. Anyone who has ever worked in issues management has at some point in a professional conversation used the phrase, “What the fuck did you think was going to happen?”
Describing something as complicated and varied as issues management isn’t easy, but at the most basic level, issues management involves coordinating strategy and communications to maintain as much control as possible over how an emerging situation is being covered by the media, framed by opponents and allies alike, and understood by the public. You must consider multiple possible outcomes and plan responses to address them all before choosing what is often the least-bad option in the absence of good ones. Whether you are being proactive or responsive, your time to work will be limited.
As an example of the unpredictability involved, in a previous role, my issue to manage one day was a missing swimmer on Toronto’s waterfront. That sounds serious except that the swimmer in question was bright orange, part of a floating art installation, and not a real person. Fortunately, we found them relatively unharmed, days before the installation was heading back to Boston.
The unique circumstances and considerations of any individual situation aside, effective issues management can be reduced two critical questions:
What is the most likely outcome that we can live with?
How quickly can we get there?
In the last week, two high-profile scandals hit the headlines, each with its own lessons. For objectivity, the post-partisan gods even saw fit to grace us with one scandal from a Progressive Conservative provincial government, and one from the federal Liberal government.
Starting with the provincial flop: for months, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government have been dogged by the Greenbelt land swap, which saw environmentally protected lands released for development; the owners of those newly valuable lands tended to be developers with close ties to the Ford government. Removing the lands from the Greenbelt in the first place drew some public ire, particularly considering that it was now the second time Ford had broken the same promise about leaving them alone. Then we found out how the particular parcels of land were chosen: developers asked the housing minister’s chief of staff to remove said parcels, and it was made so.
The resignations of both the chief of staff in question and the minister he served were always a foregone conclusion for most observers. Where the issues management was lacking was in the timing.
Dragging out the resignations left more time for the premier to face questions from the press and publicly defend both the chief of staff and the minister, only to have them resign a few days later.
The delay gave journalists more time to dig into what was still an active story, eventually giving them the headline opportunity of a lifetime when words like “Vegas” and “Massage” were added to the story.
That was when we reached the most obvious solution to the problem that became apparent after the public learned the selection process was at best flawed and at worst corrupt — returning the Greenbelt lands to their formerly protected state.
Had Ford moved faster to demand resignations and return the lands, he may have gotten credit for taking swift action. Instead, by delaying the inevitable, he appears to have only done the right thing when no other choices were available. Along the way he lost a series of ministers and officials, not to mention support in the polls.
Potentially worse news for the premier is that Ford’s management of the Greenbelt issue may have inspired his government's opponents to go even harder in criticizing other contentious projects such as the redevelopment of Ontario Place. Those people may now be of the mind that with enough pressure, enough time, and enough bad press, Ford will eventually cave and reverse course.
The other issue is of course the shameful moment where Canada’s House of Commons rose to recognize and applaud a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who fought under Nazi command in a Waffen SS division.
The Speaker of the House of Commons invited the man in question, and obviously his staff could have avoided this situation by doing even some minimal vetting. The consequences of their failure has been real damage to the legislature’s reputation, in addition to the hurt felt profoundly by Jewish communities in Canada, along with so many others.
Then there is the obvious propaganda victory handed to the Russians, who falsely justify their brutal invasion of Ukraine by saying they are on a mission to “de-Nazi” their neighbouring nation.
All to say that prevention is as much a part of good issues management as response, and this could and should have been prevented.
The speaker’s resignation was clearly the most likely outcome, and the right thing for him to do. This was his guest, his own staff failed to vet him properly, and it was the speaker’s voice that lauded this man in the chamber.
The speaker’s office is independent and no part of this should have been blamed on the prime minister or the government. However, in the real world, anyone who has ever knocked on doors in an election campaign will tell you that the public has a very loose understanding of what order of government does what, never mind the role of the speaker.
The realities of perception meant while it might not have been the government’s fault, managing the issue was very much their responsibility.
Seeing the inevitability of the speaker’s resignation, the prime minister could have joined the other parties in the House in immediately asking for it. While he did stand in the House of Commons and apologize for the incident, his words could have been stronger, and more importantly they ought to have come sooner. The day he apologized was the third day the House had been sitting since the incident.
Purely from an issues management stance, the goal should have been to limit the effectiveness of the opposition’s criticisms and get back to talking about government priorities. The opposition’s statements blaming the prime minister would have looked more ridiculous if he had already apologized and made clear the speaker was at fault by calling for him to resign.
Effective issues management is key to effective government. It is more than a matter of self-preservation and public relations. Without the trust of the people who elected them, no government can operate effectively and will soon find the biggest issue they have to manage will be finding a new career.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications and advice for federal, provincial, and municipal campaigns and candidates. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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