Mitch Heimpel: The Liberals have more than just a communications problem
As hard as it might be for Liberals to admit it, they have a Justin Trudeau problem.
By: Mitch Heimpel
There's a third season episode of Mad Men that I particularly love.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is visited by an ex-girlfriend who's the heiress to a dog food fortune. Her company has recently been the subject of a piece by 60 Minutes that revealed that the key ingredient in their dog food is horse meat, much to the outrage of American dog owners. Her company is in crisis as customers abandon it in droves.
During the episode, there's a focus group with dog owners and their pets. The dogs are fed the food without being told the brand. The dogs love the food. They gobble it up. When the owners are told what the brand of the food is, they pull their dogs away in horror.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tells the heiress her problem is not a flavour problem. The dogs will happily eat the food, but "any agency that does not change the name is stealing your money." When she’d walked into the agency, she’d said at the outset that she didn’t want to change the name, and she didn’t want to change the recipe. Draper tells her she has to change both. The brand is now associated with horse meat, and they can’t change that impression. And, as long as the horse meat is in the can, a new label is only a temporary fix.
This is an existential problem for her company. If it had just been the flavour, she wouldn’t have a problem.
I've been thinking about this episode a lot lately, usually after reading the latest musings from an unnamed Liberal caucus source in one of our remaining news outlets. The refrain is the same. They go down a list of the government's perceived accomplishments: cannabis, childcare, Canada Child Benefit, and so on, and then they express total bewilderment as to why the government isn't more popular.
They think they have a superficial problem: that Canadians don’t like the way the Liberals’ policy options are being marketed to them. So they’re proposing brand changes: a new ad agency, some whizz bang communications improvement, will put them back in the running.
It won’t. This isn’t a comms problem.
Take, for example, the carbon tax. In this case, after months of Pierre Poilievre going coast-to-coast yelling "axe the tax" at anyone who will listen, the Liberals have decided that the appropriate response is a multi-departmental task force aimed at rebranding the carbon tax and the associated rebate program.
This will fail. Most "multi-departmental" task forces are recipes for failure, mind you, and fair enough, but this one is especially doomed for failure. It's doomed for failure because the best version of what the Liberals are trying to sell is a load of perfectly nutritious horse meat that makes people think they're contributing tax dollars to help the environment.
Healthful and noble it may be. Except that fewer than one in four Canadians rank climate change as one of their three most important issues, and that's about the same number for whom Justin Trudeau is their preferred choice for prime minister. The Liberals already have climate change voters.
It’s not that the Liberals have failed to communicate their climate change bona fides — it’s that too few people actually want what’s in that can.
That’s just one example of a bigger problem. Under Justin Trudeau, the Liberals have wound their party brand around his personal politics. The Liberal Party of Canada, arguably the second-most successful political enterprise in the English-speaking world (after only the British Tories) are entirely dependent on Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau as a politician has certain defining features. His public image always been heavily invested in progressive cultural issues like climate change and Indigenous reconciliation as core narratives. His government has spent big. It's the government that never hesitated to categorize concerns about the immigration system as racist. That’s the recipe.
That mostly worked for them, right up until we hit an affordability crisis. Canadians’ priorities and concerns have shifted dramatically, and rapidly.
Even senior Liberal cabinet ministers are tacitly admitting immigration as a process is straining existing resources, including housing. A year ago, fewer than six per cent of Canadians listed immigration as one of their top issues and the Conservatives led the Liberals by four percent. Today, 23 per cent of Canadians list immigration as one of their top issues (tying it with climate change, see above) and the Conservatives lead the Liberals by 15 percent. (As an aside, that kind of growth for one issue, in a year, should be something we all keep an eye on, because we can’t assume that it has peaked, and wow, that could be a major problem for any future government.)
Don Draper would have no trouble instantly diagnosing the problem the Liberals have. And for what it's worth, it didn't take Don Draper. Liberal MP Ken McDonald reached the same conclusion last week.
The Liberals need to change more than just their comms. The problem is what’s in the can: Trudeau, and pretty much everything he has spent the last nine years representing.
The Liberals can admit that, or not. They seem to be struggling with it, but there’s still time for the moment of realization. But no amount of "multi-departmental" task forces, no amount of "better comms," is going to turn horse meat into a brand problem. It’s the recipe that’s the problem.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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