If this were the 1990s, Erin O’Toole’s election strategists would have one word for him: narrative. They’d tell him to craft a story that unites people across the country. But elections are changing. The Liberals, we’re told, won the last one through thousands of highly targeted messaging campaigns. What does this mean for the next election? Should O’Toole even bother to build a Big Blue Tent?
Yes. Data tools may be the way of the future, but the big lesson we draw from 2019 is that elections now need to be fought on two fronts. As the data people are slicing and dicing, party leaders should focus on the mandate – and that’s where narrative come in. A good narrative lays the foundation for how a party will govern.
O’Toole is a case in point. As we see in his reply to the Speech from the Throne, he is hard at work on a campaign story in which federalism and Quebec have lead roles. However, we think he so focused on how this story can help him win the election that he is failing to fully consider how it will define his ability to govern. If you’ll bear with us, there is an important lesson here for everyone.
Quebeckers are passionate about identity and many are feeling threatened by the growing cultural diversity. While Justin Trudeau celebrates this as a resource and a strength, O’Toole appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
In his view, Canada is an alliance between two founding peoples (in collaboration with the first nations). This “two-nations” vision reaffirms Quebec’s special status, culture, language, and history. To make the point clear, O’Toole has also endorsed the province’s secularism law.
Perhaps this is smart politics in Quebec, but we’re already hearing about concerns back in the Conservative heartland. Westerners are fierce opponents of the two-nations vision. They believe it fundamentally misrepresents federalism, which they see as a way of accommodating Canada’s regional diversity. Debate over the Meech Lake Accord focused on this issue and it nearly tore the country apart.
Apparently, O’Toole thinks he can achieve what two tumultuous rounds of constitutional wrangling could not: reconciling these two views. His solution is to define federalism as an alliance of provinces.
“My vision of federalism is a decentralized one that trusts the provinces, that supports resource development in the west and that respects the Quebec nation.” Basically, provinces should be left to do as they wish within their jurisdictions.
While we strongly support provincial autonomy, this not only oversimplifies how the federation works; it fundamentally misrepresents Canada. Suppose we ask what holds this “alliance” together?
O’Toole’s answer is that the provinces have a “shared destiny and a shared dream” and, as prime minister, he promises to support this by substituting Trudeau’s “Ottawa-knows-best” approach with collaboration.
Note however that he never says what this “shared dream” is. We can guess why: it doesn’t exist. If history teaches anything about confederation, it is that provinces have different goals, needs, and priorities.
We could consider a few examples here – climate change, health care, childcare, immigration, Equalization, Official Languages, monetary policy, deficit spending, international trade, taxes – but we hope readers get the point: the provinces can’t lead Canada.
But let’s be clear: we’re not opposed to intergovernmental collaboration. On the contrary, we see it as essential to good governance. Our concern is that O’Toole seems confused about how this works. To succeed on a national scale, someone must articulate a vision or shared objective around which governments can collaborate.
Typically, federal parties propose an idea during an election campaign. If they win, they get a mandate to make some tough planning choices, even though some provinces may disagree. That’s how Canadians got health care, the Canada pension, Free Trade, and a reduction in the GST.
In the next election, Liberals will present a plan to help Canada transition to a sustainable economy. People may disagree with this and they can vote against it, but the point here is simply that Liberals are using the election to ask Canadians for a mandate to do something.
Our question for O’Toole is, will his vision let him do the same? For example, many Conservatives believe they need a credible green plan to win the next election. But how will they arrive at this? Such a plan will certainly impact the provinces so, what if some of them disagree? Can Conservatives still propose it in an election? Would doing so conflict with O’Toole’s vision of confederation?
The questions, of course, are rhetorical. We think O’Toole’s narrative paints Conservatives – and Canadians – into a corner. His vision strips federal politics of its leadership role, which, in turn, divests the federal government of whatever capacity it still has to act in the national interest.
This is a serious mistake. As the practices around elections change, increasingly elections will be won or lost by data-driven techniques that operate at the micro level. Most are barely observable by the public and can’t be relied on to provide governments with a mandate.
Narrative building serves as a counterbalance. It allows parties to advance ideas and get the legitimacy they need to make decisions, should they form government.
Basically, it allows them to govern.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com
Andrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.