01.31.2012 01:00 AM

In today’s Sun: it’s not telling a story. It’s telling the right story.

Whenever they’re in political trouble, progressives — Liberals and New Democrats in Canada, Democrats in the United States — will say they’d win more if only they communicated better. If only they had a better “narrative,” they say, they’d beat conservatives more often.

So, a young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, once called for a “new narrative” to wrest power back from conservative Republicans (he got one, and won). Robert Reich, one of Bill Clinton’s smarter guys, lamented that Republican conservatives win all the time because they “have mastered the art of political narrative.”

Up here, you hear a lot of the same sort of kvetching. Shortly after he got his keister kicked in the May 2011 federal election, for instance, Michael Ignatieff told my friend Michael Valpy that he lost because he didn’t “control the narrative.”  

His successor, Bob Rae, said in a big-vision speech at the Economic Club the “populist narrative” of Conservatives has been used to fool lots of folks into voting for Stephen Harper.  

And so on, and so on. These days, then, you hear otherwise smart progressives yammering on and on about “narratives” and “framing” and “branding” and stuff like that.  


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    fred says:

    Scumbag is going to cut grandma’s old age pension so he can buy 30 billion dollars worth of fighter jets.
    It can’t get any easier for you narrative guys.

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      Chris says:

      Since when have the facts got in the way of public sentiment?

      Call it a winning policy if you want, but if the majority comes the same conclusion of “fred” then we are well on our way to ending the Harper Government™ Reign of Terror™.

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        Pat says:

        PM Harper said to Canadians that “a recession is not coming to Canada” during the 2008 election, when all other party leaders admitted we were on the edge and that we should plan for it. The stimulus efforts began about 2 months after the election.

        Are you trying to argue that Steve Harper being the only party leader to state categorically that a recession would not happen – even when anyone who was paying attention knew it would – had no impact on his success? Was that not lying to Canadians to get elected? By specifically stating that the recession would not happen, Harper likely caused the financial ruin of many Canadians.

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        Michael Radan says:

        Research prepare at the federal government’s request argues there is no need to raise the retirement age. Canada’s system is in much better shape than Europe’s.

        Edward Whitehouse who researches pension policy on behalf of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank was asked by the federal government to study and report on how Canada’s system compares to others in the world.

        He concluded “The analysis suggests that Canada does not face major challenges of financial sustainability with its public pension schemes” and “there is no pressing financial or fiscal need to increase the retirement age in the foreseeable future”

        So Mr Tulk, who is lying to the Canadian public? If you look closely you will the Mr, Harper’s pants are on fire. 😉

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        Philip says:

        From the Globe and Mail yesterday:

        “But research prepared at Ottawa’s request argues Canada’s pension system is in far better shape than the Europeans’, and there’s no need to raise the retirement age. Edward Whitehouse – who researches pension policy on behalf of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank – was asked by Ottawa to study and report on how Canada stacks up internationally when it comes to pensions.

        His conclusion: “The analysis suggests that Canada does not face major challenges of financial sustainability with its public pension schemes,” and “there is no pressing financial or fiscal need to increase pension ages in the foreseeable future.””

        Somebody is very clearly lying to the Canadian public. You have to wonder what kind of shape the books are actually in.

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      Marc L says:

      The kind of demagoguery that completely turns me away from politicians. That said, to my point below: assume your comment makes sense: what would YOU or YOUR party do instead. What would YOU do to replace the fighter jets. At least that would give us a basis on which to judge your views. Otherwise, it’s just more worthless “Harper is the son of Satan” type crap.

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      fred says:

      Gord, that’s all you got? You’re not a very good flunky. Didn’t Uncle Steve give you the talking points?

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      Bill says:

      That’s interesting you bring the pension up Fred. This is a terrible ” narrative” for the left to use, because you will find most common sense folk realize a change is required. Not to completely get rid of it, but to make it sustainable. The OAS is costing us 30 billion PER YEAR now and will cost over 100 billion PER YEAR in the future. Totally not sustainable. It is also crazy that the claw back doesn’t start to occur till after $70 000 a year and people making $110 000 still receive some OAS. Way to generous. This benefit should not apply to any one making over $60 000 a year (in retirement). Harper is forward thinking on this issue and is absolutely doing the right thing.

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        Cam says:

        Look at the actual facts instead of the talking points and blather spread by the conservative masters.

        BTW I would scrap the F35s and go with updated F18s. Oh yea, stop the 1 billion give away to the oil companies as well. Oh and yea, Mr. Harper and the rest of the conservative MPs and senators saying they will forgo their pensions would also be a good start.

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        Michael Radan says:

        Your numbers on the clawback are wrong.

        The cost of OAS will only increase until 2030, and then rapidly decline as the baby boomers die.

        This is a totally manufactured “crisis” so that the Conservatives can gut the social safety net. The Conservatives are trying to reduce spending on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society.

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          Bill says:

          My numbers on the claw back are right. You don’t think the OAS is not soon to be in crisis? An extra 50 billion +++ per year.
          Where will that money come from? These social nets should be for people that need it, not people making $50 000 or $60 000 a year.
          You’re fear mongering, the most vulnerable in our society will continued to be looked after and the changes will be phased in.

          Cam, the F35s cost is pocket change compared to the yearly cost of OAS. The last time i looked the only provinces creating lots of jobs seem to be those oil companies you dislike. I hope to see pension reductions for the MP’s, senators and public servants, we agree on this topic.

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            Cam says:

            Bill. Did you read the article in the Globe and Mail and the study referenced in the report? The facts are there for you to see. The talking points from the conservative machine are not supported by the facts.

            Please provide some proof that the 1 billion given to the oil companies is driving job growth in the oil patch? Where are the facts?

            35 billion is pocket change? 35 billion is a start to prudent fiscal management.

            I’m not suggesting reductions in the pensions for Mr. Harper and the rest of the conservative MPs and senators. What is good for the gaggle, is also good for the goose. Mr. Harper et al are hypocrites while still planning on collecting their platinum pensions while taking away from the working poor. Let Harper et al stop their “entitlements” and let them have just the CPP and OAS and leave it at that. That would be real leadership.

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            Bill says:

            Cam, I’m saying 35 billion is pocket change compared to the OAS yearly cost. The 35 billion for fighter jets is based over 20 -25 years. This money will keep Canada’s military relevant and up to date. A very good thing, we can’t expect the USA to protect Canada forever. When the north completely opens lets be ready when the Russias, Chinese, etc make claims. Lets grow some balls and protect what is Canada’s.

            Bottom line: The OAS is to generous and costly. 10 billion yearly should be removed from OAS.

            The oil companies are the only reason Canada still has a housing market. The Facts……Jobs and lots of them. People from all over Canada are working for the “big bad oil companies”. Don’t bit the hand that is feeding Canada.

            Philip, we are not manufacturing “crisis”. Conservative are in the process of making Canada stronger than ever and the majority of people understand this. Harper has been very clear where he was taking the country and won a majority by doing so.

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        Philip says:

        Why does your Conservative Party feel that it is necessary to manufacture a “crisis” in order to pass legislation, Bill? Why can’t the Conservative Party actually respect Canadians enough to level with them about important issues?

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        Jan says:

        How many OAS recipients are earning $60,000? I’m guessing not many, so I’m not convinced there are a whole lot who will be cut off if you increased the clawback to say $40,000.

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      Cam says:

      Hey Gord.

      Surely Harper wouldn’t want to actually make decisons based upon the facts. Old Age Security experts suggest there is no problem with Old Age Security – see the Globe Article: Research Belies PM’s Warning About OAS at the following link


      Same old conservative game, create a crisis and mislead to move forward with the hidden agenda.

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        Philip says:

        Create-a-crisis Conservatives. Bad for Canada. Bad for you.

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      Cam Prymak says:

      did the price go up?

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    James Curran says:

    You mean that pot resolution won’t do the trick?

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    Marc L says:

    How about starting by stopping theis arrogant description of yourselves as “progressives”, and putting yourselves in the same camp as the NDP. Do you really want to tell people that you are part of that crowd? If taxing people to death and other wacko NDP ideas is your idea of “progress”, I would rather stay in Harper’s stone age. By the way, you did not exactly govern from the left when Chretien was at the helm. So much for that.
    In any event, I agree with the gist of your article. Liberals need content, not “narratives”. I don’t care about happy storylines and big dreams — I want to know what you will do once you are in power. It’s easy to rant against Harper-the-spawn-of-Satan. That seems to be your only “narrative” at this time. How about telling us what you would do differently. I can already see the ranting on the pension issue coming. At least the NDP is being consistent: they will solve any sustainability issues by raising taxes, perhaps dramatically so (see Brian Topp). All it seems we are going to hear from the Grits is more of the “Harper the Evil one” narrative. This is a great opportunity for the Liberals to tell us what THEY would do with the pension issue if THEY were in power. But they probably won’t seize it, content as they are telling us how “progressive” they all are.

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      Lawrence Stuart says:

      Peevishness personified.

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      Jan says:

      You are demanding the Liberals come up with a policy for a crisis that doesn’t seem to exist.

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    Pat says:

    Your articles always have the best comments…

    When I read about that young Liberal you spoke to at the convention – the one who wanted to “change the frame” – I am reminded why I am no longer involved with the Liberal Party. There is this hysteria that seems to have followed the party in the last few years, and it shows itself in the strangest ways – idiotic policy moves, strategic blunders and leadership issues.

    I mean, marijuana, really? That is totally going to win the next election. Or how about refraining from attacking Harper on his fiscal and crime policies? They totally forgot to do that in the last election. What about creating good, old-fashioned centrist policies rather than writing an NDP-lite platform last election? We don’t need no stinking platform. Finally, and probably most importantly, why swing so violently from one leader to another? Why can’t Liberals get behind any single leader?

    I’ve heard the story about a million times – Warren even brought it up during the selection of the new party president: this guy is a Martin guy, that guy is a Chretien guy. Who the F$#K cares? The problem wasn’t WHO was leading the Liberals, it was that, no matter what, half of the party refused to get behind them. Martin was a lame-duck PM, not because the Liberals were about to have a big fall, but because half of his party refused to support him. OK, I understand Chretien people being pissed at Martin. But did the same thing have to happen to Dion? I mean, the guy never even had a chance. I’m not talking about his language skills, either. I first became actively involved in the party after Dion was selected as the leader (not because he was selected as leader, though), and it absolutely disgusted me to hear from about 50% of Liberals that “Ignatieff was my guy”. They all gave a half-assed effort during Dion’s election because they knew that if he failed, Iggy would become leader. Then Iggy became leader and 50% of Liberals refused to get behind him because he was “American” and “Right Wing” and stuff. Iggy also didn’t have a chance.

    Now I can see it setting up the same way for the next leader. If Bob Rae is selected, people of Warren’s ilk will basically check-out from anything LPC while he is leader, leaving Bob Rae as a lame-duck. If someone else gets selected as leader, those people who wanted Bob Rae will likely check-out. Say what you want about Harper being a control freak – at least everyone in the CPC seems to be behind their leader.

    The sad thing is that Liberals have forgotten the most important thing – that being a Liberal is about where you are on the spectrum, not who your leader is. What drives most of us to be Liberals is the desire to find the middle-ground that usually results in the best policy, and we should not care less who the leader is so long as they seem to be driving in that direction. Sure, we need to be able to sell the leader’s vision and values and qualities, but those things are secondary to having strong central policy positions and whole-party support for the CURRENT leader.

    The fact that I can see another fracture coming is the reason I’m not active in the Liberal Party at all any more. I’m not going to pick sides – hell, I’m even going to agree with the CPC and NDP on some things, because even though I am a liberal person, I have no faith in the Liberal Party.

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      Dennis says:

      Wow. With the exception of the timing (I was involved before Dion) I could have written this.

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      VH says:

      What philosophy do Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have in common? Being a liberal needs to have more than about where you are on the “spectrum”.

      If I talk to PC/Cons they will all sing – and with some amount of conviction – from the same tax cutting hymn book.
      Liberals? Not so much as even being in the same church denomination.

      It’s not the leaders, it’s the grassroots. All over the map and mostly don’t understand the real economic issues that divide us.

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        Pat says:

        All that defines the CPC is that they are to the right of the LPC. Harper’s opinions and perspectives certainly don’t represent the full spectrum of opinions and perspectives of the CPC caucus or its supporters, but they hold their tongue’s in order to hold power. If the LPC ever wants to win again, they need to learn how to do this.

        Liberals tend to brand themselves with the “decisions based on evidence, not ideology” label.

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          Bill says:

          “All that defines the CPC is that they are to the right of the LPC”

          Funny, funny, same old liberal talk. The LPC invented the universe did they?
          That attitude is exactly why I and many millions do not vote liberal.
          The only way the LPC wins again if the shift slightly to the right (specially on taxes, crime and the military).

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            Pat says:

            So you don’t think that the CPC is on the right side of the spectrum? By definition, conservatives are on the right side of the spectrum. I was making a point of saying that within the CPC there is a relatively wide swath of perspectives, from PCs to Reformers – the thing that defines them is that they are right of the LPC. You just pulled the classic “lets accuse the Liberals of being self-centred”.

            I actually believe that the only way the LPC gets re-elected is if they move a bit right, which would be nearer to where they traditionally have been. Like I said, though, it doesn’t matter where they are on the spectrum if half the party checks out. At least the CPC can put aside its internal differences in order to gain and maintain power…

            If you read my big post, you would know that I’m not a Liberal.

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          VH says:


          like I wrote above, every single Con I know, be they a party member or just an avid supporter, all believe in tax cuts as the solution to the economy. Doesn’t matter what the current tax rate is, they just know a tax cut will solve the problem of the day.

          I don’t think you can write “All that defines the CPC is that they are to the right of the LPC” with any credibility.

          You also completey avoided the issue with the 4 Libs mentioned above. They have nothing in common. That’s the problem.

          Liberal party members somehow always allow themselves to be stampeded into supporting almost anybody. That’s the biggest problem there is.

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            Pat says:

            If you talk to all Liberals you will get social justice and prudent fiscal management – whether you believe they have ever actually done any of that is another question entirely.

            I apologize for avoiding the 4 Liberals question you posed – it was not intentionally avoided, I just forgot to answer it. I agree that they have nothing in common – that is what happens when your party runs around in the dark for 10 years grasping for any policy direction that might make them successful – I mean, fiscal prudence to environmental policy to “kind of like a conservative, but not” to “former dipper” is all over the place. But at the end of the day, I still think that each would say that we have a responsibility to create good social policy while maintaining strong fiscal management – while they all had a different policy focus, those two aspects were always there.

            The same can be said of the CPC – If Harper left tomorrow you might have McKay and Kenny and Baird as potential successors. While they all might be sold on a central tenet like cutting taxes, there would certainly be as big a difference between the rest of their policies as there was between the policies of Martin, Dion, Iggy and Rae.

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            Bill says:

            Pat I understand the CPC is on the right sid of the spectrum. What I didn’t agree with was the ” All that defines” part. I think the CPC is more defined then any other federal party. People understand where CPC is on mostly all issues. Defining the current LPC is a much more difficult task.

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      Ted H says:

      One of the best analyses on the subject of the Liberal Party that I have seen. Thank you for that I hope people who are concerned about the future of the LPC will take your comments to heart.

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        Pat says:

        Me too.

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      Pat says:

      Yeah, but that didn’t seem to matter for Dion, who was immediately a lame duck. Even with a solid selection process the LPC has screwed itself over because they aren’t able to put these conflicts in the past. Imagine how much stronger Paul Martin would have been if the Chretien people had bit their lips and supported him – you don’t have to like it, but to be successful in politics you have to do it. Same thing with Dion. I’m not saying Dion would have won if he had the support of Iggy-ites, but he certainly would have fared better if his party – the party that selected him at the convention – was on his side.

      I guarantee you that there are people inside the CPC who disagree with Harper and the more Reformish policies, but they keep their mouths shut in order to maintain power. The LPC doesn’t know how to put the past in the past…

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    Anon says:

    Bob has revived interest in the Liberal Party. He is doing a good job and so are the Party’s MP’s.

    last election the party had a great set of polices – unfortunately it had no narrative.

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      Pat says:

      NDP programs – no policies… that is what they had in their platform last election.

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    Lawrence Stuart says:

    Good column. And I’d confess to being guilty as charged regarding the use of this language.

    You write that we need to appeal to peoples’ hearts, not just their heads. But what is there in that heart of darkness? And this being politics, one has to create not just a compelling narrative, but one that appeals in a particular way to key constituencies, while not offending some other constituency, etc. Not the best environment to create a great story.

    And I’m just not sure about the public mood right now. I jokingly (sort of) refer to Harper’s electoral constituency as the coalition of the grumpy – he galvanizes a widespread sense of peevishness.

    Layton managed to tap into the other side of the coin more successfully than Ignatieff. But is this down to leadership style (or narrative choice and delivery in this lingo)? Anyway, Layton’s narrative couldn’t defeat Harper. Split as we are between Greens, NDP, Bloc, and Liberals, progressives in this country need more than just another narrative. We need a common narrative.

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    dave says:

    About two dozen years ago, the American, Howard Gardner (he of the multiple intelligences idea), published on ‘leadership’ saying, roughly, that the best leadership is that which best articulates the narrative of the group being lead. This might be so. But, sometimes we have narratives that are not true; people believe that they are true, or, behave as though they believe that the narrative is true.
    Most of us have seen narratives succeed that we have doubts about.
    In North America there are diaries and offical papers in Mexico that say that Davy Crockett and couple of dozen others surrendered to Santa Ana’s troops at the Alamo, and they were executed by firing squad several hours later. The Maine blew up in Havana, and that was used by USA to expand its territory considerably. The ‘Day of Infamy’ narrative about an attack on USA territory says that the attack was entirely by surprise. The official 9/11 and a ‘War on Terror’ narratives have been triggers for conquering and occupying nations on the other side of the globe.

    Old one liner about Canada is that we began as ‘A railway in search of a nation.’ The narrative of an empire based around the Great Lakes that reached west and north to its hinterlands seemed to me to be close to our story. Harold Innis and the staples narrative about our early economy also seemed to me to have some truth to it.
    Over the past century we began to move on from that staples economy to develop secondary and tertiary industries, the latter around the Great Lakes ( where Liberal strength has been).

    The Conservative narrative has an integrity to it. They have always been the party of empire (Brit, now USA – our ‘allies,’ our ‘interests,’ and such); they have repackaged early 20th Century corporatism and are selling it as ‘new, new, new’ ideas. They sell corporate impunity as individual freedom.

    There is one narrative here in BC about how things worked in BC 50 years ago. WAC Bennett knew that the CCF/NDP would never be strong enough to gain power. He had to keep the PC’s and Liberals in check, so he promulgated drastic anti labour legislation, polarizing provincial politics, forcing the PC’s and Libs to choose sides. That way he maintained his majority.
    This narrative could work at the national level, and the Conservatives seem ot be on top of it.

    The media has a lot to do with the success of a narrative. The Libs gathering came up with a whole whack of policies, bu the media has focused only on the marijuana policy.
    Media sells more soap with conflict, opposites clashing. They avoid in depth discussion or detailed analysis, and sell action, animosity. So the style of the NDP leadership forums is presented as boring bromides. The issues and proposed solutions are not presented at all.
    So the media is an important part of reflecting our narratives to the rest of us.

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    Pat says:

    Oh yeah… most of the media, eh? Most of the media supported the CPC in the last federal election.

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      Brine says:

      Think Susan Delacourt and her tears for Iggy, and Terry Milewski trying to bait Guy Giorno on election night. Shameless left wing cheerleaders, both of them.

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        Warren says:

        That’s funny. I’ve been dealing with Ms. Delacourt for years, and I’ve never considered her a cheerleader (of Team Chretien in general, and me in particular) for a single moment.

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        pomojen says:

        Even if what you say is true – which I would be stunned to discover – the alleged “tears and baiting” would represent their own personal stuff vs. their published work. The actual published work of the MSM at election time was Conservative all the way. I have never experienced these two as liberal, Liberal or progressive cheerleaders.

        Then again, I am reminded of an earlier thread and several studies pointing out the thin skinned, somewhat paranoid quality of conservatives. So I don’t doubt you see their lack of unquestioning support for your conbot machine as left-wing cheerleading. After all, they’re either with your or against you, right?

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    William says:

    We need to go way, way deeper than that, into values and morals. Into voters’ hearts, and not just their heads.


    You’ve been in campaigns, what’s a tangible example of this?

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    billg says:

    Although I agree with WK’s column, there is an aspect that many are missing.
    The current story is “owned” by Mr Harper, and, it will be “owned” by him until he or the party itself does something monumentally stupid. No one expects the Left to agree with anything a Right wing govt does, but, to the people who matter most, the voters, Mr Harper is leading a sound responsible govt, and, thats the story right now. Its the oppositions job to convince the voters that they are not, but, with Canada being in an enviable financial position right now, it almost seems an impossible task. The Cons will stumble, all govts do, but, it does beg the question, why would the LPC want a 71 year old Bob Rae as their leader when the LPC’s next real chance at owning the story wont be for 7 years?

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    Bil Huk says:

    i don’t if its the name (billg), but this is an excellent point. the vilification of harper has alot of similarity to the vilification of Chretien by his opponents back in the day (as someone right of centre, i LOVED the snap elections after alliance or conservative leadership conventions!!! they seemed so in keeping with ‘fair politics’). the proportion of canadians who support harper has alot of similarity to the proportion of canadians who supported chretien (depending on which election you choose to look at). But for that part of the electorate that changes the outcome of elections, both chretien and harper appeared to be doing a ‘good enough’ job, which is why both have enjoyed the job of PM for a significant period of time

    of course partisans will talk about how those situations have no similarity, but they do. and it’ll take the same circumstances (a government screw up with a competent government in waiting in opposition) for there to be a change.

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    Mike Foulds says:

    Am I being naive to think that the PC election results are owed to the vote splitting between liberals and dippers? I haven’t run the numbers, I have a life, but I’d be surprised if the combined vote count of dippers and liberals wasn’t enough to win the majority of ridings. I think Warren would be the first to admit that in any election you’re really only swaying the 20% or so who vote based on what they hear in an election campaign. Most voters vote the same way every time. I think the 20% vote more on the inherent charisma of the leader than the policies they support. McGuinty, god love him, would get picked before Hudak by most people, but McGuinty was willing to poach policy ideas from the PC’s.

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    Neil says:

    You have spouted this garbage before and it is not true. The right wing always whines about media bias and it is just not true. You live in Alberta, There is NO media in Alberta that is favourable to the Liberals. The CBC is pro NDP and rips the libs whenever it can.
    Please give me an example of ANY MSM in Alberta that is pro Liberal. Yet you have stations like Gloabl and QR 77 that are 24/7 cheerleaders for the Conservatives and the Wildrose.
    I think what you really need to admit is that in Canada at least most of the media is in the bag for the right, until you admit that you are just not telling the truth.

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    Cam Prymak says:

    We’d get there a lot faster if we went straight for authenticity in our Liberal leaders.

    By comparison Rob Ford had a one phrase narrative from which he never wavered but I don’t think that’s why he was elected. People voted for him because they believed he believed in what he was saying.

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    Cam says:

    Its about vision and hope.

    People need a vision and hope that things will change and get better. Where I work the younger folks and University aged kids have a different value set – less serious about work, more serious about each other, concern for the environment, and a belief in what is correct. This whatever it is has to be tapped into.

    I think Layton gave a sense of vision and hope and voters taped into it.

    Liberals need to move away definitively from the self-centred, corporate pleasing right. Liberals need to go after the conservatives for their demonstrated lack of respect for democratic principles, their selfishness, and their continued distortion of the facts. Until the Liberals truly distance themselves from the conservative’s negative way of doing things, the younger folks and many other are just going to brush them off as the same old, same old.

    This is why, unlike some/many, I think the decriminalizing pot policy thing may have some traction. I think it starts to demonstrate a move away from the same old, same old thing

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