So, Parliament returns. My hunch? Thirty-odd million Canadians won’t notice.
The government that is led by Stephen Harper, and a few neatly-barbered, young Conservatives in PMO, is adrift—truly, officially and indisputably so. If they have a message, anymore, no one knows what it is. They—who used to have so much communications discipline—now have much of the latter, but not so much of the former.
The new top guy in the PMO comms shop—who, by all accounts, is decent and smart—is unlikely to improve upon this sad state of affairs. As any comms veteran knows, millions of dollars of advertising and press releases couldn’t improve the taste of New Coke. They could try and fool people, but everyone still thought it tasted lousy. They wanted Old Coke back.
Stephen Harper faces a similar dilemma. After nearly a decade in government, many of the big things he wanted to do—scrap the long gun registry, reduce the GST, eliminate corporate and union donations to political parties—have all been done. What to do now? What to say?
After the Throne Speech, ministers and MPs will be dragooned into service, and fan out across the country, singing the praises of their party, their government, and its Shiny New Vision. But it won’t work—because (as above) communications cannot obscure cold, hard realities.
Said cold, hard reality is this: the Harper government has lost its way. No one in the real world (i.e. South of the Queensway) knows what they are doing, anymore. There is a custodial feel to the whole enterprise, and no sense of direction anymore.
Governments defeat themselves, goes the maxim, and we are reminded of it every time we turn on the boob tube, these days. What’s hurting the Conservative brand isn’t the Senate scandal (Canadians always thought an unelected Senate was a scandal), or some other scandal (Rob Ford, if he has shown us anything, has shown us that scandals are irrelevant to most regular folks). It’s not that stuff.
What’s hurting them is the near-total absence of key messages. What’s hurting them is the lack of a mission statement. What’s hurting them is that Harper seems to be wholly disengaged—and even bored—by the job he once coveted so much.
That’s one of the principal reasons why Canadians have cottoned on to Justin Trudeau. Whatever you think of the man, or his father, or his absence of policy (or whatever), you know this much: he seems to have a pulse. He’s vibrant. He’s optimistic, and he says so. He’s ALIVE.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives ain’t dead yet, not by a long shot. But they seem to slipping into a mass collective coma of sorts. They’re excited by the MP’s pension, to be sure, but not much else.
Heed the lesson of New Coke, Conservative Throne Speech writers: you can dress it up in all kinds of communications finery. You can call it shiny and new.
But, at the end of the day, if the underlying product still tastes crappy, nobody will buy it.