The Liberal Party's Crisis Of Comms
How To Fight Apathy
You know what the best compliment you can give a writer is?
It’s not “you’ve changed my mind on this because of your piece”, even if that would make a lot of sense. It’s great to hear, for sure, but the best one – at least in my experience of writing near daily for the last 3 years – is slightly different. “You articulated something that I’ve been thinking for a while now” really gets me, because at the end of the day, that’s what I’m trying to do here.
I obviously try to be correct in my writing, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes I’m going to be wrong, and sometimes I am going to be wrong for reasons of idiocy (Ontario 2022) and sometimes I’m going to be wrong for reasons far beyond my control (the times I’ve written NFL content for TheLines just to have a key player get hurt immediately). Within that, all I can do is try to make the quality of the writing as good as possible, and hopefully articulate something in a way nobody else has and provide some value to my readers.
Because of my fiction writing (buy Salvation!) and my obsessive thoughts about this site, I think about the mechanics of writing and storytelling a lot. I think about how to best make an argument, how best to make a point, when to write mad and when to calm down. I think about all of it because my mind races and it’s what I do, but it’s also a fascination of mine – an attempt to quantify into a science what is fundamentally art, to force rigidity onto an inherently subjective process. Given how much I’ve increased my audience, I think it’s fair to say the introspection has been worth it, at least to know.
I only bring all of this up because I’m thinking about storytelling again, and in this case, the fact that Canada doesn’t tell many stories about itself. We have no national narrative, no story we tell ourselves about our history and our heritage. We define ourselves as a nation not by our accomplishments but by what we aren’t – we aren’t as selfish, as individualistic, and as racist as the Americans, we’re not as classist as the English, and we aren’t as blinded by religion as the Italians. We have told ourselves a story not of active glory but passive technocratism, which is why we inherently flinch when anyone tries to suggest broad scale changes.
As a country, we tend to be the guy who walked into a casino and got hot at the Blackjack table early and made a couple hundred bucks, who then spends the rest of the night trying not to lose it all back. We did a lot of good and genuinely innovative things in the 60s, and since then have mostly been riding the wave of those accomplishments to this day, which leaves the door open to a new message.
I’m still not convinced that Pierre Poilievre’s vapid nonsense about freedom actually has any resonance – to the extent that an election held today would see a Liberal government defeated based on the public polls, that’s because we have a shit economy and a health care system straining with an increase in infections and illness over winter. There’s no evidence it’s because of Poilievre’s narrative that he’s leading (to whatever extent he is), but it is the case that the left in this country hasn’t told a story about this country in a long time, and if they want to make the next election easier, they need to start.
At some point in my life, I will sit down and write a novel – a Canadian version of a Friday Night Lights-esque tale, in this case set around a major junior hockey team and not high school football, but a story of a group of people in a place, in the same way Friday Night Lights was about that football team but moreso about the world of Dillon, Texas. The reason I want to do it is not because I have a hankering for writing a sports story (there’s a completed, unpublished soccer novel in my computer that already did that for me), but because of what you could do with it.
Think about so many of the stories you love, just from a plot perspective – there’s not a lot different about them. What differentiates the good and the bad and good and the great is how they’re told, is what these sometimes entirely pedestrian plots allow the author to do. In the same way, a narrative about the country isn’t about specifically telling a complicated story, but refracting everything you do through that narrative.
The US has managed to excuse mass gun violence and a lack of guaranteed health insurance to its populace essentially through their founding myth – that America is a place where people, not governments, succeed. In any other country, a constitutional amendment from the 1700s about guns would have been stripped out as a matter of bipartisan national consensus after any one of Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, or any of the other literal thousands I’m forgetting in American history, but because America’s national myth is that they liberated themselves from Britain (as opposed to Britain getting bored), they won’t let them fix it. That buccaneering American Dream crap is the same reason nobody bats an eye at eyewatering rates of health care uninsurance or poverty (especially amongst racial minorities), because the US tells itself it is those people’s faults for not being successful.
A version of this in Canada could be extremely productive for the left – Canada as an island of pluralism in a see of nativism, a land of integration and upward mobility, a place of imperfection but improvement. Weave together the work Trudeau and Ford are doing on electric vehicles, the many, many stories of Syrian refugees coming to Canada and making not just better lives for themselves but their communities, and tie it into what the government is doing on Dental and Pharmacare.
The Liberals have a good record in Government – the Child Benefit, the child care deals, COVID, and now the likely dental and pharma deals in this Parliament. The problems are real – the ethics record and housing, namely – but there’s a good record to sell. The problem is, they defend the record in pieces, not in the whole. Nobody who does Liberal Party or PMO Comms is thinking about this in totality, and so they’re missing the clear strategy.
The Liberals need a radical housing offer – and a radical one in times of increasing fucking supply, including a ton of jurisdictional overreach by essentially bribing the provinces to do what the Feds want, probably – but even without it, there is an aggressive and good story to tell. Paint a coherent, overarching story of what this country is at its best and what it could be under your continued tenure, and a lot of the people who feel that the Liberals are asleep at the wheel and in office but not in power will see that there is something happening.
For a government always accused of being out of touch, this is the way out, a way to tell a story about not just the country but this government that you can then run a lot of accomplishments through. Instead of playing defensive comms, start to tell a different and better story about what you’ve done and why you did it, instead of always looking like you’re on the back foot.
Politics is storytelling, because everything – from where I put the anecdote about wanting to write that novel to when you have a gay character come out in a novel to doing Comms for Prime Ministers and Presidents – is storytelling. It’s all about telling a story in such a way to accomplish what you want. Right now the Liberals are seen as a rudderless government because the expectations are being judged by the Tories’ playbook. Defining success doesn’t always mean meeting the standard, it sometimes means changing the standard.
The Liberals need to tell a story about this government and set the standards by which it will view itself as a success. If this government is going to insist on Federal strings for health transfer increases, then use the opportunity to tell Canadians that it’s not just an investment in lower wait times and newer equipment, but it’s also the sort of investment that Conservative governments don’t make.
If you’re going to be lambasted for spending too much money (and I think the ship has sailed on a reputation for fiscal prudence, whatever the actual merits of the government’s post-COVID fiscal tightening), then start telling a story about the Tories that turns what I’m sure they’ll called sensible fiscal policy into being pennywise and pound foolish. The Conservatives try and say that Trudeau is divisive and everything is broken? Try and have a few more photo ops with Doug Ford about new hospitals or battery plants or whatever else or child care centres able to charge hundreds a month less.
The Liberals’ biggest political concern right now isn’t the economy or inflation, it’s their crap storytelling. They’re bad at comms, they’re bad at messaging, and they don’t have a coherent, national story to tell to the voters. They look adrift because their messaging is political whack-a-mole. A coherent comms agenda would allow the party and the government to look proactive and not responsive, look decisive and not aloof, and it would stop the media giving Poilievre and the CPC so many free chances to say the word freedom and have that lead the agenda.
Far from being in a terminal state, this Liberal government has a chance to truly confound the pundits and do something truly incredible – especially given Jagmeet’s uselessness at the head of the NDP and the fact that his bullshit is pissing off a lot of current and potential Dippers – if they take it. The Liberals need to start telling a better story to the public, or they’ll put their agenda and their legacy at risk. If they can do it, there’s nobody that can stop them.
You are saying what most of us are thinking- Liberal thinkers, that is. The media refuse to tell any of the good news for Canadians. Would paid ads work or how should the stories be told?
Absolutely Evan! You nailed it again! For those asking how do you tell these stories? You create a story out of the successes being created. You don't do a one hour stop over and call it a day. You keep telling the stories. Good news has a short life span. Bad news has a long life. That is why PP's messages have weight. You use all the tools to keep hammering it home, over and over and over again. Until we all start believing it!