The Narrative Model Applied to Federal Politics

In an excellent column on March 5, The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson critiqued the federal Conservative’s attack ads by showing how Stephen Harper’s policy positions on health insurance, bilingualism, regional development, and proportional representation have changed, and then asking “what if the PM’s previous views were used against him?”

I will put Simpson’s point in a broader perspective to show how the Conservatives are developing narratives to be used in the next election campaign, whenever it comes. I start with the four quadrant public management narrative model that I used in my previous post to look at this year’s three Academy Award winning public sector narratives. The key point is that an effective public sector narrative includes both a narrative about a protagonist and a narrative about the polity.

The Conservatives’ narrative about themselves is situated squarely in the upper left quadrant. The key policy point they will make is that, under their leadership, the country weathered the challenge of the global economic recession and emerged with its economic institutions in relatively good shape. The Government of Canada ads about the Economic Action Plan are continually telling that story.

The second part of the narrative concerns Stephen Harper as protagonist. What is essential here is that it contains some component of personal growth and renewal. In this context, the Stephen Harper of the past that Simpson revisits is the starting point of the narrative. The evolution Harper has been trying to project for himself is that he is now less ideological and more pragmatic, a global statesman rather than a domestic politician, and at the personal level a mainstream middle-class piano-playing hockey dad. This is what we will see in the Conservative ads as soon as the writ is dropped.

This is a narrative arc straight out of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Prince Hal was too much the party boy just as Stephen Harper was too much the Party’s boy, but both evolved.

The Conservative’s other narrative concerns Michael Ignatieff. They are using the attack ads, aired to the large audiences of the Superbowl, hockey games, and Academy Awards, to keep retelling a story of what would happen if Michael Ignatieff were PM. They are trying to place Ignatieff and the Liberals in the lower left quadrant of the public sector narrative model. That quadrant, remember, combines personal renewal for the protagonist with decline for the polity. The attack on his policy positions whether previous (carbon tax, higher GST) or current (no corporate tax cuts) is arguing that, economically, the polity would be worse off under his leadership.

The “just visiting” theme tells a story of personal ambition. Dredging up instances of Ignatieff speaking as the cosmopolitan intellectual, identifying with his adopted home whether the UK or the US, and slighting his Canadian origins, are as essential to the ads as the attack on his policy positions. Their message is that Ignatieff’s personal narrative has been one of distancing himself from Canada, disaffiliation and deracination. To attempt to return is evidence of inauthenticity, of ambition rather than patriotism. This message is premised on the assumption that Canadians don’t resent compatriots who’ve made it big overseas – Celine Dion or Malcolm Gladwell – but they most appreciate them if they stay overseas.

Judging by the public opinion polls, in particular the question about who would make the best leader, the Conservative’s narrative strategy is working very well. The personal narrative they have created for Michael Ignatieff, in the minds of much of the electorate, is sticking. They’ve positioned themselves on the high ground – squarely in the upper left quadrant – and forced the Liberals, and Michael Ignatieff especially, to the lower left quadrant. Whenever the election comes, the Conservatives will keep retelling these two stories.

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