Part 4: Ensight’s Roadmap to the Liberal National Convention

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the federal Liberal national convention in Halifax on April 20.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The 2018 Liberal National Convention is scheduled for April 19 – 21, but why should your business be paying attention? Follow along with Ensight’s 4 Part Series as we take a peek behind how conventions run, what they debate and what it means for your business and the 2019 federal election.

Part 4 – Convention Coda: The Wynne Lose Proposition

By: John Delacourt

The Liberal convention in Halifax may be all but a memory now but one hopes, in this campaign year for the Ontario Liberals, it will provide many of those attending pause for reflection. Despite a great deal of media coverage on the two main draws: The Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary Gerry Butts’ conversation with David Axelrod and the Prime Minister’s speech, there was one presentation that is deserving of a coda because it provides a stark cautionary note to the Liberals in the room who may have left Halifax feeling the wind is once again at their back: Premier Wynne’s pre-campaign appearance. Here was a reminder that bold policy moves and the best of intentions to draw a clear distinction between an old party brand and a bright red new one are no guarantee a leader can quell the momentum of the public’s desire for change.

And indeed, for an incumbent who should be readying for the fight of her political life, the missteps in Wynne’s turn on the stage suggested that the farm team is on the bench for her, save for a couple of senior advisors up in the press box. Wynne rambled through a laundry list of what her government has achieved for Ontarians. Lines that might have once seemed fresh now struck a defensive tone, given the clear momentum with Doug Ford’s campaign. James Carville’s haunting words about the Clinton-era Democrats in decline – “they produce a narrative; we produce a litany” came to mind.

To make things worse, there were gaffes that spoke of a team still cramming to get through a Political Communications 101 playbook. The Premier was flanked by two large screens that displayed a presentation with some mystifying choices for slides. She stood there, speaking off the cuff, while an unflattering cartoon image of her was displayed – for minutes. The press gallery in the room might have thought they had the tweetable photo of the night but, no, it got better: Doug Ford’s beaming smile with a link to his campaign website soon followed. There the Premier was, dwarfed by an image that provided an implicit caption: don’t look behind you, here comes the future.

Her advisors may have been junior staffers when, in Ontario, Ernie Eves, the Conservative Premier who was in the fight of his life during the campaign of 2003, declared “we are not toast.” Yet surely, the lesson of the dangers of repeating (and implicitly affirming) a negative should still resonate with them. This makes it all the more puzzling when Wynne declared from the stage “I am not Hillary Clinton.”

The Trump-Clinton contrast is now integral to Wynne’s strategy, it seems. Yet as Trump continues to lower the bar, Ford, merely through strong message discipline and the perceived authenticity he has long established with his core supporters, continues to leap, not step over that bar. And if voters are looking for a strong progressive female leader, they can now look just a nudge farther to the left. And there is Andrea Horwath, happy to sweep up those votes sent her way by an ill judged Liberal campaign torqueing fears Ontarians simply don’t seem to have about the frontrunner.

Wynne’s appearance in Halifax might be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons: as a corrective to thinking the Liberal brand is renewed and stronger than ever with Canadians and as a reminder of the vicissitudes of election cycle politics: what might have worked once with campaign strategy rarely, if ever, works again.