The Tory Guide To A Blue Canada

The Tory guide to a blue Canada

John Ivison
National Post
Published: Friday, November 13, 2009

Anew opinion poll put the Conservatives 10 points ahead of their Liberal rivals yesterday, but the real cause for celebration in Tory ranks is their creeping victory in the brand war they believe is the foundation for long-term electoral success.

Jason Kenney, the Citizenship and Immigration Minister, yesterday unveiled a new guide for the 250,000 immigrants who take the Canadian citizenship test every year. The Discover Canada document is a comparative bodice-ripper when stacked against its bland predecessor, A Look at Canada, which was commissioned by the Liberals in 1995.

The new guide is a 60-page potted history lesson that walks the reader through the highlights of Canada's pre-and post-Confederation story, pointing out the symbols, values and heroes who have made this country what it is — that is, one currently run by the Conservatives.

It might easily be dismissed as a glossy brochure, but that underestimates the thought and effort that went into it. This is not tinsel, it's symbolism and is yet another incremental step in the re-branding of Canada into a conservative country, full of people more inclined to vote Conservative.

When I took my citizenship test four years ago, I was forced to read A Look at Canada and wondered at the time why it encouraged me to plant trees and grow a garden to protect the environment, rather than, say, telling me whether my new country had taken part in either of the world conflagrations that scarred the last century.

The new guide makes no such errors and is heavy on military history, the maple leaf and Canada's heroes, even if the casual reader is left wondering if gay marriage is legal.

Anyone just weeks removed from steerage who reads the new guide will think Conservative values of unabashed patriotism, pride in the armed forces and support for the rule of law are synonymous with Canadian values.

Who, even four years ago, could have imagined that the Conservatives would be so successful in hijacking the maple leaf as a Conservative symbol, after the Liberals spent the previous four decades appropriating it for their own political ends?

The relative success and failure of Conservative and Liberal performance in recent months can be, in large measure, attributed to their ability to brand themselves and blitz their rivals.

The Conservatives understand that an approach based on logic and policy is doomed — they know voters make their decisions based on feelings, such as whether the party cares about them and their issues.

Most policies are thoroughly researched before a decision is taken. For example, the push behind a private member's bill that proposes to kill the gun registry was made knowing full well that a majority of Canadians support scrapping it on the basis that it hasn't reduced gun crime (a public Harris/Decima poll this week confirmed what the Tories already knew).

The Liberals, on the other hand, supported the registry but had to split pro-registry support in the country with three other parties (the NDP, Greens and Bloc). “It makes me wonder if they even poll on issues anymore,” said one Conservative strategist.

It's not that Stephen Harper is overly gregarious and emotional — even his best friends call him Prime Minister — but he has learned from harsh experience that dispassion in politics is not an option.

Meanwhile, the Liberals keep choosing leaders on the basis of their ability to weigh the evidence, and put forward the best facts, issues and policies. It's the road to failure.

Michael Ignatieff is a storyteller — he should have the ability to reach people emotionally by speaking to their values and interests — yet there has been little evidence recently that he understands the issues that matter most to voters.

But, if he is to become prime minister, he is going to have to learn the art of branding. As Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, puts it: “Ideas don't sell themselves, particularly when someone is trying to sell them short.”