The Writ Stuff

Posted by Gordon Grainger on October 3, 2013

My introduction to politics came in 1978, during the Nova Scotia provincial election that resulted in John Buchanan’s Tories defeating Gerald Regan’s Liberals. It arrived in the form of a punch in the arm from a schoolyard bully who asked me if I was supporting Buchanan. I guess my answer didn’t satisfy him, but in my defense I was only nine years old.

By the time I was fifteen I was working in elections, and over the years I’ve helped candidates, been on the board of a riding association, enumerated door-to-door, and served as revising officer on election day. Not the most impressive political pedigree, sure, but it’s clearly been a longstanding interest. So my adrenaline kicks in at the drop of a writ, and for the next thirty days I’ll be in my glory.

The last time Nova Scotia kicked out a government after only one term was 1878. Then again, the last time Nova Scotians elected a party other than the Liberals or Conservatives they were debating whether or not to try this whole Confederation idea. Having these two factors in conflict will make for an interesting campaign.

But it’s the media coverage of the launch that caught my attention last month, and the framing of the campaign was blatantly obvious. One party is up, one is down, and then there’s the government party. This was clear from the first news story covering the election announcement.

Premier Dexter, flanked by party members at a well-attended event, made the announcement. There were many New Democratic Party supporters present, and an excessive number of media as well, since it marked the official start of the campaign.

Liberal leader Stephen MacNeil, who holds the lead in the polls, was shown next at a high-energy campaign rally in a huge ballroom packed with supporters. There were not nearly as many reporters present, but the sheer volume (and volume) of people in attendance dwarfed the NDP footage.

And then there’s Jamie Baillie, leader of the third place Progressive Conservative party. Winners of eleven of the last sixteen elections and the dominant party since the 1950s, expectations this time aren’t running so high. His footage showed him, alone, perhaps in a library or shoe store, talking from a small podium. No supporters, no party members, no other humans at all were seen in his footage save a single photographer.

That image is going to make it very difficult for the PCs to be taken seriously this campaign. They’ve had months to establish their image, refine their message, and develop a communications plan. Allowing their leader to be seen unsupported and alone right at the start is a terrible mistake. Baillie is not a charismatic leader, nor a fiery speaker, and he’s already in grave danger of being seen as irrelevant this time around.

He reminds me of another PC leader, John Hamm, who carried that same quiet, kindly, pleasant personality into a third place showing in the 1998 election. After toppling the minority Liberals a year later, Hamm obviously worked on his public relations skills, fared well in the debates, and won a majority.

Whether Baillie is able to take that same path isn’t clear, but it will require a monumental public relations campaign. The lesson for observers is easier to find – you can’t wait until Day One to set your image, because people are already deciding. For companies and organizations looking to have influence with the next government (whatever flavour it ends up), waiting until October 9 to design your plans is far too late.