Ira Basen on 2 documents that made a difference

Party platforms from the federal Liberals and Ontario's Progressive Conservatives revolutionized how parties communicate their policies with voters.

And so it begins. On Wednesday, the Greens are expected to become the first of the national parties to release their platform. Other parties will undoubtedly not be far behind.

The release of the platform is one of the important way stations along the campaign trail. Voters discover the full range of what the parties are planning to do. Policy wonks and economists get some serious face time on cable news shows as they explain why this party's promise won't work or that one will cost too much money.

These days, platforms often come attractively packaged. In the last campaign, they were launched with catchy names like Getting Results for Canada (NDP), Securing Canada's Success (Liberal) and Stand Up for Canada (Conservative).    

After election day, these documents are usually quickly forgotten, but in modern Canadian history, there have been at least two platforms that have really made a difference, not so much about what they said, but how they said it. They revolutionized how parties communicate their policies with voters. So before we settle back to assess this year's offerings, let's take a look back at a couple of platform pioneers.  

The Liberal Red Book — 1993

The Liberal Red Book, released one week into the 1993 federal election campaign, was the first platform that took accountability seriously. In his book The Way It Works: Inside Ottawa, longtime Liberal insider Eddie Goldenberg recalled a moment in the 1988 campaign when Liberal Leader John Turner unveiled a daycare promise that was supposed to be the centrepiece of the party's social policy agenda. But when reporters asked how much the plan was going to cost, Turner was unable to provide a number. Goldenberg called it "a body blow from which it [the campaign] never recovered."

The Liberals were determined not to repeat that mistake in the next campaign. In 1992, after the platform was written, the party brought in economist Patrick Grady to provide a full costing of the promises the Liberals were planning to make. They unveiled the 112-page document at an Ottawa hotel, and subjected reporters to a budget-style lockup. No Canadian party platform had ever been so large, so detailed and so fully costed.  

The Red Book was widely hailed as a stroke of strategic genius. By getting their platform out in the first week of the campaign, the Liberals were able to seize control of the agenda. It meant that for the rest of the campaign, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien was rarely seen without the Red Book in his hand. He travelled around the country, waving it in the air, proclaiming  "this is what we stand for, the cost of our promises is on page 111 and you can hold me accountable in four years." 

It made for great political theatre and helped propel the Liberals to a majority government. It also helped sow the seeds of the party's later problems as Canadians accepted Chrétien's invitation to hold him accountable. Turns out that the numbers on page 111 didn't quite add up the way the Liberals promised they would. That meant that the commitment to getting rid of GST had to be scrapped and the party's credibility took a severe beating.      

But the impact of the Red Book lives on. No party today would dare release a platform without including how much everything will cost and where the money will come from.     And in terms of size and scope, the 2006 Conservatives' Stand up for Canada, with its 46 pages, and more than 200 promises, looked very much like a blue version of the Red Book. 

The Conservative Common Sense Revolution — 1995

The Common Sense Revolution, writes John Ibbitson, in his book Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, "is unquestionably the most ideologically innovative and politically successful political manifesto in Ontario history."     

Only 21 pages long, and written more like a call to arms than a political platform, it drove the Harris Conservatives from an all-but-forgotten third party to a majority government in June 1995, arguably one of the greatest upsets in Canadian political history. 

The CSR was the brainchild of a small group of young Ontario conservatives, followers of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who were fed up not only with the NDP and Liberal governments of the day, but also with the timid middle-of-the-road policies offered up by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. They found a champion in Mike Harris, who had seized control of the lifeless and divided PCs in 1990, and proceeded to turn the party sharply to the right.

The Common Sense Revolution began with a clear message. "The people of Ontario have a message for their politicians — government isn't working anymore. The system is broken." It then proceeded to lay out a small handful of steps to fix the problem; cut taxes, cut government spending, reduce welfare rates and generally get government out of the lives of citizens.  Unlike most platforms, the CSR didn't promise all things to all people. It kept its analysis of the problem simple, and its proposed solutions, too.

From a communications perspective, the CSR, with its few, easy-to-understand core messages, was tailor-made to cut through the commercial clutter that confronts voters every day. People are busy, they don't have time to sift through vast amounts of material. You need to focus on a small number of messages, and strip them down to their bare essentials. 

It was a lesson well-learned by the federal Conservatives in 2006. Stand Up for Canada had promises to appeal to everyone, but almost all of them were ignored by the party during the campaign. Leader Stephen Harper spent most of his time on the campaign trail talking about his "five priorities," and almost nothing else.  

For the 1995 election, the Ontario Conservatives also broke new ground when it came to the timing of the CSR's release. Knowing that their platform represented a radical departure in Ontario politics, the Conservatives took the unprecedented step of launching it 13 months before the election, printed up a million copies and sent Mike Harris around the province to explain what he wanted to do. By the time the election was called, Ontarians had already had lots of time to absorb the Common Sense Revolution. 

That was such a good idea that federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion attempted to take a page out of the Conservatives' book by releasing his signature Green Shift proposal last spring. But the Green Shift is far more complicated than the CSR. It is hard to break it down to a few easily digestible ideas. It is not well-suited to the age of the snappy sound bite. 

And as it turns out, the Liberals had only a few months to explain the Green Shift before Harper decided to call an election. Most Canadians are only now getting to know it, during the worst possible time — right in the middle of an election campaign.