The Conservative platformPosted in Reality Check Posted on October 6, 2008 09:24 AM | Permalink
By Ira Basen
“Where’s your platform? Under your sweater?”
It was probably the best zinger of the campaign so far; Jack Layton’s taunting of Stephen Harper in the English language leaders’ debate over the Conservatives’ failure to release their party platform. Other leaders piled on, demanding to know when the platform would be made public.The next day, the Conservatives announced the document would be released this Tuesday. Whether they succumbed to pressure, or were planning to do a late release all along is unclear. But revealing their platform with only six days to go before election day has left many people wondering if any party has ever released their platform so late in a federal campaign.
It turns out that a trip down memory lane reveals some interesting trends.
The pioneering Red Book
The modern era in political platforms dates back to 1993 and the famous Liberal Party Red Book. At 112 pages it was the biggest and most comprehensive platform in Canadian history up to that point. It made promises covering just about every aspect of Canadian life, and included what the Liberals insisted was a full costing of those promises.
The Red Book also broke new ground because it was released just eleven days after the election was called, a full 35 days before election day.
By the time of the next federal election, on June 2 1997, the parties were so anxious to get their platforms in front of the public that two of them released their documents even before the vote was called.
The Reform Party’s platform, called “A Fresh Start” was unveiled on October 17, 1996, more than six months before the writ was issued. And the Progressive Conservatives released “Let the Future Begin” on March 18, 1997, more than a month before the campaign officially began.
Both the Liberals and the NDP waited until the campaign started, but just barely. Both parties released their platforms on May 1 — 31 days before voting day.
The trend towards early release continued in 2000. The Canadian Alliance Party released their platform, “A Time For Change” on October 5, though the election was not called until October 23. The NDP and the Liberals unveiled their promises on October 30 and November 1 respectively, so voters had more than three weeks to digest all the party platforms.
By 2004, the Alliance had become the Conservative Party but the trend towards releasing their platform early continued; in this case, eight days before the writ was issued. The NDP platform was unveiled with 31 days to go in the campaign, and Liberal promises were announced with 24 days to go.
By 2006, all three parties appeared to have changed strategies. The campaign was more than 20 days longer than usual, but the platforms were released later than ever. The Liberals unveiled “Securing Canada’s Success” 43 days after the writ was dropped, and just 11 days before election day. The NDP followed the next day, and the Conservative platform “Stand Up for Canada,” was released the following day, just nine days before Canadians went to the polls.
In this campaign, the Liberals were first out of the block, unveiling their platform with 20 days to go, the NDP followed six days later. When the Conservatives release their platform on Tuesday, with only six days to go before voting day, it will be the latest platform release in the modern era, but it will only be three days later than the last campaign.
So what does all this mean? Campaign strategies have clearly changed since the 1990s. The Liberals met success with the Red Book by putting all their promises out at once early in the campaign. Other parties subsequently tried to mimic that strategy, even to the point of releasing their platforms before the writ was dropped.
But by 2006, party strategists, particularly those in the Conservative Party, realized that they could take maximum advantage of the 24-hour news cycle by releasing a new promise every day, rather than bundling them all up for one grand release. The party that got its policy announcement out earliest, could dominate the daily news agenda.
But that strategy could only work if the policy was being announced for the first time. If it was simply a re-statement of something already promised in the party platform, it would not generate the same kind of publicity. Early release of the platform was now seen as a political liability, and the document, when it was finally released, was simply a re-statement of commitments already made along the campaign trail. Which is why there will likely be few surprises when the Conservatives finally release their platform on Tuesday.
The lesson of ‘97
But there may be something else at work here as well. Governments that are leading in the polls and are likely to remain in office are often loathe to promise too much for fear those promises might come back to haunt them.
In the 1997 campaign, the Liberals were almost certain to be re-elected, but were being dogged by a string of broken Red Book promises, the most damaging of which was an unfulfilled commitment to kill the GST.
Some party strategists wanted the 1997 platform to contain a set of bold new promises, while others, led by senior advisers Eddie Goldenberg and John Rae, wanted a much more modest document. Rae and Goldenberg prevailed, and the Liberal platform, entitled “Securing our Future Together,” managed to fill 102 pages while saying very little about what the Liberals planned to do with a new mandate.
In the current campaign, the policies announced by the Conservatives have been exceedingly modest, especially compared to the 242 promises made in their 2006 platform. With the polls showing the Conservatives likely to hold on to power, the party may well be following the same prudent strategy as the Liberals in 1997 — don’t say anything that might come back to bite you in the next campaign.
About the Authors
Ira Basen joined CBC Radio in 1984 and was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of three network programs The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), and produced the award- winning radio documentary series Spin Cycles (2007). He has also written for Saturday Night, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. He taught at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and Ryerson. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf, 2005).
John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent
Mark Gollom has been a news writer for CBCNews.ca since 2003. He's worked as a reporter at the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Sun. Mark has a degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario and a diploma in journalism from Centennial College in Toronto.