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The Insiders: Time for a Liberal reboot

A couple of weeks ago on The National, Jaime Watt and I were going on about how important it is to have campaign decision-making done by the folks at HQ, not by the leader and entourage on the plane.  Peter chided us, saying we were HQ types. The reason why it is difficult for people on tour to make the judgment calls is because their world view is badly distorted by the two daily pressures on their life.  They are traveling with media and bombarded with whatever the daily obsession of the gallery is, and they have to please the crowds of die-hard partisans who are coming to their events.  Neither of those pressures has anything to do with attracting swing voters.  They trap you into a daily message churn that takes you off the campaign narrative you wanted to build.

The current Conservative campaign is unshakeable from its strategy and its message track, no matter how desperate the media are to get Harper talking about the hot issue of the day.  The Liberal campaign appears more journalist-driven than the Conservative campaign.   Travelling with the media and meeting only Liberals, the resulting coverage speaks to issues that excite and interest media and partisans, but are not motivating for people less interested in politics and who are looking for some broad cues as to who will best advance their interest if elected.

To continue to harbour hope of an outright win over the Conservatives, the Liberals need to do something dramatic now to change the trajectory of the campaign. Time and opportunities are running out. They need to reboot the campaign and present Canadians with a different narrative than has been the case so far.  They have tough ads on health care on television now, and they look well done, but they would be more effective if they were part of a coherent storyline being reinforced by all aspects of the campaign.

In 2004, we did this overtly. The messages we were delivering in the first part of the campaign were not working and we had fallen behind.  At the halfway point of the campaign, Paul Martin spoke to a luncheon of the Women`s Executive Network in Toronto.  The speech was pre-billed to media as something out of the ordinary in importance.  In the speech, he acknowledged that unless the campaign changed course, Stephen Harper would win the election.  He then went on to detail what the ramifications of that would be for the women of Canada, and why a Liberal government was so much more in their interest. That event was a
key part of the turnaround of that campaign.

Given that the Liberal ad campaign is targeting health care, Premier McGuinty`s speech today may have provided Ignatieff with the opportunity to make health care a defining issue of this election.  It has three big advantages:  it is the most important public policy issue for most Canadians, Harper is out of the mainstream on it, and it rallies the left.

Today McGuinty laid out a vision of medicare that will be compelling to most Canadians and to which only the Liberal Party can lay credible claim.  He explicitly rejected any introduction of private pay into the system, and made it clear it was territory on which he would stand and fight.  And he explicitly called for the introduction of the issue into the federal campaign.  Mr. Ignatieff should take this opportunity.