A lot of spin and a little misrepresentation: Why Kenney's political message is winning over Albertans
The NDP are putting out their own message, but it isn't getting through, says political scientist Duane Bratt
When I analyzed the voluminous amount of data that has emerged from the CBC News Road Ahead survey, I was struck by how highly effective the UCP's (and previously the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties') political messaging has been — and how the NDP has been unable to counter it.
Political communication is not a neutral assessment of the truth. Instead, it is about putting your issues on the public's agenda and putting the right "spin" on a party's position.
Being effective doesn't make the communication true or authentic. It can do injustice to truth, rob people or parties of their credit, and raise false expectations and perceptions within public perception.
But capturing political power requires capturing the agenda.
The resurgence of equalization
A prominent example of putting an issue on the agenda is equalization.
Equalization is a federal program that has existed since 1957, and is also enshrined in the Canadian constitution. The last time the complicated equalization formula was adjusted was by the federal Conservative government led by Stephen Harper in 2009.
Notably, both current UCP Leader Jason Kenney and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean were in Harper's caucus at the time.
Changes were made. The issue faded.
But then, in July 2017, Brian Jean, as part of his UCP leadership platform, put equalization back on the agenda in this province. He claimed that equalization was "broken" and promised to hold a referendum in Alberta about it.
Jason Kenney, also running for the leadership, upped the ante by suggesting Alberta should "hold a referendum demanding the removal of non-renewable resource revenues from the equalization formula."
What had been a back-burner issue was suddenly in the spotlight again.
Kenney became UCP leader, and now we can see the equalization attack has had a noticeable impact on public opinion.
As the Road Ahead survey showed, 50 per cent of Albertans now strongly agree and 21 per cent somewhat agree that "Canada's system of equalization payments is unfair to Alberta."
The political messaging has had an effect.
The NDP tried to respond to this by pointing out that the current program, the one that Albertans feel is unfair, was actually supported by Jason Kenney. But the data suggests that message hasn't taken hold.
Then there's Alberta alienation.
The West wants (back) in
When Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006, he proclaimed during his acceptance speech that the "West was now in."
With a Calgarian leading the nation, there was a feeling that Alberta's historical resentments of Ottawa were riding into the sunset.
But the UCP, with its ongoing attacks on Justin Trudeau's Liberal government over pipelines — and taking advantage of Alberta's economic woes — has managed to ramp up a new sense of Alberta alienation.
The CBC poll backs this up.
Around 60 per cent of Albertans agree that "no matter who's in charge in Ottawa, other parts of Canada will always be looked after before Alberta."
As part of the ongoing pipeline dispute, the UCP has worked to link Notley to Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan. This has created a bizarre situation where the UCP is trying to leverage Alberta alienation against the Alberta government.
The NDP have not yet found a way to counter this critique. And, with the poll showing such a sense of resentment in this province, they will need to find a way to respond to the UCP narrative.
The Trans Mountain pipeline debate is where the NDP has to capture some credit for themselves.
Credit where it's due?
Pipelines are now the No. 1 issue in Alberta, and both parties are working hard to capture the issue.
The trouble is not just around the Trans Mountain pipeline. It goes back to Northern Gateway.
Again ramping up the sense of alienation, Jason Kenney and the UCP are arguing, rightly, that the Trudeau government may have approved Trans Mountain but seems unwilling to assert federal authority in the face of opposition from the B.C. government.
But, at the same time, Kenney has argued that Trudeau cancelled the Northern Gateway Pipeline when it was on the verge of getting built.
Trudeau did formally kill the project in 2016, but — contrary to the UCP messaging — it was unlikely that Northern Gateway would ever have been built, because the obstacles were even greater than in the case of Trans Mountain.
Nevertheless, many Albertans now believe that Trudeau cancelled a project that would have been built (Northern Gateway) to approve a project that may never get built (Trans Mountain).
The UCP talking point seems echoed in public perception. It illustrates a very effective political communication strategy, but it's a misrepresentation of the truth.
At the same time, the UCP strategy is pushing Notley and Trudeau to take action that they might not normally have taken.
For example, it was Kenney who first pushed the idea of restricting the flow of oil to B.C.
Notley initially ridiculed the idea but has now introduced legislation to do just that. Normally, when a government steals ideas from the opposition, the government gets the credit. Not this time.
Ironically, even if the Trans Mountain expansion does, in fact, happen on Rachel Notley's watch, people in at least one focus group tied to the CBC poll suggested that the credit should go to Kenney.
When the NDP were in opposition, they were fiercely opposed to most pipeline projects. The UCP has been effective at reminding Albertans of this history by showing pictures of pre-government Notley at anti-oilsands protests and quoting her statements opposing Northern Gateway and Keystone XL.
And so, because of Kenney's superior political communication skills, he has ensured that if the Trans Mountain expansion is blocked, Notley will get blamed — and if the expansion is built, he will get the credit.
This would be unfair. But it seems to be a political reality, one tied to public perception of Alberta's economic recovery.
Resisting the end of the recession
Alberta's latest economic downturn is yet another example of the UCP's successful political spin.
As Trevor Tombe recently wrote, the economy has been recovering on the NDP's watch, but many people do not believe it.
This is a gap between reality (measured in statistics) and perception (measured by how people feel).
The UCP message is one of a horrible economy. More importantly, they trace the economic downturn directly to the election of the NDP in May 2015. The previous six months of Jim Prentice spreading doom and gloom about the drop in the price of oil have been forgotten.
The Prentice budget had tax increases, spending cuts, and a deficit. That, too, has been forgotten.
Instead, according to the UCP, the primary blame for the recession was the election of the NDP and their subsequent policies, as opposed to the precipitous drop in the price of oil.
This is another misrepresentation. Actually, it's downright untrue.
But it explains why the UCP lead the NDP by 30 points on the question of: "Which provincial party is best able to strengthen Alberta's economy?"
Similarly, the issue of the NDP running high budget deficits has been messaged very well by the UCP.
The poll shows that the UCP lead the NDP by 34 points on the question of: "Which provincial party is best able to manage the provincial finances?"
And 58 per cent of Albertans believe the province "should have a balanced budget."
Albertans even appear to believe it when the UCP imply that they could have had a balanced budget even in the face of low oil prices. Exactly how that would happen has never been explained.
Here, again, is how the NDP message isn't getting through. A surprising 78 per cent of Albertans strongly or somewhat agree that "now is not a good time to make significant cuts to social programs such as health and education."
This is precisely a talking point of the NDP. But reciting these arguments does not seem to translate into greater public support for the governing party.
Their message is getting lost.
Shaping public opinion
If, as seems likely at this moment, the UCP forms the next government in Alberta, it will be due in no small measure to their political messaging.
The Road Ahead survey and focus groups illustrate that Jason Kenney is a formidable politician whose political communication has made Albertans view the facts (and even alternative facts) in such a way that benefits the UCP.
Kenney has not just been responding to public opinion, he has helped shape it.
This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.
The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018 by Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and larger for subsets.
The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time or later, or completing it online. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e., residential and personal) was 20.8 per cent.
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