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Election Ringside, April 1: Policy planks and power projects

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, March 31, 2011, 9:03 p.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

John, I see that the Liberals are planning to announce their platform on the weekend. Do you think this will affect the media's interest in the subsequent weeks of their tour? In 2004, we found that, after we released our platform at the end of the second week, media weren't very interested in our policy announcements because they weren't "news." I think you guys had a similar problem in 2005 when you made a lot of announcements shortly before being defeated. Any ideas for Michael Ignatieff on how to deal with this situation?

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From: John Duffy Sent: Friday, April 1, 10:32 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Tom, I was thinking about that this week. The conventional wisdom is now certainly that getting platform material out early is a good idea. Why? Because in the late fall of 2005, the Conservatives did well rolling out their positive policy pronouncements in the campaign's early going. We Liberals deliberately held back our major policy planks until the campaign's second half, which was to come following a holiday-season hiatus. We did so figuring that voters would want us at the campaign's finish to rise above all the preceding negative squalor on all sides with a positive basket of reasons to vote Liberal.

This proved a mistake because of what happened next, which was recently well described by Jeffrey Simpson: "At the Christmas break, the Conservatives had momentum, but the Liberals remained competitive. At that point, then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli sent a letter to an NDP MP saying the force was investigating complaints of leaking budget material against the Liberal finance minister, Ralph Goodale, who was then campaigning for re-election. The MP, sniffing political advantage, leaked the letter. (Mr. Goodale's conduct was later completely exonerated.) The damage caused by the sponsorship affair and the RCMP probe, as polling studies later confirmed, crippled the Liberals' re-election chances." Once that happened, no one was willing to listen much to Mr. Martin's hopeful promises about postsecondary student assistance, family care, old-age income security, etc.

Now, had the RCMP action never happened, and the Liberals prevailed as they may have done, the current conventional wisdom would be that holding back the positive stuff is the right way to go. Instead, the Conservative success with an early rollout and the Liberals' misfortune with holding back has settled the debate - at least until someone tries it the other way and succeeds.

You are right to point out that this weekend's platform release will largely conclude the policy rollout phase of the Liberal campaign. I think it's been a good week for the Grits with this approach. Most important, I think the "how it's done" issues around the Prime Minister's comportment are now at a sufficient critical mass to power much of next week's Liberal themes. Stephen Harper's campaign behaviours - the challenge-and-withdraw debate invitation, the perception of hypocrisy on co-operation with other parties, the low-intensity warfare with the touring national media, perhaps the selective support for regional clean energy projects (keep an eye on that one) - can be linked with the prewrit roll call: contempt of Parliament, election law violations, ethics lapses by current and former staff, etc.

Where do you think the PM's messaging will go next week?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Friday, April 1, 2011, 11:04 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

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John, I guess I didn't make myself clear. I wanted to distinguish between day-by-day announcements of particular planks and a total release. In 2005-06, we made day-by-day announcements for weeks but held the total platform back till almost the final week. Anyway, maybe this discussion is getting too arcane for most readers.

Regarding next week for the Conservatives, I hope they have more Newfoundland-style announcements coming. That one was a blockbuster and should help to restore Conservative fortunes in that province. Using a loan guarantee to help provinces and private industry build international infrastructure - I love it. Basically, the Conservatives have a good story to tell about how the economy's doing, and they need to keep telling it.

From: John Duffy Sent: Friday, April 1, 11:39 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Sorry, Tom, for missing the point. I suppose I still have some vivid memories of 2005-6. :) And I take your point about arcana. Let's save this one for the bar at the faculty club.

As to the Newfoundland announcement, I agree with you that it is a blockbuster. And its effect in Quebec is likely to be extremely negative. I wonder if this announcement plus the refusal to fund the Quebec City NHL arena aren't part of the same strategy: write off Quebec and go for the gold in every other region, even if it means scorching the earth for the Conservatives in la belle province even more.

Working around Quebec is a strategy that has worked before for Conservatives. In 1957 and 1979, Western Canadian Tory leaders decided to write off Quebec and managed to eke out minorities solely in English Canada. The strategy was crystallized by Dief's campaign co-chair, and became known as the Churchill memorandum. Perhaps yesterday's announcement should be called "the Lower Churchill memorandum." (More faculty club yuks, but I digress.)

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Of course, the Bloc changes everything. As long as Quebec is disinclined to go Liberal, the Conservatives take little penalty for writing it off. And as long as parliamentary accommodations with the BQ are a no-no, the penalty becomes almost non-existent. Still, Harper's toughness towards Quebec is a far cry from where he was at the Laval speech in 2006, when he so famously reached to repeat Mulroney's feat and make Quebec "bleu" for all time. And given the growing threat of a sovereigntist government coming to power in QC, it's not a happy development.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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