A mostly semi-serious bit of advice for Michael Ignatieff



A mostly semi-serious bit of advice for Michael Ignatieff

When political leaders make their case to the electorate, they work from certain assumptions. One of these assumptions is that the electorate knows who the hell their political leaders are. After all, there’s not much value in Jack Layton giving a barnburner of a speech if the audience is going to walk away murmuring complimentary words about the skillful oratory of Baldy McWhat’s-His-Name.

But I remember the results of a Dominion Institute survey from last year. It found that 18% of adults in our country – in excess of four million individuals – did not know the name of Canada’s prime minister.

(Before going any further, permit me one paragraph to directly address these four million Canadians. Ladies and gentlemen, grab yourselves a pen – it’s a long, ink-filled instrument that comes to a point – for I have some crucial information to pass along: my name is Scott Feschuk… and I am your prime minister. Go ahead – revere me! By the way, the British North America Act indicates it’s your turn to come over and shovel my driveway.)

The survey also found that only 58% of Canadians could recite the first two lines of O Canada and only 38% could name all four parties represented in the House of Commons.

Clearly, as a nation we are suffering from a rare societal condition known as “being bone stupid.” How bad is it? If Canada were to institute a prime ministerial anthem on par with Hail to the Chief, it would benefit from some helpful lyrics: “Here comes the PM!/His name is Stephen Harper/That’s Stephen with a ‘ph’/And Harper: H-A-R-P-E-R!”

On the upside, while we may not be book smart, or knowledge smart, or actually-knowing-things smart, it’s still entirely possible that we are street smart. Unless you expect us to remember the name of the street, in which case, no, we’re not.

There are real implications here for political parties and their leaders, especially when those leaders are new to the job. When you work in politics, your perspective gets warped. You begin to do crazy things like over-celebrate small victories in Question Period and detect charisma in Peter MacKay. On an intellectual level you’re aware that most Canadians don’t follow politics closely, don’t listen to the speeches, don’t read the policy documents. But you convince yourself that the really important information somehow filters down to them.

It doesn’t. Remember this, Michael: It. Does. Not.

If only four in five Canadians know Stephen Harper’s name, how many know what he believes in? If not even two in five Canadians can name the four parties, how many know what the parties advocate? To an electorate that now defines itself by its disengagement, simple is the only thing that sells.
During the 2006 campaign, most every economist said the Liberal plan to reduce income taxes was preferable to the Conservative plan to cut the GST; most child care advocates supported Paul Martin’s system of care and early learning over Harper’s pledge of $100 per month per kid. But throughout the campaign the Conservative position on the issues was simple to communicate and easy to understand and remember. One cent off the GST. One hundred bucks. We no likey the gays.

The lesson of this year’s campaign, meanwhile, can be distilled to two words: Green Shift.

So to Michael Ignatieff I say: you yourself do not need to become dumb, but do not for a minute think anything is more important to a successful political operation than touting a few specific policies that are easy to explain, simple to understand and broadly appealing to the widest possible segment of Canadians. You can dream and tweak and brainstorm in the back of the shop – just make sure that what’s in the window is bright and shiny. Also, Harper’s going to call you an effete, Canada-hating egghead. You might want to say something by way of reply when he does.

Finally, you should know there’s still a place for powerful, old-fashioned rhetoric in politics – but in the age of civic illiteracy, if you’re going to echo JFK you’re going to need to fill in some of the blanks: Ask not what your country, Canada, a constitutional monarchy, can do for you, the person wearing your clothes who you see in the mirror every morning; ask what you (the person who you are, possibly named Dave or Sally – these are just examples) can do for your country, by which I mean the aforementioned Canada, a federation comprising 10 provinces and…

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A mostly semi-serious bit of advice for Michael Ignatieff

  1. “Baldy McWhat’s-His-Name” No. Come on now, we both know the correct way to describe Jack is “you know, the one with the 70s porn ‘stache”

  2. Wait, there are four parties? Republicans, Democrats…who are the other two? Oh, the Separtists and socialists, forgot about them.

    Most Canadians have trouble following politics, but I wouldn’t say that they are dumb, rather that with everything else that is going on, it can be difficult to keep up with abstract stuff like what goes on at Parliament Hill. As far as dumbing down the message, don’t forget that over 40% didn’t even vote in the last election, and those that do vote tend to be a little more engaged and perhaps do not want political messages like Bush “you’re either with us or against us.” I think there are a lot of people who would like to see a little less partisanship and more concrete ideas. But maybe that is wishful thinking on my part. The Harper policies on reducing GST and $100/month child care were good messages.

  3. Burn! This is great!

    You raise great points here, but I wonder how come they weren’t applied to Paul Martin’s 2005/6 campaign? When are we going to hear the inside story of the not-withstanding-clause debacle!

  4. Is Feschuk being his usual sarcastic self or is he seriously advocating dumb-iying the population?

  5. “Most Canadians have trouble following politics, but I wouldn’t say that they are dumb, rather that with everything else that is going on, it can be difficult to keep up with abstract stuff like what goes on at Parliament Hill.”

    I know that most of Ottawa’s intelligentsia firmly believes this but is it true?

  6. Riley: It’ll all be there in my tell-all book, entitled “You Want Him to Propose… WHAT?”

  7. Ha! Another supremely cynical take on the world we live in by a member of the punditocracy (in this case someone actually capable of writing puns!). But this one at least was funny.

  8. Wait, I thought Baldy McPornStache was the Video Professor…

  9. Dear Mr Feschuk,

    Look closer, the BNA Act says we only have to shovel the driveways of the Governor General, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the walkway leading to the cat house on Parliament Hill. No, that’s not a euphemism for the conservative caucus room.


    the Canadian Public.

  10. Can’t disagree with most of what you say with your usual wit and …….. whew ! almost wrote “wisdom”… gotta slow down …… anyway, when you say ” simple is the only thing that sells “, sometimes it’s because it’s the only thing that’s offered. Sometimes.

  11. I agree with the overall theme of this post. I had a couple of Lib friends call me last night and they were dancing a jig because now they were going to wipe out the Cons with their new, comprehensible and thoughtful leader. I asked both of them if there was a poll today, how many Canadians would even know Libs have a new leader now and those that were aware of the change of leadership, how many would know who Iggy is.

    Clearly, leader is important but it’s not the be all and end all. Libs have to develop a few policies, agree with Feschuk, and they need to start selling them very soon and maybe they will sink in with the electorate in about a year or so. I don’t think Libs are going to disappear anytime soon, tho I wish they would, but they aren’t seen as the Natural Governing Party either. Libs are going to have to learn how to compete for the votes.

  12. Cut my taxes,improve and increase all government services, bail me out when I behave like an idiot or a thief — and by gosh, get the heck out of the way!

  13. Political columnists in this country can’t manage more than a few words without some reference to America. Very annoying.

    The average Canadian watches 27.5 hours of television a week, nearly all of it American.

    We suffer immensely, possibly fatally, from our proximity to the USA. In short, nobody cares about Canada.

    Feschuck: you’re a writer. When you walk into Chapters and see less than 0.1% of their shelf space dedicated to Canadian politics, does a light not go off? There is a physical lack of Canadian books about Canadian politics readily available. As much as I’d like to blame a conspiracy here, I think it comes back to the 27.5 hours of TV Canadians watch, ie the problem is lack of demand, or care, not lack of supply. I’m not suggesting more Cancon, I’m suggesting we first admit that we have a problem in that few if any are standing on guard for Canada. (My excuse for not buying Canadian books is that I don’t want to give a thin dime to socialists writers, which rules out any book by the media).

    World needs more Canada? Try Canada needs more Canada. This is my semi-serious advice to Iggy; he has the gravitas and media backing to get away with scolding Canadians for their lack of care for their country, a job that needs to be done. Probably too concrete a proposal for Iggy to wrap epigrams around, but, hey, I tried.

  14. Here’s a semi-serious rebuttal: What if dumbing down the message only makes the audience dumber still? Maybe the over simplification of everything in media as if we are all disengaged and clueless about about our system of governance, lowers expectations even further?

    In order for your heart t o be strong it has to work. In order for your brain to work it has to have work to do. Mabye if our leaders communicated clearly, but gave us some credit for being able to find our way to newstand Canadians would pick up their game. (And I could read the newspaper instead of doing the Sudoku and crossword to prevent Alzhemier’s.)

  15. Does this mean that if I hit on 5 girls at the bar, pretending to be the Prime Minister, one will believe me? Or is it guys bringing down that batting average?

  16. TobyorNotToby: I think you and some others are misreading me, which suggests a failure of execution on my part. I’m not suggesting anyone “dumb things down.” I’m suggesting they make sure their primary policies are easy to explain and simple to understand. That doesn’t mean doing dumb things – it means being smart about emphasizing certain aspects of what you’re selling, and doing so in such a way that you maximize your potential appeal.

    This may seem obvious to most political enthusiasts but I believe it’s something the Liberals really need to focus on. They can’t afford to get caught up in day-to-day QP stuff that no one cares about. They can’t afford another political train wreck like the Green Shift. Before they manufacture and market their policy, they should give some serious thought to how it’s consumed these days.

  17. Average Conservative Reader,

    “My excuse for not buying Canadian books is that I don’t want to give a thin dime to socialists writers, which rules out any book by the media.”

    One way to avoid book burning, a historic tendency of the nationalist right? (snarf)

  18. Well said Scott…the best brands in the world are experts in the study of consumer habits…not just where they are but where they are going

  19. John D,

    Does this mean that if I hit on 5 girls at the bar, pretending to be the Prime Minister, one will believe me? Or is it guys bringing down that batting average?

    Isn’t Harper pretending to be Prime Minister? Wonder if he would score.

  20. Let us know how the 5 girls in a bar thing works out.

  21. I see an opportunity to profit here: someone needs to train Iggy to speak “low Canadian”.

    He needs to know when to “giv’er”, when it is appropriate to say “by the Jesus” versus “Lard n’ tunderin’ Jesus”, and the proper context in which to use “right” as adverbial phrase (“right squirrelly”, but never “right quickly”).

    Albertans use “sh**ty” where others might use “bummer” or “drag”. In Ontario, east of the Rideau, “do’hfuggaroun'” (literally: don’t f**k around) is a workhorse phrase sometimes used even as a telephone greeting. A Newfoundlander might explain to Michael how to get from where Buddy is at to where you’re to. Manitobans say “exhoost” vs. “exhaust” (I felt the ghost of early Scottish settlers when I heard it).

    Iggy’s pompous propensity for speaking in epigrams is going to bite him in the ass. I think the puffin thing was the last time Iggy said anything not wholly comprised of epigrams, and look what happened.

    There appears to be an unwillingness to speak in non-abstract terms too; you’ll never hear him say “we need to increase spending in x by y dollars”, it’s always “we need the (insert courage synonym) to fight the (insert medical condition as metaphor) of (insert geographic disaster as metaphor) that (insert Malthusian check as metaphor) Canada.” Zzzzzzzz.

  22. Feschuk-Charles deserves a prize for his “Baldly McPornStache” comment, even though parts of it borrowed from you. I laughed till I cried. What you did not mention was the distinct possibility of a Coalition gov’t run by the Cons with the support of the Libs with Iggy as Minster without any Portfolio’s.

  23. @ Ron

    Thanks! I try. ;)

  24. Maybe the 5 girls thing would work better if your name was John A., not John D.
    A lot of people have some notion that John A. is or was some kind of politician . . .

  25. I believe the essence of this article can be summed up in the words of John Stuart Mill:

    “Conservatives aren’t necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are Conservatives.”

  26. Kay:
    Only if you’re American.

  27. Perhaps the problem is that we pay waaay too much attention to the United States Government. One friend beside me in school supports the Coalition but could not for the life of her remember what Mr Baldy McWhat’s-His-Name name was or what the Coalition actually stood for. All she knew was that somehow, on some planet, Liberal = Democrat because Obama is called a liberal. Therefore if Liberal = Democrat and Democrat = Obama, Liberal = Obama. Somehow.

    Perhaps a low voter turnout is a good thing. People like that don’t vote (or maybe, GSTQ, they do)

  28. Scott:

    Given that you and I both agree that Canadians are stupid when it comes to politics and the goings on in Ottawa, what do you think about the Finance Minister’s decision to have us write the next budget for him by way of online questionnaire?

  29. Riddle me this..If Peter MacKay is so lacking in charisma.. how could he have possibly been with someone as stunningly beautiful and morally structured as Belinda Stronach??

  30. Well.. one can cry, or laugh.. and laughing is more fun.

  31. On a much more serious note .. How about asking the Ontario Teachers Union to bail out their CAW brothers..They seem to have an excess of cash>>

  32. Whoa! You mean the Video Professor isn’t Jack Layton’s super hero identity? I thought that was where he got all his ideas … what the!?!?!?

  33. I’m always a little confused with the polls. It seems like we put a lot of weight on the opinions of the people that stay on the phone long enough to endure telemarketer questions on the swiffer and instant coffee brand recognition, before they get to the questions on gun ownership, coalitions, and how many provinces there are… Aren’t these the same people that start saying “hello, hello” into the phone after that awkward pause, the ship horn and the mechanical voice of “the captain speaking”

  34. I have to agree with Kay’s
    Dec. 11th quote about ‘Conservatives’, but further, I find that more Canadians ignore politics than is healthy for the country. Passive, non-involvement , especially for the everyday person, leaves our whole system short-changed,…but we can make a lot of noise when the economics of it all hits us close to home. Serious study of many aspects of our government and economy is needed for us to become an adequate country in these serious times.

  35. Na, the election wasn’t defined by “Green Shift.” It was defined by “Carbon Tax.” That’s why the Liberals lost–the Conservatives defined the terms.

    I wonder….is the right wing just a whole lot better at boiling an idea down to its simplest form….and then threatening to beat you up until you agree with it? I’m thinking Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, BIll O’Reilly, Harper’s financial update…..

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