Urban Equity blogs

The conundrum between policy substance and branding

18 March 2019 by André Darmanin

Image via Reuters/The Nation

Now that the Ottawa bubble has had its say on the SNC-Lavalin affair, much of the media will be focused on tomorrow’s Federal Budget speech by Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau.

In the meantime, this morning, I came across a retweet from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight that struck a chord.

Andrew Yang is one of the lesser-known candidates running for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination. If you visit his campaign website he lists not only his top 3 policies, but also a pretty comprehensive compilation of other policy positions including a local journalism fund, Medicare for all, and why the NCAA should pay athletes.

I worked on a previous mayoral campaign that was focused on policy positions. Unfortunately, our team didn’t make it to the finish line.

Policy positions during an election campaign don’t seem to make the light of day in the age of social media and short attention spans.  The common policy stances that we hear about are tax cuts, strategies, action plans, and what programs will be done to ease the burden off of families. Look, I know I am not a parent, but I do empathize with the struggles of raising a household. Mind you, because of extraneous past decisions, like the trickle-down inefficient economics of suburban sprawl, for example.  My urban planner friends know this all too well as these are regurgitated ad nauseam.

At the end of the day, the focus of election campaigns is about winning and not so much leading a country.  Having recently read Shopping for VotesBrand Command, and The Candidate, marketing and branding are what drives campaign platforms.  It all began with the Federal Liberal’s 1993 campaign platform or better known as “The Red Book”.  While it was a marketing tool, it was also a fully-costed policy platform.   The Ontario Progressive Conservative’s platform “Common Sense Revolution” had a similar tone.

Consequently with shorter attention spans due to social media and neo-conservativism in past years (and maybe with the current Ontario Provincial government), comes short-termism and, in turn, the lack of long-term spending for large national projects and social programs.  I’m sure many will contend that there is an infrastructure revival happening under the current Federal Liberal government with the National Housing Strategy and the Trans Mountain Pipeline . An example from the municipal side, John Tory was re-election campaign as Mayor of Toronto focused on a very simplistic, more of the same approach, that appeased to suburban voters with his infamous phrase of keeping property taxes low and only raising them at or below the rate of inflation. Yet there is a clear revenue problem at the point there is a fiscal cliff occurring at the City.  Past City Managers Joe Pennachetti and Peter Wallace have addressed this.  This is one example of the result of a lack of inaction that is focused on short-termism and branding.

I wish we as citizens could revert to faith in our governments to do what’s right for our country, provinces, and cities. I wish our elected officials would not have to dumb down messages to the lowest common denominator just to appease the electorate. Voter turnout at all levels is at an all-time low even with the focus on branding and image for winning strategies to supposedly increase said turnout.  There are other factors in play in attempts to increase turnout such as democratic reform. Nevertheless, policy substance is needed from our candidates and elected officials, even if I am a Liberal supporter. This isn’t “elitist” thinking as populists would portend it to be.

It’s time for the parties, including the Liberals, to use branding tools to raise important policy issues that have longer-term benefits, similar to the Green New Deal. Not just getting through the next four years with cheap gimmicks like the contentious carbon tax initiative that fails to allocate funding for infrastructure, as an example.  Campaigns, on the flipside, should not be a litany of points similar to what Yang listed on his website, even though I am all for it.  Voters vote on the performance of the incumbent and not just on policy ideas, but it should be a considerable deciding factor.

As Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said, politics should be in full sentences.  We will know in a few months time how those campaigns will look.

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