a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Success in Canadian politics depends on who sets the frame

Now that Parliament is off for a week because of the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, let's have a look at some interesting developments in Canadian politics.

Last Friday the Harper government survived a confidence vote thanks to support from the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP. So a prime minister, who waxed indignant not too long ago about the Liberals forming an odious coalition with the separatists and socialists, was propped up by, well, separatists and socialists.

Indeed the Conservative spin machine was still running television ads last weekend attacking Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with the flimsy-at-best accusation that he was part of the short-lived coalition last winter of the Liberals, under Stephane Dion, and the NDP and Bloc.

Is Harper or his party embarrassed by last Friday's developments? Probably not. Will the Conservatives have to do some quick damage control because many Canadians will see them as hypocrites? Again probably not.

This is because modern political tactics don't have much to do with truth. Politics in the 21st century is driven by something called framing.

Framing works like this: because the public and journalists alike are bombarded with information in the current 24-hour news cycle, we all have to resort to stereotypes and preconceived notions to process and make sense of it all.

So if a political party, with the money to purchase pre-election advertising, can make a claim, true or not, often enough, the public will form an impression or "frame". The frame becomes the mental template through which a particular issue is commonly viewed.

Even when your opponent vehemently denies the frame, the inadvertent effect is to repeat the negative and therefore reinforce the frame much like good chess players try to "fork" their opponent. This is when an opponent is forced into a position in which he or she must lose something in order to respond.

The side that gets its version of the truth on the record first usually controls the frame. And it takes a very dramatic development to break that frame.

It will be interesting to see what the Liberals can come up with to counter the Tory frame next week when Parliament resumes.

The Liberals had been the victim of the widely-held frame that they would support the minority government no matter what because they were terrified of an election. But now it's the NDP's turn to face the same frame. The Liberals have announced they will no longer support the Harper government and will look to defeat it at the earliest opportunity. In other words, Ignatieff was able to take a noose off his own neck and slip in on the neck of NDP leader Jack Layton.

Nice move. Next week we can watch Ignatieff try to do the same with Harper. Like much of our electioneering techniques, issue framing is imported from the U.S. It was really perfected by the Republicans.

Has the time come to examine what framing is doing to the integrity of Canadian politics? Perhaps the Canadian political class should be asking this. Look forward to your comments.

1 comment:

  1. Gord: This is an excellent piece. Not only does it explain how political tacticians operate in today's cynical climate. It also points to why politicians are held in low regard and fewer people bother to vote. Framing is just another word for lying, and people get that. Politicians who do this, and it is generally the backroom people not the elected people, are poisoning their own well, polluting the political culture and thumbing their noses at the public. Thanks for the piece.