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Distracting the electorate with the things they want the most

Tue 3rd Apr 2018 Add comment

“The key point…is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

 – Boris Johnson (former Mayor of London) on Lynton Crosby’s “Dead Cat” strategy.
Last week, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa tabled the 2018-2019 Provincial Budget: A Plan for Care and Opportunity. With a little more than a month until the writ drops, this year’s budget was of the utmost importance to the deeply unpopular Liberal government. The government needed to table policies that will help them form a winning coalition among key segments of the electorate and time will tell if their strategy worked.

How exactly does the government intend to form that winning coalition? By throwing a proverbial dead cat on the table.

After fifteen years of running the ship, the Ontario Liberals are experiencing a great deal of voter fatigue and dissatisfaction. Multiple scandals have made the government increasingly distrusted over the years and the Liberals have largely been behind the Tories in the polls (in some cases by double digits) for almost two years.

But then something happened that only the government of the day could take advantage of: the provincial budget. Every fiscal year, the government of Ontario will table a document that outlines what the government intends to spend money on and how they intend to pay for it. However, the timing and proximity of the budget to this year’s scheduled election allows the Liberals to use the budget as a fully-costed campaign platform.

Often times a dead cat strategy involves something divisive or sensational, however, in this case the Liberals have thrown the institutions Ontarians care deeply about (most notably healthcare) on the table for us to talk about. By focusing on policies that most people can get behind, the Liberals are doing what they can to get the electorate to focus on the policies of the future and not the overall legacy of the fifteen years the party has been in power.

By all accounts it appears the Liberal research team found that the electorate (for the most part) isn’t very worried about the debt/deficit. The debt/deficit issue is only salient among right-of-centre voters – a segment of the electorate that the OLP has little-to-no chance of winning over.

Polling from a number of different firms has found that healthcare and the costs of living are the top two issues of concern for Ontario voters – regardless of their political stripe, age, gender or region.

The majority of the proposed spending by the Liberals revolves around healthcare, most notably a 4.3% ($5.3b) increase in healthcare spending over the next three years and an expansion of OHIP+ by eliminate annual deductibles and co-payments for seniors’ drug prescriptions through the Ontario Drug Benefit. Ontarians want effective and reliable healthcare, regardless of how they vote, and the Liberals are promising to do just that.

Former PC leader Patrick Brown made mental health funding one of his top five priorities in his platform The Peoples’ Guarantee. One of the reasons he may have chosen to prioritize this policy is because mental health affects everyone and no other party had pledged as much support as he had (at that time). Brown wanted a policy that shows him as someone who cares for all people of the province as oppose to his party’s base. At the moment the Liberals seem to be the only party that is putting money towards mental health and it helps frame the party as caring/forward thinking. Additionally it would be very difficult for the PCs or NDP to criticize government support of mental health funding – especially when they don’t have a plan of their own! Mental health may not be salient to any one particular segment of the electorate, but it is something that almost all voters can get behind.

The winning coalition the Liberals need to form will largely be built around Ontarians under the age of thirty (most likely to vote NDP) and Ontarians over the age of sixty-five (most likely to vote PC). Millennials and younger voters now make up the largest segment of the electorate with respect to age while older Ontarian may not be as numerous but have the greatest probability of turning out to vote.

The introduction of free pharmacare for Ontarians twenty four and under as well as free-tuition for some 200k eligible students across the province will help the Liberals wrestle control of this group away from the NDP.  The Liberals are hoping that their free-tuition pledge will resonate to a greater degree than the NDP’s plan of converting student loans into grants that don’t have to be paid back.

An alternative policy that the Liberals are most likely using to communicate with voters under the age of thirty-five is daycare. The 2018 budget proposed free daycare to preschoolers (two years or younger) by 2020. Subsidized or government assisted daycare is popular among left-of-centre voters – particularly those under the age of thirty-five. Former federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair had a national daycare framework as one of his key policy planks during the 2015 federal election due to the fact that he thought it was something that both his base and voters across Canada wanted. The Liberals are trying to communicate to younger and working families, generally in more urban areas of the province, that their roles as parents would be made easier under Liberal management.

For the most part, older voters have a higher propensity of voting Conservative than younger voters. However, in a day and age where older Ontarians require more assistance than ever, the Liberals have put forth a number of policies that are likely to resonate with this segment of the electorate.

The Liberals planned to expand the Seniors’ Health Home Program by $1b over three years, an additional $650m for home care and free pharmacare for Ontarians over the age of sixty-five. Younger or middle-aged voters may not see this as a salient issue to themselves personally but they see it as a good use of government spending and it would be very unlikely that people would be against policies that help a rapidly aging population that will require more assistance over time.

So far, Doug Ford has not made any specific mention of policies that would directly benefit older Ontarians and the Liberals are using this opportunity to communicate the features of their budget to this group before the Tories can. By framing Doug Ford as someone who will make cuts to services that help older Ontarians, the Liberals are hoping that older Red-Tory voters opt for tangible policies that directly benefit them over feelings of resentment and anger towards the government.

It’s harder to hold a government to account for their fiscal policies yesterday when they plan to make the lives of vulnerable citizens better tomorrow.

The 2018 budget can, in a sense, be seen as the Liberal Party throwing a dead cat on the table. Using the power of incumbency, the Liberals have tabled policies that will have you focusing on what the government will do and not what the government has done. From the surface these policies are hard to criticize, but those policies have been specifically designed to resonate among younger left-of-centre and NDP-leaning voters as well as older soft-leaning Conservative voters. More importantly the policies of the budget force the other two parties into a position where they would have to either commit to greater government spending on important and cherished policy realms or be seen as cold and unsupportive of Ontarians. The budget has forced everyone to focus on the Liberal Party's plans for the future and not the oppositions' criticism of the government's past.

This time though, it is believed that the electorate can see that the Liberals’ dead cat is nothing more than a stuffed animal.