As the Harper Government is now weeks away from tabling its spring budget and implementing its Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP), a solid communications strategy will be critical to building and maintaining public confidence for what is most certain to be the beginning of a long and sustained battle with public sector unions, the opposition, the media and a wide-range of stakeholders.
One doesn’t have to look any further than the recent imbroglio over Old Age Security as an example of how lack of a well-thought-out communications plan can turn a relatively muted issue into an overnight firestorm; one that sends the Government into constant reaction mode, causes uproar with many Canadians and creates a backlash within the Government’s own caucus and support base.
With the Budget set to be delivered on Thursday, March 29, the Government will need to be on top of its game and demonstrate both confidence and competence in its communication to Canadians.
Despite recent comments from Finance Minister Flaherty that the coming budget will be relatively modest compared to what some European countries are going through, expectations are that it will still contain the most sweeping set of cuts coming out of Ottawa since the early ’90s; impacting programs across the board and causing thousands of federal jobs to be eliminated.
In an economic climate that remains fragile, to use the Prime Minister’s oft-quoted phrase, the Government will need to effectively convince Canadians that broad-based cuts are necessary medicine in order to protect the greater public and economic interests. To do so, cabinet ministers will need to communicate skillfully and be prepared to sell program cuts in each of their own departments – something some are more capable of doing than others.
In their favour, Conservatives already have a public that is somewhat primed for an exercise that is proposing to reduce annual government expenditures by at least $4 billion over the next two years. A recent Nanos survey seems to indicate that almost 60% of Canadians are supportive of the Government’s planned cost-cutting measures to reduce the size and scope of government.
On top of that, 74% of Canadians surveyed by Nanos proposed a number higher than 5% as the targeted percentage that should be cut from government departments and a majority (53%) proposed an even larger cut of higher than 10%.
While the Government should be somewhat comforted by the public support that this survey seems to demonstrate, it should not take it as a signal that reducing programs and cutting jobs will in any way be an easy task. History has shown that when program cuts hit close to home, Canadians often lose the zest they may have once had for fiscal restraint.
Another challenge the Government will face in effectively communicating the need for aggressive spending cuts, is the recent success of its own Economic Action Plan campaign, in which it spent several years and a great deal of effort highlighting “stimulus” spending as the way to address the same fragile economy.
The challenge now will be for the Government to adeptly shift gears and messaging from stimulus to restraint and in the process convince Canadians that the latter is a necessary evolution of the former in order to keep the economy on track.
Although the Harper Government has implemented ongoing strategic reviews since 2006, it has for the most part presided over increased spending and growth in the public service. MPs have also become accustomed to highlighting federal investments for countless projects and initiatives throughout the country and particularly in their home ridings.
Conservative MPs will soon have to adapt to a new reality of explaining federal job losses, closures, and program reductions or eliminations to their constituents – the kind of things that don’t lend easily to photo-ops, ribbon cuttings or billboards.
Cabinet ministers, in spite of great pressure from their home region or various stakeholder groups, will have to defend a wide array of cuts made in their departments, something they have had to do little of in recent years. When cuts were previously announced or programs eliminated in the past, the Government has usually been there with something in which to replace them, making the bad news a little easier to sell by offering up some good news to go along. This is unlikely to be the case going forward.
In 2006, the Harper Government faced a similar challenge when it implemented its first comprehensive set of spending cuts. Though handicapped with a minority Parliament, the Government was relatively new in its mandate and the opposition was loath to go to the polls, making cost-cutting and program reduction relatively easy.
However, even then, the Government soon found itself backing-away from some decisions it had already communicated, as several ministers had a difficult time publicly defending cuts in their own departments and couldn’t handle the mounting pressure. Those ministers were less adept at defending their cuts, in part because they didn’t fully understand the programs that were being affected and also because they failed to put in place an effective communications plan well in advance.
Unlike its previous stimulus budgets, the Canadian Government will no longer be able to link its new cost-cutting exercise to what the U.S. is doing, as that country is taking a different approach in dealing with its own fiscal and economic pressures. In advance of submitting the latest U.S. budget proposal to Congress, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Jacob Lew, recently told a U.S. news program that, “the time for austerity is not today.”
For the U.S. President in an election year, the time for austerity may not be today, but for Prime Minister Harper — who won’t be facing an election until 2015 — the time for austerity could not be any better. Let’s just hope the government does a good job communicating it to Canadians.
Blog posting was originally posted on iPolitics.ca.