The throne speech and the limitations of pro-consumer politics

John Geddes on the promise and potential of consumer-friendly policies

Unless all the advance buzz—the floating of trial balloons, the testing of messages and the telegraphing of themes—is wrong, tomorrow’s Speech from the Throne will speak to Canadians, first and foremost, as consumers.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (through his vice-regal master of ceremonies, Governor General David Johnston) will reportedly assure the mythic middle-class voter that the Conservative government has his or her back, when it comes to, say, paying for only the cable TV stations you like or securing justice when the airline bumps you off your flight.

This might seem like a mere variation in tone, a political salesman donning a different checkered jacket. After all, Harper’s government has always appealed to Canadians in no small part by offering tactically focused measures that help out with personal finances, especially all those niche tax breaks for kids’ sports and arts lessons and transit riders’ monthly passes and what have you.

But if the Conservatives are serious about repackaging themselves as the party of consumers, and if they keep it up until the 2015 election, this change will amount to more than a minor marketing adjustment. Consider the throne speech Harper crafted in 2011, not so long ago, after his first majority election triumph. Riffing on the slogan “here for Canadians,” it broke down exactly which Canadians the government was “here for” in, by my count, seven quite precise ways.

On the economic front, the government was “here for jobs and growth” and “here to eliminate the deficit.” In other words, the throne speech spoke to Canadians as taxpayers worried about the state of the nation’s finances and as gainfully employed workers anxious to stay that way.

It was “here to stand on guard for Canada”—backing a strong armed forces as a marker for patriotism—and “here for law-abiding Canadians”—pushing yet again tougher sentences for criminals as a tribute to those who have the decency to obey the law.

It was “here for communities and industries,” code for those rural and resource-based constituencies that are such a reliable part of the Conservative base. And, finally, “here for integrity and accountability,” the only “here-for” category that seemed to address us as citizens in the most fundamental sense, bound by our shared stake in honest, responsible government.

We work, pay our taxes, belong to families and live in communities, stay out of trouble and love the country, and the 2011 throne speech tried to reach us on all these levels. What that first majority agenda of the Harper government did not do was try to push our buttons as consumers—buyers goods and services, shoppers who stand in line or languish on hold until the next agent is available to take our call.

“This is a pro-consumer government,” Employment Minister Jason Kenney says now. You’d hope so. Yet the problem with this as a way of reenergizing, or even re-defining, the government is its lack of deep emotional content. Sure, we all enjoy buying stuff. And we’d like to get it cheaper. But is that the sort of desire that vibrates at the basic, vote-driving level?

I’m not so sure. It’s not a matter of the dollar figures in play. Many of those Tory niche tax breaks were small potatoes in terms of how much money they actually left in any given family’s bank account. But they often carried heavy emotional content: We’re with you in the most important thing you do—raising your kids. Lots of parents appreciated the gesture. Can federal policies designed to change the way you pay for cable or complain to the airline hope to elicit anything like the same response?

The promised consumer-friendly policies sound like they might be popular enough. The question is whether there is any way to connect them to the cherished values of voters, the stories we tell ourselves about what really matters to us.

The late Doug Finley, the most important Conservative campaign strategist behind Harper’s rise to power, once summed up the party’s main goals and sustained promises to me this way: “strengthening the economy, strengthening the military, strengthening communities.”

Had Finley added “strengthening consumers” to his list, it would have diluted the message.

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