PMO ‘central control deepening far more than people know or seem to care about’

Good interview with Alex Marland, author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control;

Your book also examines political communications under the Harper Conservatives. Has political communications changed under the Trudeau Liberals? 

“The Trudeau brand is refreshing and engaging. Even those who cringe at the selfies and the blatant photo-ops should acknowledge that the change in tone is a welcome relief after the intense negativity that permeated Canadian politics dating to the early 2000s. Hopefully the showmanship will fall away, because a shameless desire for publicity and public adulation can turn many citizens off politics too. For someone like me, the issue is that the more that the media’s glare is on the prime minister, the more power that individual has. I believe that central control is deepening far more than people know or seem to care about. The creation of delivery units in the centre of the Liberal government are an excellent example of PMO control. It is not lost on me that if the Harper administration had created those we’d be hearing howls that Canada is becoming an authoritarian state. It is the role of academics to see beyond the public personas of political leaders, especially when everyone else is distracted by them.”

Why do you say the pursuit of political power is strategic as never before? What do you mean?

“The competition for power involves a level of strategic manoeuvering and tactical execution in ways that are exceedingly complex. Sure, there’s a lot of gut instinct involved—there just isn’t enough money in Canadian politics to enable the kind of data analytics found in the U.S.A. In any event, you cannot form government on the basis of marketing alone. It was sometimes said that Harper was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. I would suggest that everyone is forced to play chess now. Even the smallest political parties have supporter databases, are using social media, are familiar with market segmentation to bundle coalitions, and so on. Everything is quick, quick, quick—not only do you need to be sharp-minded, but you need to operate in a media cycle that churns multiple times per day. This is where branding comes in: if you have a core set of messages and values the brand mantra acts as a guide for spinning a message no matter what the circumstance.”

How has branding influenced democracy?

“Branding’s supporters, including in the government, will tell you that it saves money and makes things more efficient. Navigating webpages with a common look and feel is an example; cutting down on the number of sub-brands and logos throughout government is another. Templates for campaign signs, brochures and websites have done wonders for local campaigns, while simultaneously imprinting a central command ethos. Branding also simplifies things for electors—the same messages are repeated, we see the same visuals over and over. Only the most rabid politicos read campaign platforms, or care about policy discussions at party conventions. Most Canadians are busy with their daily lives and pay surface attention to politics. Branding connects with them. It also limits the potential for a brand ambassador to commit a gaffe or so-called “bozo interruption” that undermines the leadership team. So as a strategy it helps to move an agenda forward. The downside, of course, is that candidates and MPs, and even some ministers, become regional sales reps of a message set by people at the top. It becomes a serious problem when all messages align, bordering on state propaganda.”

Where is Canadian politics headed? 

“I am a cautious optimist. The proliferation of digital media means that traditional elite power structures are under stress to change and evolve. This is generally good. What is not good is that the online sphere has become a powerful interest group for the hyper-sensitive forces of political correctness. A healthy democracy is strongest when open-minded citizens carefully deliberate a variety of opinions. As a society, we need leaders who encourage thoughtful constructive debate, who are willing to challenge the wisdom of crowds, who question attachments to party labels, and who aren’t afraid to sometimes take a public punch from their own brand ambassadors.”

Source: PMO ‘central control deepening far more than people know or seem to care about’ |

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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