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The Politics Behind Political Platforms – What You Need to Know

McMillan Vantage Managing Director Mark Resnick has seen election platform development from the inside out since the eighties. Here, he reflects on what they’re for and how they’ve evolved.

What’s an election platform for?

Regardless of how they are put together, platforms have evolved into marketing tools. They are about creating a policy frame for the leader and the party’s marketing plan. It’s also a marketing tool with the sub-objectives of party and candidate engagement.

If the platform is mainly a marketing tool, does it really matter? Do parties really deliver on these promises?

Platforms over the years have become so much more important. In the 70’s and 80’s having some sort of a comprehensive policy platform was seen as providing competitive advantage.  Now, it’s table stakes: you can’t get away without one.

But, if you go back and look at party platforms and tried to tick the commitment boxes, there wouldn’t always be a lot of ticks. Sometimes unforeseen issues take over. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives couldn’t have predicted the 2008 recession and the collapse of the U.S. banking system. And they had to react. The party platforms for the 1988 campaign became almost irrelevant because the election was essentially overtaken by the debate around free trade agreement with the United States.

Credibility is an important political asset so if  you want political capital in the bank you need to go line-by-line and say promise-made, promise-delivered. In 1993 Jean Chretien kept waving around what became known as the Liberal “Red Book” and saying, “you watch, we will do all of these things” Post-election, he checked the commitments off with every new government policy announcement. John Horgan’s government in B.C. had a similar approach when they got their minority in 2017, and now they have a majority.

What are the considerations about when to deliver a platform?

There can be a “first mover” advantage.  In releasing the platform early, you can frame the major issues for Canadians. First mover is fine, so long as you don’t have any serious policy clunkers that can haunt you.

There can also be an advantage to “wait and see” before you release the platform. Waiting to see what the other parties propose, and refining your proposals for better contrast or to prioritize issues that you hope will be significant vote getters. Waiting also enables the party to shine a brighter light on certain issues that are considered to be of strategic value but that could be diluted in political value as part of a bigger document.

The bottom line is, you have to have one by the first debate, otherwise the media and the other leaders will pillory you for being vacuous, or worse having a hidden agenda. The exception to that was Doug Ford in the 2019 Ontario campaign, but federally I expect all of the platforms will be out before the first French debate on September 2.

How are platforms developed?

It varies. In the case of the Conservatives, we know that in this campaign a fairly small group of people prepared and wrote it. I assume it was based on some caucus and party consultation as well as stakeholder engagement and opinion research the party was doing to calibrate their policy proposals with their vote-getting strategy.

This is of course very different from how the NDP put together their platforms which are based much more closely on their convention resolutions. As I understand it the NDP leader is obligated to support and propose those policies during an election. They can focus the platform based on strategy of course, but that is their main policy development process.

The Liberals have a kind of hybrid, policy development model; somewhere between the more top-down approach of the Conservatives and the grass roots party activist-based approach of the NDP. It starts with grassroots resolutions that are voted on at a policy convention. But the Liberal model gives the leader a lot more leeway than the NDP. Liberal leaders can incorporate convention resolutions or not depending on how they see fit.

What kind of public research is used in designing a platform?

A modern platform is tested through various research tools, both qualitative and quantitative. A lot is done about the leader, the party brand, and of course issues testing. The objective is to identify specific voter segments — demographic and geographic – that you need to win. What you’re looking for is the best way to connect the leader and party brand to the issues that will deliver the voters you’ve identified as accessible.

It’s not the kind of horse race research you see in the daily news. It’s much more detailed and it yields data that is invaluable in prosecuting a campaign.

Of course, polling companies will leverage elections for their own commercial purposes. Media outlets rely on horse race numbers to center their coverage of a campaign and polling firms are happy to oblige. But, I’ve already seen pollsters mentioned in the media this campaign I’ve never heard of! Publicly available polling can be helpful to media organizations, but in recent years they have frequently been wrong so apart from revealing voter intention trends I’m not sure how useful they are to the voting public.

How do outside groups – companies or NGOs for example – influence the platforms?

All manner of groups try to influence what goes into a platform and there are multiple ways for them to do that. For political parties, stakeholder outreach has become a staple component for effective campaign teams. It is regarded as having a number of benefits. It helps to build alliances with groups that represent voters that you are trying to win over. It conveys a sometimes-unarticulated message, which is, “we care” about you and the issues that are important to your members or your employees. You hope to generate third party endorsements, if not for your entire platform, than at least key planks. It is about enhancing credibility and creating an impression that there is a groundswell of support for the policies you are proposing.  

Costing. We know the Parliamentary Budget Office now reviews the costing of the platforms. Does the PBO’s view matter?

Again, this is about credibility. The PBO, is a qualified, non-partisan entity that is in a position to validate or invalidate party financial projections of program costing, deficit reduction plans and the like. Does the voting public care? I doubt it. Most people have neither the time or the inclination to get into the fiscal weeds of a platform document. But how the media covers what the PBO has to say is a different matter. If a headline screams “this is a load of nonsense”, it matters. Ultimately, it goes to the voters’ assessment of whether or not a given leader or party is competent to govern.

mcmillan vantage policy group
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