Conservatives using 'branding' to try and win over ethnic voters

Tim Naumetz

If there is one thing, aside from Stephen Harper, standing between the Conservative party and a majority government, it has to be retail politics.

Or, more precisely, the Conservative Party of Canada’s application of retail politics in its quest to win that majority government.

Dimitri Soudas, Harper’s communications director, calls news releases “the product.” That’s what he said at one of the recent high-profile events with Harper.

“Sara has the product over there,” he said. Sara being Sara MacIntyre, one of Harper’s press secretaries. She was standing in a Rideau Hall corner with the news releases.

Leona Aglukkaq was being interviewed on CBC's As it Happens about a government ban on carcinogenic chemicals in plastic baby bottles when she was asked why the government hadn’t drawn attention to it earlier.

“We issued a product...” she began to say, then changed it to news release.

Retail politics is all over the place with the Harper government, literally even in the government, which, The Canadian Press reported this week, the Conservatives have decided to brand as “the Harper Government” instead of the Government of Canada.

Branding, a retail politics term. The Conservatives are always branding themselves. Tough on crime. Patriotic. Canada is “standing tall” in Afghanistan.

Other parties brand too, admittedly.

But Conservative retail politics reached a zenith this week when, through misadventure by one of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s aides, a fundraising drive aimed at South Asian and Chinese communities in Canada came to light.

The opposition hammered the government over the fact the blatant partisan literature came from Kenney’s ministerial office. But they really should have gone after them over the power-point sheets that accompanied the letter.

There were Retail politics fingerprints everywhere as Kenney’s aides attempted to coax his fellow Alberta Conservative MPs to get their riding associations to kick in and raise $200,000 that was needed for a campaign to drum up votes from the South Asian and Chinese communities.

Kenney has been feverishly working the “ethnic” communities for at least three years but, apparently in advance of a federal election this spring, he is now focusing exclusively on South Asian Canadians and Chinese Canadians – which the latest and likely last long-form version of the national census identified as the two largest new immigrant populations in Canada.

The title of the Tory campaign, expressed in the letter from Kenney’s aide, is Breaking Through – Building the Conservative Brand in Cultural Communities. There it is again, brand. Not building friendship, relations, support, whatever. It was building the Conservative brand.

The following pages were the kind of picture-perfect power-point presentations you would likely find in a corporate boardroom. In the fifties or sixties, it would be a company that sold vacuum cleaners or sewing machines, in the seventies aluminum siding, like in that hilarious film with John Candy and Danny Devito.

Now, it would be electric garage doors, equipped with GPS homing bases. The Conservatives are tring to sell themselves.

“Target Ridings – Very Ethnic,” one of the charts said, drawing a lot of play on Twitter.

Toronto Liberal MPs Borys Wrzesnewskyj and Navdeep Bains weren’t sure whether they would be classed as Ethnic, or Very Ethnic. Wrzesnewskyj joked to a Yahoo! News correspondent in one of the 1920s Centre Block elevators: “I asked Navdeep whether I was Very Ethnic, since my name has mostly consonants, or whether he was, because he has a beard and wears a turban. We didn’t know.”

The makeup of the Very Ethnic ridings listed on the Conservative chart were South Asian, Chinese, Jewish and Ukrainian. Six of the Very Ethnic ridings were in Toronto, three were in the Vancouver area, one, rich Mount Royal, was in Montreal and one was in Winnipeg.

Another chart was titled with the retail politics term Take Away. Meaning what the party can “take away” if it wins over the Very Ethnic ridings in the cities.

The answers were: There are Lots of Ethnic Voters, There Will be Quite a Few More Soon and They Live Where we Need to Win.

The 29 pages of power-point points contain enough data to make your head spin. And, so hilarious, it all comes from the long-form of the national census Harper scrapped last summer.

The goal of the Conservative party, which gathers intelligence with as much diligence as the CIA or Exxon, is to get a leg up on the other parties in the ethnic areas, and the Very Ethnic areas.

It wants to corner the market.