Spare some change: Positioning in Canadian politics

This essay was written for and published by APG Canada is September 2015.

Like many Canadians, I’ve often been quite disengaged and apathetic about politics. I vote and try to do so in an informed way, but usually my participation is shrouded in a layer of mild (or maybe not-so-mild) skepticism – a resigned sense that we’re going to get stuck with another collection of mediocre, uninspiring representatives. The entire process feels like an exercise in mitigating harm as opposed to picking a great candidate of whom I stand in awe or from whom I expect great things. As a result, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time following closely the electoral process or delving into the candidates’ or parties’ platforms at a granular level. But this year’s federal election campaign has felt different. I don’t profess to be an expert or even a novice enthusiast of politics, but when viewed through the lens of planning, brand building, behavioural change, or positioning, this year’s campaign has had the unique ability to capture my attention.

A CTV News poll conducted by Nanos Research in mid-July of this year (not long before the election was called) suggested that 66% of Canadians are “ready for a change in government.” Whenever this stat is cited, my mind replays immediately the scene that I imagine to have taken place in the respective parties’ war rooms and campaign strategy sessions. The short version is this: “Well, people say pretty clearly that they want change. So let’s talk about change.”

Tom Mulcair’s NDP, therefore, is “Ready for Change.” In contrast to the status quo, they promise to strengthen the middle class and families, grow the economy, and provide us with a better future. Trudeau (or, as Harper likes to call him, “Justin”) and his Liberals aren’t just ready for change; they promise Real Change. The two major parties trying to unseat Harper’s Conservatives are vying for ownership of the same territory: change. And it’s become a fight for who can be the most “changy”.

Both platforms are rooted in a brand truth (“We’re not Harper, so we’re different”) and a consumer “truth” (“We are ready for change”). But is a literal interpretation of prospective voters’ responses an accurate reflection of their true feelings and behaviours upon which the NDP and Liberals can base their entire campaigns, or might it lead these parties down the wrong path? Behavioural economics literature is rife with examples of how people say one thing (usually a logical validation of their behaviour) but act in a completely different (typically emotionally driven) way. Maybe prospective Canadian voters saying “I’m ready for change” is yet another example.

In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille (Rapaille 2006) claims that the culture code (the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing) for Canada is “to keep.” This is why we “elect prime ministers who serve as guardians, who voters believe provide the best chance of keeping the Canadian culture the way it is.”

In contrast, the American Culture Code for America is “to dream,” and the code for their presidency is Moses – “a rebellious leader of his people with a strong vision and the will to get them out of trouble.” This may explain how, against all reasonable, rational thought, Donald Trump continues not just to be acknowledged or given any attention whatsoever, but to lead in the Republic polls in America.

If Canadians really do want “to keep,” then a message of change won’t resonate. Despite how they might respond to survey questions, Canadians don’t really want change – they want sameness. Comfort. Consistency. They want the security of what they’ve always known, loved, and held sacred and dear.

A “to-keep” culture code puts any incumbent at a significant advantage. Harper’s “You know me. I’m experienced. Let’s keep this strong economy,” is a comfortable space that Canadians know.  And the NDP and Liberals have played into that; in their “change” messaging, they have conceded that Harper is the reference point and acknowledged him as Canada’s status quo. But they would be in a much stronger position if they used as the reference point for Canadian culture not the current Harper era, but our pre-Harper country.

The NDP and Liberals should not make this about how they will bring change (from Harper). Instead, they should make it about how Harper has consistently brought unwanted change to the country, how he’s been taking away things (libraries, the right of speech for MPs and federal scientists, privacy and other ramifications associated with Bill C-51, and the mandatory long-form census to name a few) that make Canada what it is, and how he has failed to be a guardian of our country’s culture. For the NDP and Liberals, this should not be about being or starting change, but putting an end to all of this change, and getting us back to what Canada is really supposed to be.

Canadians don’t want a visionary to change the country. They want a guardian who will prevent anyone from taking it away. Stephen Harper has provided significant ammunition to suggest that he is, in fact, taking it away, but no one seems to have framed it that way yet. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Harper’s competitors. Rather than positioning themselves as change agents, maybe it’s time to be Canada’s anti-change agents.


CTV News/Nanos Research. 1,000 people surveyed by telephone and online, July 18 to 22, 2015, +/-3.1% 19/20. Accessed online at

C. Rapaille. 2006. The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. Broadway Books, New York.