Is it time to start building bridges to the opposition here in Ontario?
And if it is, how can we do that without undermining our working relationships with the current government?
These are the questions that a lot of organizations are asking in Ontario these days, with an election in the offing – and uncertainty about who’ll form the government after that election is over. For clients of Leonard Domino & Associates, though, these aren’t new questions. We have always helped our clients to develop sensible relationships with the opposition parties as well as the government: that’s because we believe all of the parties in the legislature are part of the political process.
With interest in building bridges to the opposition peaking now in the run-up to the election, we’ve developed a short discussion paper that can help organizations develop effective strategies to include the opposition in their government relations efforts.
After you’ve read it, if you’d like to discuss it – or any other aspect of your government relations strategies for the future – we’d be happy to talk.
The conventional wisdom in old-style government relations: Either you were “with the government” or You were “with the opposition”
The conventional wisdom in old-style government relations saw dealing with the opposition as a sort of either/or decision:
Either you were “with the government” – forming relationships and building trust with members of the governing party to encourage them to adopt policies or make decisions that served your organization’s objectives – and helping the governing party and its members to score political points in the process;
You were “with the opposition” – helping opposition politicians to pressure and embarrass the government into adopting policies or making decisions that served your organization’s objectives or, more often with this strategy, trying to pressure the government into stopping actions or policies that you considered harmful – and helping the opposition politicians score their own political points in the process.
If you accept that either/or decision view of dealing with opposition parties, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that working with the opposition is, at best, a high risk strategy and, at worst, a last resort.
That’s been the conventional wisdom. It’s why most organizations tend to leave the opposition out of their government relations planning altogether or to limit themselves to very cursory contacts with the opposition benches.
That still is the conventional wisdom, and at Leonard Domino & Associates, we don’t think there’s any real wisdom in it any longer – if there ever was.
There are 3 very good reasons to make sure that building bridges to the opposition is an integral part of your government-relations strategy
- The most obvious reason to include building relationships with the opposition into your
government-relations strategy is that they may just be the next government.
Sometimes that looks like a very long shot, indeed. Other times, it looks pretty likely. But governments do change – sometimes in surprising ways – and organizations that have established trusting and respectful relationships with the players while they were on the opposition benches have the best chance to build good working relationships with the new government.
People who ignore politicians before they become cabinet ministers certainly don’t begin with any reservoir of trust or goodwill. Remember that when you’re tempted to say “They’re only the opposition.” And remember that unexpected things – like the election of the Rae government or the first Harris victory in Ontario – do happen from time to time.
So; people who follow the conventional wisdom start at a serious disadvantage when governments change. People who build bridges – on an ongoing basis and as a matter of course – are positioned to enjoy effective working relationships with new governments, right from the get-go.
- The second reason to include members of the opposition in your government is that even
between elections, opposition members can influence the political
process and climate – in your favour, or against you.
Remember, opposition MPPs are elected officials too. Keeping them briefed helps them meet their responsibilities to their constituents.
The most highly publicized part of the opposition’s job is to attack, harass and – with any luck at all – to defeat the government (as we’ll discuss a little later in this paper, getting involved in that is very risky for any organization that needs working relationships with government). But beating – or beating up – the government, is not the opposition’s only job.
Each member of the opposition also represents a constituency. Opposition members sit on committees along with government members. Opposition critics – by the questions they ask, the comments they make, the knowledge they share – can influence Ministers’ decisions. And make no mistake: opposition members are going to form and voice opinions about the issues that concern you.
Do you want them doing so with or without the benefit of your knowledge and concerns? We think that’s obvious. And we think that helping an opposition member to explain the benefits your organization provides to his or her constituents is very much part of any reasonable government relations strategy.
- There’s a third reason to include the opposition in your government relations
planning: it’s a relatively efficient way to use your time and resources.
Opposition politicians have a tiny fraction of the staff and resources that Ministers enjoy. That means there are fewer people to screen their calls and make it hard for you to each them; it means they’re often more open to research and information from other sources – like your organization. And it means they may be more willing to fit you into their schedules.
Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal Critic for the area you are interested in are both very busy people, but it’s probably possible now to organize an hour or to talk to them. That will be a lot harder when and if Dalton McGuinty becomes Premier. Same goes for Howard Hampton and his people.
Any opposition party could be in the next government. Even if they’re not, all of them influence the political process and climate. And they’re reachable now. So we always advise our clients to reach out to the opposition benches as well as the government.
A Warning: building bridges to the opposition is not without its risks, so be clear about your objective before you begin
Repeat after me: “We almost never gain anything by cozying up to the opposition to “force” the government to do the things our organization wants done, because we almost never really have ‘nothing to lose’.”
There will times – very rare times – when the government is so committed to actions or policies that harm your interests that you really do have nothing to lose. But bear in mind: once the government perceives you as being “with the opposition”, your ability to influence government actions will go into a very, very steep decline. That’s why we refer to deliberate decisions to “join the opposition” as the “burn the cars scenario”.
Most of us know that so, unless we’re complete ideologues, we don’t set out to alienate the government. But it can happen by accident.
Beware the inadvertent, boomerang question.
It can happen all too easily when you make the (very common) mistake of telling the opposition too much – and especially of sharing your frustrations with the government-side politicos and the bureaucrats you’ve been dealing with. An alert opposition politician will often agree to “help” you highlight your issue by asking a question in the House.
That may seem like a good idea, but remember that, especially in the confines of the legislature, the opposition’s main focus will be on efforts to attack, harass, embarrass and discredit the Ministers on the road to – they hope – defeating the government. So, when your opposition “friend” gets up to ask the question, the objective will not be to demonstrate the justice of your cause; it will be to undermine the Minister’s credibility.
You may get a day or two of media coverage for your issue from the conflict in the House, but especially if the opposition member identifies your organization or uses information that obviously came from you, after the media (and the opposition) have moved onto the next story, the trust you worked so hard to build with the government will still be gone.
And that – in one form or another – is the risk that runs throughout all of your efforts to combine good working relationships with the government and clear bridges to the opposition: the risk is that you and your issue become “partisanized”. And you can’t even take it for granted that getting involved in this kind of controversy will build long term friendships with the opposition. Why would it?
Both government and opposition politicians will have seen that you’re prepared to “play politics”, so get ready for a steady diet of the posturing and attacks that pass for “political theatre” instead of the real trust, honest discussions about needs, and negotiations that lead to the maximum possible progress towards your goals.
The best strategy is approach the opposition is as non-partisan a way as possible
Don’t think Question Period. Don’t think hot issue.
Instead, building a long term set of relationships. Think Local MPP. Think Committee Member. Think participant in the party’s policies and election platforms. Think Background Briefing.
Your objective should be to provide members of the opposition with the information they will need to understand your issues (preferably from your point of view), to understand how your organization benefits the community and to demonstrate that you do have the public interest at heart.
Every opposition member is also an MPP. Having a representative of your organization who lives in his or her riding make the contact and offer to keep the Member briefed is a very sound strategy.
Opposition MPPs sit on Committees, and they have access to less research support than people on the Government side. Helping them to understand your views on issues that will be coming before the Committee helps them do their jobs, and they’ll be grateful.
The Opposition Critics for the various areas of government often play a lead role in the developing the Parties’ policies in those areas. Arranging for a background meeting with them at which you talk about your long term objectives and the long term contributions you can make to the public interest and answer any questions they may have will not only help make sure they come up with policies you can live with; it can also build the foundations for an ongoing relationship.
A special current thought: all of the Ontario Opposition parties issue election platforms and this year they have already published much of their platforms in expectation of a May election. If the election is delayed, you have an opportunity to provide information to the Liberals and New Democrats will be revisiting their published election platforms. This offers a second opportunity to have your issues included in the election promises.
Some Questions to Consider
At Leonard Domino & Associates, we encourage our clients to ask – and to answer – some pointed questions in every aspect of their government relations, including their strategies for building bridges to the opposition.
Here are some of the questions you might find useful. And after you’ve asked them - perhaps we should talk because – especially with elections on the horizon – getting the opposition part of government relations can turn out to be very, very important.
Question One: Do we know which opposition members we should be talking to:
- Who are the opposition critics for our issue areas?
- Are there members from constituencies where our organization has a significant presence or where some of our leading members live?
- Who are the opposition members on the committees that will be dealing with “our” issues?
- Have any opposition members already displayed an interest in our issues?
Deciding who to talk to is a pretty reasonable first step.
Question Two: Who in our organization are the right people to contact the opposition?
- A good way to avoid becoming “partisanized” is to have different people deal with the opposition than the government – people who live in their ridings or who have prior relationships with them rather than your main government relations people.
Question Three: Do we know what information the people in opposition might like to have?
- It’s a golden rule when Leonard Domino clients approach the government: listen and learn before we start to talk. If we know what the people we’re negotiating with need to achieve and what they need to know, then we can decide what we can usefully say. The same rule applies to our contacts with the opposition: “Are you familiar with (what we do, say, care about, etc.) and is there any information you’d like to have?” is a reasonable way to start building positive, long term relationships.
Question Four: Are there particular partisan issues between the opposition and government members who are most relevant to our issues?
- Some Ministers and Critics develop a serious personal dislike for one another – and that changes the landscape. Do the people involved in our issues have a partisan “hate-on” for each other? Knowing that can help avoid an inadvertent conflict.
If there is partisan heat at the critic/minister level, are there other points of reasonable contact – local MPPs, committee members, etc.?
We’re always interested to find that as elections approach organizations suddenly discover the opposition.
We try to persuade our clients to build bridges to the other parties right from the get-go, and we’ve done a lot of thinking about how to manage relationships with both the government and the opposition as key parts of the shifting political landscape.