#onpoli newsletter - LIVE: Divide and conquer

Is the 'wedge issue' a necessary campaign tool?
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Oct 15, 2019
Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath rehearsing with their #onpoli panelists.



Hello, #onpoli people,

In the immortal words of an angry Bill O’Reilly, “We’ll do it live!” And that’s just what we did. The #onpoli podcast had its first-ever live recording at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in downtown Toronto.

We weren’t sure how many people would come out to watch an hour-plus conversation about politics in a dark theatre on a balmy fall Sunday. But we got our answer: it was a packed room with a mix of ages, young and old. You could feel the energy on the stage from the audience. There were some laughs and a few raucous applause lines. Thanks to everyone who came out!

The focus of the conversation? How campaigns purposely divide Canadians by using wedge issues, which include polarizing topics ranging from immigration and abortion to crime and the role of government. One infamous example many of you may remember is the federal Conservative party’s proposal during the 2015 election for a hotline to report barbaric cultural practices to the RCMP.

We heard from three political insiders well-versed in the dark art of the wedge issue: Scott Reid, a former communications director to Paul Martin; Sara MacIntyre, former press secretary to Stephen Harper; and former NDP strategist Kiavash Najafi, who has worked with party leaders Tom Mulcair and Jack Layton.

Two men smile for the camera.
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin and Scott Reid (Photo: Twitter/Scott Reid) 

The why of the wedge

According to Najafi, the purpose of a wedge issue is to break up a coalition of voters within a party on specific topics.

“If you can anger your opponent’s supporters, if you can divide them and get them to not believe in the authenticity of the leadership of the party they belong in, that’s when you’ve really managed to wedge them,” he said.

“A wedge issue doesn’t have to be negative,” added Reid. He reflected on the most effective wedge issue he was involved in during Martin’s campaign in 2004: health care. Which, he wryly said, he considered to be a “good thing.”

Reid said they recognized two things in that campaign. Ralph Klein, Alberta’s Conservative premier at the time, was talking tough about two-tier health care and the numbers showed that federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper was not trusted to be a guardian of medicare. For five days in a row they hammered away at this association and eventually, Reid said, were able to “bleed his support.”

“One of the things that’s awful about getting wedged is that it often puts you in the position where you have to defend territory … that is not in keeping with majority public opinion,” he said. Most Canadians of, course, were staunchly in favour of Canada’s public health care system.

A necessary campaign tool?

“Can you run a modern campaign without a wedge issue?” asked co-host John Michael McGrath.

“Well, I mean, you can. You probably just won’t win,” said MacIntyre, to some laughter from the audience.

“Look, you have got to motivate your base. You have got to define a space that defines you as a party, as a leader.”

Steve Paikin created a murmur of anticipation in the audience when he posed a pointed question to the panel:

“Is winning an election in an ugly way through wedge issues — which years down the road people may say, ‘My goodness, that was disgusting’ — is that better than losing?”

You can listen to their answers and the full episode here.

What do you think about our wedge issues discussion? Write to us at onpolitics@tvo.org and let us know.

#onpoli producer

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