It’s not what you say…it’s how you say it

Do you know why some politicians are known simply as Raj or Alison while others are known as Mr Harper or, in a fit of frustration…Stephen Harper?  Bear with me and I’ll tell you.

This weekend I met Raj Sherman, the ER doctor, former Tory MLA and leader of the Liberal party at the Liberal AGM.  Raj had just finished his “support me as leader” speech and was working his way through the crowd.  We chatted briefly and, like many in the crowd, I was impressed.

Raj’s “support me” speech was sincere, pragmatic and self deprecating—he characterized his 118 vote margin in Edmonton Meadowlark as a “landslide victory”.  He was gracious, thanking the incumbent MLAs and all of the candidates who’d run and offered a personal apology to anyone he may have let down along the way.  He emphasized the hard work that lay ahead in order to rebuild the party from the ground up.

The speech hit all the right notes and was brief to boot.  Brevity is a welcome thing when you’re grinding through the administrative minutia of an AGM.  It wasn’t so much what Raj said but how he said it that was so engaging.  He was energetic, sincere and focused.  He mixed in elements of humour and humility.  He connected with the audience.

Raj was a little nervous about the leadership vote but he and his team came well prepared.  Buttons and pamphlets entitled Support Raj Vote NO were scattered on the tables.  This was wise given that the leadership vote is stated in the negative (rather like “yes we have no bananas”) so a vote in favour of Raj’s continued leadership required the voter to circle NO, not YES, on the ballot.  The fact that Raj found a way to convey the need for a negative vote to produce a positive outcome demonstrates he understands how voters think.

Raj was endorsed with a 94% vote in support of his leadership.  Admittedly the 250 to 300 votes cast is a fraction of the total Liberal party membership, however, these people cared enough about the vote to travel from all over the province to attend the AGM.  If they wanted Raj out, he’d be out.

True to form, Raj was not afraid to show some surprise at the overwhelming vote of confidence.  He admitted to being speechless and made comments about a grown man blushing.  He then moved to the heart of the matter—the Liberal party was facing a long hard road, the going would be tough, but the party had to rebuild from the ground up.  Raj would be there every step of the way.  If someone wanted to invite him to meet their friends, he’d come—as long as he was given some food and a place to stay.

And you know what, I believe him.

Which brings me back to the question:  why are some politicians referred to by their first names?  Because the voters “…feel that the candidate speaks to them and is in touch with their personal concerns.” *Raj understands the critical need to connect with the voters, to live by the Warren Beattymantra “People forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel”.*  

So far we’ve seen the energetic, charismatic, sometimes all-over-the-map politician.  Now that the Liberal party has validated Raj as its leader we can expect to see a leader who’s prepared to push his agenda a little harder, to be more shrewd and more focused when grappling with those other “first name” politicians, Alison and Danielle.

If this comes to pass the Liberals will have finally found the right combination of conviction, compassion and charisma to make some real inroads in Alberta’s political landscape.  Over to you Raj.

*Words that Work, by Dr Frank Luntz, p 82. 

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15 Responses to It’s not what you say…it’s how you say it

    I also attended the Liberal event on Saturday, in part as a learning experience and in part as “chauffeur”. Your commentary on Raj reflected my views; he was very modest, he really believes in the Alberta Liberal policies, and he is willing to make every effort to convince people that this party can and will lead the province. Your introductory comments about how you say it as compared to what you say may be accurate in many instances, but I do not think such a statement accurately captures the challenge the Alberta Liberal Party faces. We can agree that Raj did a fine job on Saturday, but everyone, including Raj, did not admit to recognizing or acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room…there seems to be an visceral dislike of Liberals in Alberta. Therefore, I would suggest that we need to address what people hear (rightly or wrongly) rather than worry about how we say something.

    Many people trace such a “Liberal” dislike back to the days of the federal Liberal National Energy Program of the 1980’s. I am not sure how many present day Albertans were impacted by those decisions 30 years ago. In looking at the 2011 Federal census, there were about 3.6 million people residing in Alberta and 32.4% of them were under the age of 25. I would assume that since the 1980’s, there has been quite a lot of in-migration of people as well to make up our additional 1.4 million Albertans since 1981. Therefore, many present day Albertans were either not yet born or did not live here during the “troubles”. The rest of us that lived through those times perhaps need to grow up, move on and address issues of today with the logic of today, and not dredge up some historical rant.

    So, how do we address this elephant?

    • Dear Mr Soapbox, we both know that I’m terrible at math, but if I understand your numbers correctly you’re saying that more than 50% of Albertans have no idea what the National Energy Program (NEP) was all about. So here’s my question, if this is the case why are the Liberals still worried about it. I can think of a number of reasons: (1) the 50% of Albertans who vote are the older generation who still remember the NEP, (2) new Albertans are biased toward the PCs or (3) the NEP is simply an excuse for the Liberals’ inability to break the PC strangle hold, In any case, it’s time for the Liberals to stop worrying about the NEP factor and start focusing on building the party from scratch. It’s time to move ahead and, as you so eloquently put it. “move on and address the issues of today with the logic of today”.
      PS thanks for being my chauffeur!

  2. Susan:
    Peter Lougheed, the best premier Alberta has ever had, unfailingly refers to politicians as “Mr. Harper”, ” Mr. Rae”, “Mr Sherman”, ” Ms Redford” etc. I think he has fundamental belief that the dignity of the office of elected politicans must be respected, and the first signal of that is in how we address them. In these days of meanspirited rhetoric and personal attacks, Mr Lougheed has a lot to teach and inspire our politicians.

    • Sheila, I agree. Politicians show a tremendous lack of respect for each other. I used to think this was the result of the decision to televise the proceedings but it goes deeper than that. Party discipline is such a powerful mechanism that it takes a very special politician to risk voting against his party. In the case of extreme party discipline (Mr Harper springs to mind) there’s no room for a free vote. Without a free vote there’s no need for reasoned debate because the purpose of debate is the possibility that a skillful orator might persuade a member on the other side of the house to change his vote.

      So what’s left? Cat calls and grandstanding for the media. No wonder many voters think that a minority government is the right (albeit less efficient) way to go.

  3. Jill Browne says:

    Thanks for the insight and your comments about the Liberal leader, Susan. I also appreciate your (?) “chaffeur’s” comments and those of Sheila O’Brien.

    I will have to start watching the names people call each other, and see what my own practices are. Words are important, and that extends to names.

    • Jill, Dr Luntz is of the view that a a politician should hope that he’s known by his first name because this is a signal that he’s likeable and able to connect on a personal level with the voters. Apparently likeability is a key factor in getting elected. I haven’t done any research on this but would hope that the other key factor is having a principled approach to the issues at hand!

  4. roy wright says:

    I originally attempted to do the math, but ran into demographic “issues” such as how many people died, how many people migrated out versus how many migrated in etc. which would require more research. I would suggest we could be looking at 1/3 to 1/2 of our population not having firsthand experience with the NEP in our province.

    However, I do think we need to address this albatross. The situation reminds me of listening to some Europeans complaining about some other country “invading” their homeland 500 years ago, and still carrying that grudge today, which makes it difficult to move past those old grievances. Such behaviour now becomes part of the culture and it seems to be passed on from generation to generation. Therefore we need to address the issue, break the train of thought from the 1980’s and then we can indeed move into the logic of today…but I am not sure how to undertake such an endeavour…yours truly…”junior soapbox…in training”

  5. Dear Junior Soapbox…I think I see where you’re going. You’re looking for an explanation for the generational bias in favour of the PCs. I too don’t know how to address this problem except to suggest that we try tough love. Tell the voters to get over it and take a fresh look at what the Liberals (or the NDP, AP or any other party) have to offer. Not very diplomatic but it’s worth a shot.

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    Interesting that you find Raj Sherman a charismatic politician because I personally do not. I have been at a couple of his presentations on Health Care and although I believe he is right on the issue of emergency rooms, the rest of it was more of one of those ‘ I have lots of money and I can solve anything type presentation’.

    In my opinion the NEP has become part of our culture because it has been used over and over as an excuse of bad management in Alberta. Everytime we have a deficit or difficult financial problem the NEP is there to explain the billions of dollars the federal govenment took from us. In the meantime billions are donated to big oil companies every years in royalties that do not exist and that does not bother anyone at all. It is alright to give to foreign private companies but God forbid doing the same to our own Federal Government to be distributed to have not provinces. Every single premier has used the NEP excuse to justify incompetence. The NEP may have not been good policy but Alberta premiers, in my view, have damaged our own finances way more than the NEP.

    • Carlos, I’ve been thinking about your comment that apparently it’s OK to give billions of dollars in uncollected royalties to corporations but not OK to give money to the federal government to be redistributed to the have-not provinces. Although I haven’t fully landed on my position on this, I think Albertans need to think about whether they are Albertans first and Canadians second or vice versa. If they’re Albertans first then they will fight any suggestion that they share the wealth with the rest of Canada. If they’re Canadians first, they may be more amenable to finding an equitable form of redistribution. It’s a sticky proposition that requires more thought but I don’t think we can firewall ourselves within Alberta’s boundaries and ignore the rest of Canada…like I said, I need to think about this some more.

      Thanks for your comments Carlos, thought provoking as always.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Your comment was very interesting to me. Even if one chooses to be an Albertan first, I would never put the interests of a corporation before the interests of Canada or my fellow Canadians. Especially when it is quite obvious that the major corporations that operate in Alberta are aware that they have it too good here. Not even banana republics allow this kind of contract. It is hard for me to understand that there is even a doubt of who to support in this situation.

      • Agreed. The role of government is to look after the public interest. Corporations can look after themselves.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    I attended the AGM as well and would echo Susan’s sentiments about Raj’s comments and enthusiasm.

    While door-knocking for David Swann during the campaign I was struck by the demographic of those opening the door – mostly young (20 -35’ish) and appreciative that anyone from a party had actually knocked on their door at all – and we had friendly chats as fellow Albertans. Many sheepishly acknowledged that they didn’t really know much about the parties or their platforms – some guilted themselves about that, and others expressed the “why bother” frustration.

    Only met with a few who raised the old NEP scare – and there was nothing that might have worked to have won them over – not a different “what was said” and not a different “how it was said” – they were simply locked into their storyline that they had probably been ranting about for 30 years – the silver lining was that there were so few of those responses, and so much possibility to capture the imagination of the other 95% opening the door.

    I think the NEP voices will, over the next few years, become fewer in number and less relevant in their impact. My sense would be that Liberals could better put their energies into connecting with those who don’t carry the NEP baggage, re-focusing the conversation on the present we live in and the future we want. Enough energy has already gone into battling the NEP boogyman for the past 30 years – I think most Albertans want to see the substance of what the different parties represent and, as Madame Soapbox has noted, they want to feel that candidates are genuinely concerned about the kind of community we are committed to creating – and that’s where Raj’s message and personal qualities ring with authenticity !

    There you go, Madame Soapbox, this man’s first-ever contribution to a blog online – and who’d of thought it would be yours ?

    • Great comment Bob (see how easy it is). I agree with your point that the party’s energy would be better spent focusing on the new voters instead of trying to convert the “NEP scare” voters who’d never vote Liberal in a million years. The big challenge is figuring out how to get these new voters engaged in the political process. As you point out far too many Albertans are in the “election? what election?” camp or the “why bother, it’s hopeless” camp. They’re busy with their lives and don’t see the relevance of politics. All of the political parties need to bring home the message that politics impacts all of us in every facet of our lives so we really should care about it. As a good friend of mine once said, “If you’re not at the table, you’ll soon be on the menu”.

      PS. I’m so glad that your first-ever contribution to a blog was to mine!

  8. Carlos Beca says:

    I totally agree with you Susan. Unfortunately the role of the government and of the corporations is one these days and the people are just a side effect of an economic system gone wacko. The separation of these two entities is going to be the next step of our democratic process just like the separation of church and state. If that does not happen then democracy will soon be irrelevant. There are already signs of that but the battle is not lost yet.

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