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Documents expose Harper's obsession with control

Posted by [email protected] on March 11, 2014 at 8:15 PM

Documents expose Harper'sobsession with control

The government of Stephen Harper is taking extremesteps to control all federal events, a process that has blurred thetime-honoured separation of non-partisan public servants and that officials andpublic-policy analysts say is undermining democracy

March 7, 2014 at 8:06pm, Written by: Evee Kameya


OTTAWA—An MP’s Sunday afternoon visit to a seniors’ home. The federalpurchase of powerful new military aircraft. A journalism student’s innocuousquery about Africa.

One thing connects them all — the Conservative government scripted eachevent using a potent but little-known communication tool called the MessageEvent Proposal.

The Canadian Press has obtained almost 1,000 pages of MEPs from severalgovernment departments, including the Privy Council Office, under the Accessto Information Act. The PCO, the bureaucratic nerve centre of Ottawa, has beenconscripted by an increasingly powerful Prime Minister’s Office to vet requestsfor public events across the federal government.

The MEPs have blurred the time-honoured separation of non-partisan publicservants and political staffers and sidelined seasoned governmentcommunicators, sapping morale across the civil service.

They have become the political tool for literally putting words in themouths of cabinet ministers, federal bureaucrats, low-profile MPs on thebarbecue circuit, and seasoned diplomats abroad.

“Your authorization is sought for President Greenhill to respond toquestions ... during the press conference,” reads one MEP prepared by theCanadian International Development Agency asking the PCO to allow itsthen-president, Robert Greenhill, to speak at a high-level United Nationspanel.

The MEP is the crucial communication instrument for a minority governmentthat values staying on message above all else — a transformation that federalofficials and public-policy analysts say is undermining democracy.

While all governments try to control the message, the ambitious sweep ofMEPs is unprecedented in federal politics. Critics say it contradicts the corecampaign promise that brought Prime Minister Stephen Harper to power —introducing a new era of transparency and accountability in government.

“We discussed every single issue and micromanaged every news release —everything,” said one former Harper-era PCO official.

“Pretty much any event, or any rollout of an announcement, would have an MEPthat would lay out the strategy.”

The identities of senior sources who have worked at PCO and otherdepartments are not being revealed because they fear retribution from theirpolitical masters.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on this story.

Political scientist Jonathan Rose of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.,says the MEP is worrisome because it erases the traditional line separatingpublic servants and politicians.

“You’ve got bureaucrats who are doing the government’s partisan work andalso political staffers who are doing bureaucrats’ work. So there’s this hugeblurring of lines between the two.”

A review of hundreds of MEPs spanning several years reveals the vast sweepof control exerted by the Harper government. They have been used to orchestratealmost everything from the rollout of billion-dollar purchases of militaryaircraft to the donation of a few thousand dollars to a community group.

An MEP template typically includes the following subtitles: Event, Eventtype, Desired headline, Key messages, Media lines, Strategic objectives,Desired soundbite, Ideal speaking backdrop, Ideal event photograph,Tone, Attire, Rollout materials, Background, and Strategic considerations.

Senior government sources have detailed how these documents are shuffledback and forth between public servants and their political masters beforereaching the PMO.

Public servants in various federal departments begin the time-consuming processby completing the template to request an event or other communication. The MEPthen crosses into the political realm, where it’s vetted by a minister’soffice.

Then, it once again crosses lines, back to the public service, where it’sreviewed by the PCO. Harper’s office — the ultimate political authority — hasthe finalsay.

In some cases, MEPs for routine events — spending announcements in particular— have often been quickly approved. But in most cases, Harper’s office is whereMEPs go to die with no explanation, sources say.

Myriam Massabki, the official PCO spokeswoman, said federal policy dictates“a requirement to plan and co-ordinate communications and this (the MEP) is atool for that.”

She played down the notion that public servants are doing the bidding oftheir political masters.

“It’s in the role of PCO to consult PMO. Not only in communication, but inpolicy.”

The MEPs themselves show that events that do occur are heavily scripted.

The July 15, 2007, announcement of $12,360 for a retirement centre inEdmonton was approved by PCO for its “friendly and celebratory” tone that wouldhelp MP Laurie Hawn “highlight Canada’s New Government’s contribution tohelping seniors,” says the event’s MEP.

An August 2008 MEP envisioned Defence Minister Peter MacKay and then PublicWorks Minister Christian Paradis standing on the back ramp of a Chinookhelicopter as the “ideal event photograph” for the rollout of new militarycopters and drones — a “proactive opportunity” to highlight the federalgovernment’s commitment to provide life-saving equipment to the CanadianForces.

A 2008 request from an Ottawa journalism student for an interview with CIDA onits Canada Fund for Africa generated a detailed two-page MEP — even thoughthere was only “remote potential for sale of the article to a Canadian magazineor weekend feature section of a national daily.”

The Conservative government’s message control is “putting the shackles oneveryone,” said John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Allianceof Canada.

“I’ve been around for a long time,” said Gordon, who joined the publicservice in 1974. “Governments come and go, and this type of thing takes place.But I’ve never seen it as closed as this.”

Rose sees the MEP process as a “pre-emptive strike” by the Prime Minister’sOffice on all federal communications.

“In other words, the political wing of government needs to have control overwhat is said prior to it being said. I think that’s not good for democracy.”

The stringent handling of issues and messaging has resulted in lessreflective policy-making that’s not as sensitive to different voices and what’sactually going on in society, said David Brown, a senior associate at theOttawa-based Public Policy Forum.

“In the end, you risk fracturing society rather than uniting it. In thatsense, I would say these are not healthy developments,” said Brown, who workedin several federal departments including the Privy Council Office.

If a department wants to make a public announcement, respond to a question,announce a spending initiative or hold virtually any public event, then an MEPis prepared to make the case to PCO as to why the event should be allowed totake place.

“Anybody that could still think for themselves realized what the objectivewas here — control. It’s hyper-extreme control, complete with threats andeverything else,” said another senior official, who has also worked at the PCO.

“It wasn’t like a benign dictatorship the way it was under Chretien — theywere a pain in the ass too, but nothing like this.”

The Conservatives’ unwaveringly tight grip is part of a global trend inwestern democracies, said David Zussman, a senior PCO member during JeanChretien’s time as prime minister.

“There’s no question we’ve witnessed quite a change in the centralization ofdecision-making,” said Zussman, who now teaches public management at theUniversity of Ottawa.

“So all of the functions that you normally associate with cabinet work andcommunications and policy-making are different now than they were underprevious governments.”

In virtually all cases, the strategic benefit to the government’s overallagenda is carefully weighed in the requests.

The strategic objective behind a March 2008 announcement of $2.3 million toestablish a new research chair at Laval University in Quebec City bythen-industry minister Jim Prentice was to “showcase” the government’scommitment to science and technology.

“Our government is committed to attract, support and retain the best andbrightest minds to lead in cutting edge initiatives,” was the desired mediasoundbite.

MEPs were used to get out in front of negative stories, from a devastatingfire at a Quebec military armoury to dirty drinking water on native reserves.

At times the level of detail borders on the comical.

An MEP for a June 2008 announcement in Saint John, N.B., on a newair-quality health index envisioned, “The Minister/MP flanked by a group ofvolunteer runners wearing colour-coded numbered shirts which demonstrate thedifferent numerical levels” of the index.

Sometimes the MEPs work just as planned. When then-environment minister JohnBaird announced $677,000 in funding at a Bird Studies Canada announcement in June2008, the organization’s BirdLife International newsletter featured thehoped-for photo of the smiling minister with the organization’s president andlocal Tory MP Diane Finley.

But sometimes the intended message never registers at all.

A finely honed plan for a July 2008 announcement in Orillia, Ont., by twocabinet ministers on cleaning up Lake Simcoe resulted in barely a ripple ofpublicity.

The MEP is also a reactive tool to track and analyze the wide array ofrequests for information that pour into government departments on a dailybasis. When a journalist seeks an interview with a department official — oreven a background briefing that would not identify the official by name — therequest is almost always cleared by the PCO.

All major news organizations, including the three major televisionbroadcasters, The Canadian Press, newspapers such as the Globe and Mail,the Toronto Star, and the Canwest chain have had requests forinformation dissected by individual MEPs.

The names of individual journalists were generally stripped from thedocuments, but not always. A request to CIDA by Maclean’s magazinewriter Michael Petrou generated three pages of talking points to help him craftan “informative” article on Haiti.

Wow, there isn’t much to even say about this, if this is thekind of PM you want in Canada, than I can see why things are heading the waythey are. No one is fighting hard enough to get rid of this PM, he’s adictator... We don’t need this guy in our country, send him to Russia, orbetter yet China since he loves them so much. Get rid of this guy, and make himdrink the water he’s poisoning. Let’s see how he feels about the water supplyif he’s drinking it too. I wonder why he doesn’t show people he really believesthat the water is fine by drinking it in front of CBC...

Remember WE are the GAPP between them and power!

Written by: Evee Kameya

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