Imagine a Canada with open, responsive, representative governance…
This is where we stand now:
OTTAWA – Federal public servants were trying to understand the wholesale “harperization” of Government of Canada communications six months before a spokesman for the prime minister emphatically denied any change in policy or practice.
New documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act directly contradict published claims by Stephen Harper’s chief spokesman that bureaucrats have not been directed to replace the words Government of Canada with “Harper Government” in departmental news releases and backgrounders.
Top former civil servants say the wording change marks a disturbing new trend in the politicization of the bureaucracy — and breaches both communications policy and the civil service ethics policy.
Insiders say ongoing editing skirmishes continue between some government departments with strong leadership and the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy known as PCO that serves the prime minister.
Industry Canada took nearly nine months to deliver documents based on the access request, ignoring statutory deadlines for releasing the records. The Information Commissioner deemed a complaint by The Canadian Press about the delay to be well-founded, determining the department had refused to provide access under the Act.
The “deemed refusal” appears profoundly political, given the contents.
Industry Canada’s emails and edited releases from autumn 2010 make a mockery of Conservative government denials offered when The Canadian Press first published reports of the name-change orders last March.
“The directive we have from the (director general’s office) is that if PCO adds the Harper Government reference, then we leave it in,” says an email to communications officials at Industry, dated Oct. 5, 2010. “Please proceed with this approach. Sorry — it is what PCO has instructed.”
An editor responded: “Given this directive, and with mild distress, I have reinstalled the phrasing.”
“French release harperized and good to go,” quipped another.
Civil servants were clearly alarmed by the change in nomenclature as far back as late September 2010.
“‘Harper Government’ is not in line with the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, so I have modified it,” wrote a member of Industry Canada’s communications branch after PCO sent back an altered release.
“Please see Chris Fox to make sure we are actually adding ‘Harper Government’ to the release,” wrote another. “This is not appropriate language, in my opinion.”
“We understand that Harper Government will not be used by Editorial,” wrote yet another public servant at the time. “It has been requested of us by PCO, however.”
When the change in nomenclature was revealed last March, Harper’s chief spokesman at the time, Dimitri Soudas, wrote to Canadian newspapers asserting “no directive” went out to civil servants. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Harper’s spokesman declared.
Soudas, who has since left the PMO to become executive director of communications for the Canadian Olympic Association, also called the revelations by The Canadian Press the stuff of “black helicopters and conspiracy theories.”
Stockwell Day, then the Treasury Board president, told the House of Commons “there has been no change of policy or practice.”
Despite scores of pages of internal emails about the orders from several different departments, the PMO continues to maintain the enforced name-change didn’t happen.
“Dimitri’s comments from March stand,” Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s associate director of communications, said late Monday.
He noted Industry Canada’s website currently includes plenty of “Government of Canada” usages.
“As for the term ‘Harper Government”, as we’ve said many times, this has been long-standing practice across various governments,” MacDougall continued in an email. “This terminology is widely used by journalists and the public.”
Yet more than a year ago, on Oct. 22, 2010, an Industry public servant noted in writing that “as per our directive from PCO, I have left in the phrase ‘Harper Government.’”
Another editor further up the chain repeated the same caveat, word-for-word — “as per our directive from PCO” — in clearing the changes.
Why the ostensibly non-partisan Privy Council would undertake such a controversial change in communications policy, if not on directions from the prime minister, remains a mystery.
The Prime Minister’s Office has simply ignored for months repeated inquiries about the motivation for the shift in language.
Jonathan Rose, an expert in political communication at Queen’s University, suggests it’s a partisan branding exercise designed to “encourage a subtle shift to occur where the government of Canada is equated with a particular party or leader.”
“It allows for a more seamless connection between the neutral machinery of the state and the partisan interests of those in government,” said Rose.
Canadians should take note, he said.
“The public service is correctly asking questions, as there does not seem to be a clear policy rationale for neutral public servants to do the partisan bidding of a government,” said Rose.
On Sept. 30, 2010, a Privy Council official wrote he was “waiting to hear back from my friends next door,” when asked by Industry about editing changes that added “Harper Government” to a news release.
“My counterparts next door have requested a change to the headline (below),” the official responded soon after, above a “Harper Government” headline.
Others within government were also wondering where and why the change was being ordered.
An official with the Networks of Centres of Excellence, a research granting agency that deals with business, academic and not-for-profit organizations, sent an email to Industry’s communications group last December: “Is there an official policy change that now allows for changes such as Harper Government. I may need an official explanation for our partners.”
The communications official kicked the request up to Shannon Cassidy, a manager in public affairs and “ministerial services” at Industry.
“Did you ever get any rationale from PCO or anyone on this?” asked the official.
No response to the email was included in the Access to Information package.
There is still none to this day.
By Bruce Cheadle and Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
Canadians should be “seriously concerned” that they can no longer see the daily agenda of the prime minister or those of his MPs under the Access to Information Act according to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.
She spoke out Friday against a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that said such documents are not subject to the act, and called on the Conservatives to rewrite the law.
The ruling is a setback for freedom of information advocates and, according to Legault, stands to make use of the act more complicated and expensive.
“My investigations will be a lot more complex,” said Legault, whose office investigates complaints about the handling of information requests by federal bodies. “I anticipate it will lead to more litigation and that’s going to be more costly overall for access to information in Canada.”
Legault wants the act re-written to avoid arguments over the interpretation of Friday’s ruling.
“The easiest, the quickest, the cheapest way to fix this is to fix the legislation. And it should be fixed by clearly delineating what documents in ministerial offices are subject to the act,” she said on CTV’s Power Play.
Legault said she remains hopeful that the Tories will rewrite the law, despite their reputation for secrecy.
The unanimous ruling by the top court ends a case that dates back to the 1990s, when the commissioner at the time challenged the government’s refusal to disclose certain information about then-prime minister Jean Chretien and his defence and transport ministers — including the Chretien’s daily agenda, which is held by the RCMP and Privy Council Office.
The ruling said the question at issue was whether the information held by the RCMP and PCO about the prime minister’s agenda could be considered “personal information.” If so, it would be protected under the Access to Information Act.
“The parties agree that the Prime Minister’s agenda falls within the general definition of ‘personal information,’” the report stated.
However, the ruling stipulated that not all information about the prime minister and his cabinet can be kept secret. Any records that a senior staff member of a government institution could reasonable gain access to, and that relate to departmental business, should be accessible to the public.
“There is no presumption of inaccessibility for records in a minister’s office,” said the written decision by Justice Louise Charron.
But Legault says the conditions are too vague “and could lead to significant disagreements about interpretation” between her office and the government.
How to Get a Majority Government out of 60% of the Popular Vote
by Lynn McDonald (revised 29/03/2012)
WE ARE AT AN IMPASSE IN FEDERAL POLITICS: a majority Conservative government, rejected by 60.4% of Canadian voters, is pushing through its far-right agenda, measures it could not impose during its two previous minority governments.
On climate change, the Conservatives are both a menace in their encouragement of increased greenhouse gas emissions, and an embarrassment at United Nations meetings organized to deal with the crisis.
Just above 60% of voters choose a party other than the Conservative, but their votes are split among four parties. The obvious answer is proportional representation, which can be achieved by a simple Act of Parliament–it does not require a Constitutional amendment. The first step then is the election of a non-Conservative majority committed to bringing in proportional representation promptly on election in 2015.
An electoral alliance among the non-Conservative parties is the best and safest means of proceeding. An analysis of previous elections and recent polling data shows that an alliance has a better chance than strategic voting or a merger (see Stuart Parker, “The Logistics of Cooperation,” online atwww.scribd.com/doc/81898517/The-Logistics-of-Cooperation-final)
That paper judges the proposal by NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen to have “the capacity to deliver a victory for progressive forces in 2015.” It also gives examples of successful electoral alliances in the past, in British Columbia by the centre-right in the 1940s, and in France by the centre-left in the 1997 election.
Opinions are divided as to whether an electoral alliance should include the Bloc Québécois, an issue not to be pursued here. Practically, there are only five Conservative seats in Québec, of which four have weak margins.
A Common Manifesto for 2015
The top two components of a common manifesto for 2015 would be proportional representation and action on climate change. For both there is more than adequate background material to be ready to move. MORE
Oh Canada: The Government’s Broad Assault on Environment
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been weakening Canada’s environmental regulations and slashing funds for oversight and research — all while promoting aggressive resource development. Critics warn these unprecedented actions pose a major threat to the nation’s vast natural heritage. HERE