Fear and loathing in Ottawa [Intimidation of Gov’t. critics]
TheStar.com – news/insight
Published On Sat Jan 15 2011. Linda Diebel, National Affairs Writer
Listening to the voice at the other end of the phone line, I have only one question: “Okay, who are you and what have you done with Heather MacIvor?”
University of Windsor political scientist MacIvor is pulling her punches. Asked about Stephen Harper’s style, she describes “an unusually unforthcoming government.” Previously, she’s criticized the PM’s “quite remarkable” degree of control and secrecy, with the same blunt, take-no-prisoners approach she adopts for politicians of all stripes. One imagines her as the kid about whom parents complain with barely disguised pride, “Such a mouth on that girl!”
Instead, this time, MacIvor says she’s “become self-censoring on the subject of the Conservatives. Life is too short for so much stress.”
She expects to take lumps for her political opinions. What’s changed with this government is that she says she’s portrayed as “an enemy of the party” and “fair game” for vicious, personal attacks, which fill her inbox.
“I should be able to speak my mind on political issues, but I’ve found members of the Conservative party seem to be more sensitive to criticism than other parties,” she says. “They make it very personal.”
It’s no secret Harper runs a tight ship with little room for dissension. In the months leading up to his first minority government’s five-year anniversary on Feb. 6, I interviewed about 30 politicians, public servants, consultants and academics about his style and brand on Parliament. Some requested anonymity because they fear repercussions.
For the most part, what emerged is a portrait of a highly intelligent, skilled and super-partisan politician whose style has created a mood of fear and loathing on Parliament Hill. He hasn’t shied away from stoking an “us versus them” dynamic in the country. Critics use words like “control freak” and “mean-spirited.”
To his admirers, this very toughness is the hallmark of a successful politician. Ottawa consultant Geoff Norquay says Harper came in after a Paul Martin Liberal government that had “58 top priorities” and tightened up. He got rid of the weekly “blather” to the media by government politicians after their Wednesday morning caucus meetings.
“Like all extremely focused and capable people, he’s rigorous and tough-minded and demands the same from people around him,” says Norquay. Harper believes there’s nothing more destructive than scuttlebutt about a pending decision and takes the view: “When I have something to announce, I will come out and tell you.”
Still, accounts of intimidation are more numerous. MacIvor’s experience suggests an escalation of a war against anyone who is seen as critical of Harper and his government. That apparently includes an academic far from Parliament Hill, whose job requires her to comment on political issues.
“It’s approaching a state in which people are paralyzed by fear,” says political scientist Henry Jacek. “I’m talking about civil servants, MPs, cabinet ministers — they all have to be careful. They’re all expected to read from the same script.”
Jacek, who teaches at McMaster University and runs the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme at Queen’s Park, says politicians confide in him. “MPs and cabinet ministers resent having to read from that script. I’ve had members of Parliament tell me they’ve come to hate public meetings, even in their own ridings, because they can’t be spontaneous. They are resentful.”
He believes it’s a “very dangerous environment” for Harper because it’s difficult to maintain that kind of control indefinitely. “It wears thin and runs the risk of collapsing from the inside.”
Examples of what critics see as Harper’s “my way or the highway” control include the firings of a long list of government watchdogs who are supposedly independent of interference, among them Linda Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Funding has been slashed for human rights, women’s and aboriginal groups that have incurred the disfavour of the government.
Before he died in 2007, former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer warned Harper that he threatened even the independence of the judiciary by telling the Commons he expected judges to follow his “law and order” agenda.
Not only bureaucratic bigwigs feel the heat.
Wesley Wark, a respected expert on national security and University of Toronto professor, says “this whole ethos of tight information control has a trickle-down effect” which hurts younger and more junior civil servants the most. They’re fresh and eager to contribute, but find themselves “running into a wall of information control” when they try.
“Because they’re relatively new, they have to be careful and they’re not always able to read the tea leaves,” he says. “It affects morale because they’re always looking over their shoulders — ‘Have I said too much? Have I said too little?’ — and, to some degree, it will probably hurt the government’s desire to renew the civil servants as the baby boom generation retires.
“It has a stifling effect that gathers momentum the further it works its way down in the system,” Wark adds.
Comments one Ottawa veteran: “I’ve been a consultant for (more than 20 years) and I’ve never seen a climate of fear like there is now. People are frightened out of their wits . . . To tell you the truth, it’s goddamned scary.”
Wark stresses there has always been suspicion between the political apparatus in office and the permanent civil service. “But my sense now is that those tensions are worse. (They) have become synonymous with the Harper government.”
He points to “overweening” information control and cites a recent British study on the functioning of Freedom of Information laws that rates Canada — once the model of a good system — last among five parliamentary democracies.
“It’s impossible to fight, certainly from the perspective of the public service since they legally serve the government of the day,” says Wark. “But frankly, it’s illegal to even attempt to stop the release of information.”
After almost five years, it appears to be as much an issue of people anticipating what they think Harper wants as what he may actually want — a not uncommon characteristic in any strict, top-down organization. Once expectations are in place, the machine hums along by itself.
Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet under prime minister Jean Chrétien from 1999 to 2003, is president of the Institute for Research in Public Policy. During the 2008 election hiatus, Cappe invited public servants to participate in a closed-door symposium.
“They chose not to participate,” he says, adding that, under previous governments, public servants routinely have taken part in such events. Cappe says no major policy decisions or expenditures are allowed during the “caretaker” period of an election campaign.
However, he says “the non-partisan, professional public service is expected to explain and learn” at such closed-door events. “That’s what you want public servants to do.”
Instead, there’s self-censorhip or, as Cappe puts it: “The centralization and control of people has led to a chill and the very chill manifests itself in people constraining themselves . . . To impose constraints through fear is the worst of all worlds. It’s most insidious.”
Toronto Liberal Derek Lee felt the full force of retribution. Last spring, the Scarborough-Rouge River MP helped organize parliamentary actions that eventually led to the restricted release of files to a parliamentary committee on the treatment of Afghan prisoners. Shortly thereafter, Lee says he was “bushwhacked in Question Period, where I had no chance to defend myself.”
Then Transport Minister John Baird accused him of being a lobbyist for the Toronto law firm Sun and Partners, citing a description on the firm’s own website. Official complaints were made both to Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd and Mary Dawson, commissioner of ethics and conflict of interest.
Lee acknowledged being legal counsel to a law firm “like several other parliamentarians,” but denied — then as now — having been a lobbyist. He had the offending online description excised because “it was wrong.”
Both federal commissioners cleared him in writing of any breach of the rules.
Lee says he didn’t publicize those decisions because he “just wanted to move on. It was clearly retribution against me. Pure vengeance. I was targeted and it was a very creepy, lousy, cheap thing to do.”
Asked about the allegation, Dimitri Soudas, PMO communications director, sent an email citing the now deleted online reference to Lee as a lobbyist. He wrote that Liberals “circled the wagons” to protect Lee . . . When it comes to protecting the Ignatieff Liberal interests, they’re not in it for Canadians, they’re just in it for themselves.”
Calgary-based strategist Rick Anderson, as plugged in as any analyst, doesn’t buy the Harper-as-bully theory. “This idea there is personal retribution and an enemies list is significantly overdone,” he says. “It’s not unusual for a public servant who criticizes the government of the day (to be fired), and it’s perfectly healthy for the government to review funding to organizations to better align with their own policies.”
Gerry Nicholls, consultant, blogger and author (Loyal to the Core: Stephen Harper, Me and the NCC) also praises the PM’s style. “There are two emotions that work in politics — hate and fear. It’s halfway to winning. Do the Conservatives use them? Yes, they do. But so did the Liberals. Everybody uses the politics of fear.”
Moreover, he argues: “Harper never does anything off the cuff; it’s always carefully calculated. The media is always focusing on asking, ‘Is Harper mean?’ when the real story is his tactical skill . . . and the worst thing any opponent can give him is time.”
Still, time is exactly what Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, among others, has been giving Harper. There’s certainly been ample time to get Harper’s number. Ottawa journalist and author Lawrence Martin even contributed a book, Harperland, to the debate, giving it the subtitle The Politics of Control.
It is worth underscoring that Harper can operate a minority government like a majority only with the help, however unintended, of his opponents. Their odd tactics make one think that Liberal members of the Official Opposition do not start each morning asking themselves — as they should — how they could be outsmarted that day by Harper.
Take the climate bill, for instance. Last fall, the environmental bill passed in the Commons, approved by all but the Conservatives, only to be defeated in the Senate.
Arguably, the bill would have been rejected eventually by the Conservative Senate majority. But Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin was gobsmacked to watch Liberal Grant Mitchell unnecessarily force the vote when it was clear it would fail. She was later bemused to hear Liberals complain about lack of democracy in the Senate. “He demanded the vote. There were not orders from Harper . . . Very strange.”
Jacek argues that Ignatieff “doesn’t have an understanding of how to work the system,” and therefore allows Harper to get away with too much.
Asked about Liberal tactics, caucus member Lee responds: “We generally go into things being nice and we’re not used to being elbowed in the corners. There’s a reluctance to get down in the mud.”
It’s frustrating, he adds. “I think the hope is that it will all go away . . . Maybe we are being naïve.”
Few are being naïve these days. Even associations are watching their step. Here, critics absolutely won’t go on record, but they grumble about one association (representing thousands of members) that was told to pump up a letter of congratulations for a new minister into a wildly glowing tribute – and did so.
“Okay, sure, Ottawa has always been the land of quid pro quo,” says a savvy operative. “The difference is the heavy-handedness. It’s brutal, nothing subtle about it.”
Anderson, while rebutting the revenge premise, accepts there have been “one or two times when the government was particularly partisan, and that makes it credible for them to be accused of partisanship in other areas.” He points to the attempt to eliminate federal subsidies to political parties in November 2008, a move seen as an effort to “bankrupt the Liberal party” and “cripple the opposition.” It was slipped into the fiscal plan and led to rebellion, a coalition against Harper and a prorogation crisis. The Conservatives dropped the idea.
Amid stories that circulate about the Harper temper and how he berates employees is the theme that he doesn’t let himself off easily either.
A colleague notes he was particularly hard on himself in an in-house review for ignoring vote-rich Ontario for the comfort of Alberta in the last days of the 2004 campaign, which gave Paul Martin a last kick at the can with a Liberal minority.
Toronto-bashing surely falls into the poor judgment category, at least Baird’s lambasting last year of “Toronto elites” who opposed the abolition of the long-gun registry.
Ottawa consultant Walter Robinson, a former Conservative candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean and a Toronto native, joked at the time that his hometown is a city for “the young and the rich and the trapped.”
But he said in a telephone interview of the “Toronto elites” line: “I don’t believe you will hear that phrase again.”
He’s right, especially with an election looming and Conservatives actively wooing the GTA and Toronto. Harper spent Jan. 13 at several events in the Toronto area, flanked at various times by his heaviest hitters, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
It’s time to prepare for the Harper who sings Beatles songs, pats his stomach over holiday meals and invites his wife, Laureen, to take part in his year-end CTV interview.
The age of the warm and cuddly Harper appears to be upon us. It’s up to voters to decide if they’re buying.
Beheaded/left under duress
Adrian Measner: Dec., 2006, Canadian Wheat Board president fired.
Bernard Shapiro: Mar., 2007, federal ethics commissioner resigns
Linda Keen: Jan. 2008, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission let go.
Marty Cheliak: Aug., 2008, head of the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program let go.
Sheridan Scott: Dec., 2008, head of Competition Bureau leaves after term not renewed.
Paul Kennedy: Dec., 2009, head of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Complaints Commission let go.
Peter Tinsley: Dec., 2009, contract of chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission not renewed.
Munir Sheikh: July, 2010, head of StatsCan resigns in protest after census controversy.
Pat Stogran: Nov., 2010, appointment of Canada’s first Veterans Ombudsman not renewed.
Compiled by Rick Sznajder
Sources: Star files
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