Harper’s message tool reveals ‘hyper-extreme’ control: critics
An MP’s Sunday afternoon visit to a seniors’ home. The federal purchase of powerful new military aircraft. A journalism student’s innocuous query about Africa.
One thing connects them all — the Conservative government scripted each event using a potent but little-known communication tool called the Message Event Proposal.
The Canadian Press has obtained almost 1,000 pages of MEPs from several government departments, including the Privy Council Office, under the Access to Information Act. The PCO, the bureaucratic nerve centre of Ottawa, has been conscripted by an increasingly powerful Prime Minister’s Office to vet requests for public events across the federal government.
“ We discussed every single issue and micromanaged every news release — everything.”— Former Harper-era PCO official
The MEPs have blurred the time-honoured separation of non-partisan public servants and political staffers and sidelined seasoned government communicators, sapping morale across the civil service.
They have become the political tool for literally putting words in the mouths of cabinet ministers, federal bureaucrats, low-profile MPs on the barbecue circuit, and seasoned diplomats abroad.
“Your authorization is sought for President Greenhill to respond to questions … during the press conference,” reads one MEP prepared by the Canadian International Development Agency asking the PCO to allow its then-president, Robert Greenhill, to speak at a high-level United Nations panel.
The MEP is the crucial communication instrument for a minority government that values staying on message above all else — a transformation that federal officials and public-policy analysts say is undermining democracy.
While all governments try to control the message, the ambitious sweep of MEPs is unprecedented in federal politics. Critics say it contradicts the core campaign 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 MEP that would lay out the strategy.”
The identities of senior sources who have worked at PCO and other departments are not being revealed because they fear retribution from their political 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 separating public servants and politicians.
“You’ve got bureaucrats who are doing the government’s partisan work and also political staffers who are doing bureaucrats’ work. So there’s this huge blurring of lines between the two.”
A review of hundreds of MEPs spanning several years reveals the vast sweep of control exerted by the Harper government.
They have been used to orchestrate almost everything from the rollout of billion-dollar purchases of military aircraft to the donation of a few thousand dollars to a community group.
An MEP template typically includes the following subtitles: Event, Event type, 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 shuffled back and forth between public servants and their political masters before reaching the PMO.
Public servants in various federal departments begin the time-consuming process by completing the template to request an event or other communication. The MEP then crosses into the political realm, where it’s vetted by a minister’s office.
Then, it once again crosses lines, back to the public service, where it’s reviewed by the PCO. Harper’s office — the ultimate political authority — has the final say.
In some cases, MEPs for routine events — spending announcements in particular — have often been quickly approved. But in most cases, Harper’s office is where MEPs 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 a tool for that.”
She played down the notion that public servants are doing the bidding of their political masters.
“It’s in the role of PCO to consult PMO. Not only in communication, but in policy.”
The MEPs themselves show that events that do occur are heavily scripted.
The July 15, 2007, announcement of $12,360 for a retirement centre in Edmonton was approved by PCO for its “friendly and celebratory” tone that would help MP Laurie Hawn “highlight Canada’s New Government’s contribution to helping seniors,” says the event’s MEP.
An August 2008 MEP envisioned Defence Minister Peter MacKay and then Public Works Minister Christian Paradis standing on the back ramp of a Chinook helicopter as the “ideal event photograph” for the rollout of new military copters and drones — a “proactive opportunity” to highlight the federal government’s commitment to provide life-saving equipment to the Canadian Forces.
A 2008 request from an Ottawa journalism student for an interview with CIDA on its Canada Fund for Africa generated a detailed two-page MEP — even though there was only “remote potential for sale of the article to a Canadian magazine or weekend feature section of a national daily.”
The Conservative government’s message control is “putting the shackles on everyone,” said John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” said Gordon, who joined the public service 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’s Office on all federal communications.
“In other words, the political wing of government needs to have control over what 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 less reflective policy-making that’s not as sensitive to different voices and what’s actually going on in society, said David Brown, a senior associate at the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.
“In the end, you risk fracturing society rather than uniting it. In that sense, I would say these are not healthy developments,” said Brown, who worked in 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 MEP is prepared to make the case to PCO as to why the event should be allowed to take place.
“Anybody that could still think for themselves realized what the objective was here — control. It’s hyper-extreme control, complete with threats and everything 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 — they were a pain in the ass too, but nothing like this.”
The Conservatives’ unwaveringly tight grip is part of a global trend in western democracies, said David Zussman, a senior PCO member during Jean Chretien’s time as prime minister.
“There’s no question we’ve witnessed quite a change in the centralization of decision-making,” said Zussman, who now teaches public management at the University of Ottawa.
“So all of the functions that you normally associate with cabinet work and communications and policy-making are different now than they were under previous governments.”
In virtually all cases, the strategic benefit to the government’s overall agenda is carefully weighed in the requests.
The strategic objective behind a March 2008 announcement of $2.3 million to establish a new research chair at Laval University in Quebec City by then-industry minister Jim Prentice was to “showcase” the government’s commitment to science and technology.
“Our government is committed to attract, support and retain the best and brightest minds to lead in cutting edge initiatives,” was the desired media soundbite.
MEPs were used to get out in front of negative stories, from a devastating fire 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 new air-quality health index envisioned, “The Minister/MP flanked by a group of volunteer runners wearing colour-coded numbered shirts which demonstrate the different numerical levels” of the index.
Sometimes the MEPs work just as planned. When then-environment minister John Baird announced $677,000 in funding at a Bird Studies Canada announcement in June 2008, the organization’s BirdLife International newsletter featured the hoped-for photo of the smiling minister with the organization’s president and local 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 two cabinet ministers on cleaning up Lake Simcoe resulted in barely a ripple of publicity.
The MEP is also a reactive tool to track and analyze the wide array of requests for information that pour into government departments on a daily basis. When a journalist seeks an interview with a department official — or even a background briefing that would not identify the official by name — the request is almost always cleared by the PCO.
All major news organizations, including the three major television broadcasters, The Canadian Press, newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Canwest chain have had requests for information dissected by individual MEPs.
The names of individual journalists were generally stripped from the documents, but not always. A request to CIDA by Maclean’s magazine writer Michael Petrou generated three pages of talking points to help him craft an “informative” article on Haiti.