Canada’s ‘no comment’ Conservative government

Posted on November 24, 2012 in Governance Debates – commentary
Nov. 24 2012.    Jeffrey Simpson

Tuesday, a day in Harperland …

One day, three papers, five no comments, just another day at the ranch for the media operations of the Harper government and Conservative Party.

The public, it is clear, doesn’t give a hoot about this governmental attitude. And the government, quite obviously, is pleased with the systems it has put in place to handle information, and is not about to change them. The government has the media all figured out, and there’s nothing the media can apparently do about it but episodically grouse.

One part of the government’s approach is to systematically refuse to say anything (see above). Each department has a large media and communications unit, the principle purpose of which seems to be to refuse comment or, as often, to read from what the Prime Minister’s Office has deemed to be the only thing worth saying on a given subject.

The communications people are on the shortest possible leash. They say only what the centre authorizes. Civil servants, who actually know things, are gagged. Formal contacts are verboten; informal contacts with media or interest groups are discouraged.

Ministers speak from prepared texts or notes prepared by others, except for a few who have the liberty to do a little verbal skating. Contracts are awarded to monitor media coverage, as Canadians discovered recently when it was learned a firm had been following coverage of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Meantime, government advertising rolls on and on. The Economic Action Plan, a response to the 2008 recession, is still being advertised, even though the recession is long over. The only reason for our money being used to advertise old programs is to make the government look good – an ambition, it should be said, not unique to the Harper government.

The government understands what’s happening in the media. Bureaus are stretched. Reporters have to deal with minute-to-minute deadlines. They seldom have time to probe, so that one or two lines of defence will suffice against them getting information beyond what the government wants to ladle out.

They are on their BlackBerrys one minute, writing for online the next, filing some update next. Speed and urgency in the 24-hour news cycle is the enemy of reflection, analysis and digging. Getting through or around the obstacles this government has erected takes time and persistence that few reporters are allowed, and the government knows it.

The government also understands that the majority of Canadians receive information, such as it is, from television, which is mostly about images and instant commentary, too often about the political angle. As a consequence, the government pays painstaking detail to providing the proper backdrops for the delivery of its message, squeezing out every scintilla of spontaneity or the unexpected. It knows that television is the last medium that will dig, because that is not part of the 24-hour news world. The government has television, like the print media, all figured out.

The results have been spectacular, witness to which are the Prime Minister’s overseas trips and domestic “announcements” where the images are carefully thought through in advance. Every camera angle, every backdrop, every step of the scene is prepared in advance.

When the time is right, the government will unleash blasts of negative advertising against the personalities of its political adversaries. It happened to Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, and it will eventually happen to either or both of Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau.

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