The Harper Index

"Muzzling" strategy could be turning off the public

Decline in "intensity of comfort" with Harper majority could be tied to image as controlling.

Reform warhorse Myron Thompson is one of many colleagues and staff Harper has effectively muzzled.OTTAWA, February 8, 2008: Controversies and embarrassing leaks are reinforcing repeated charges the Harper government "muzzles" critics, colleagues and staff. The recent internal order for Environment Canada staff to vet all communications with political staff and the firing of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen are recent examples.

Stephen Harper's inclination as a leader is to maintain tight control over his message. On Parliament Hill he takes questions only from favoured journalists. He enters and exits the House of Commons by hidden passages to avoid questions and cameras. Senior reporters complain that his communications director Sandra Buckler does not even return their calls.

Political colleagues are told they must communicate only on issues the government deems of political importance, and in exactly the way required by strategy. An insider tells, for instance, of a top Cabinet minister who is being prevented by Harper himself from launching a low-cost, common-sense program that would be of enormous public benefit. The minister isn't getting the go-ahead because the project is not in the strategy.

A big part of Harper's strategy, as enunciated by his mentor Brian Mulroney, has been to "ditch all the yahoos," and move to the centre. Few of the Conservatives known for outspoken views - the old Reform and Alliance types, mainly from the West - have achieved Cabinet positions or any influence in the Harper government.

A March 2006 article in the online journal PoliticsWatch listed Top Tory dissidents to watch. Most - Myron Thompson, James Rajotte, Diane Ablonczy, Bob Mills, Maurice Vellacott, Rob Merrifield, Norman Doyle - have completely disappeared from view. Bill Casey was dropped from Caucus for not supporting the 2007 budget over over offshore oil and gas revenues. Garth Turner was forced out of Caucus for public disagreements with the leadership.

In the last federal election campaign, MP Cheryl Gallant of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, known for hyperbole and extreme opinions, avoided candidates' meetings and media interviews, clearly on orders from the centre.

The Afghan detainee controversy has exposed a web of official concealment and suppression of communications that created problem upon problem.

In October, Canadian Press reported on "a new breed of diplomat lurking in the country's missions around the world, a timid creature that recoils from the Canadian limelight and spends hours trying to reconcile an ever longer list of duties with a constantly shrinking budget... They speak of a chill that has descended on their ranks, thanks to a communications crackdown from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, and the more overarching problem of years of deep budget cuts."

Even the pro-government Manley report on Afghanistan urged "franker and more frequent" reporting by the Harper government.

A poll published today by Nanos Research says Harper's public support has dropped to 31 percent, with the "intensity of comfort" with a Harper majority dropping, according to pollster Nik Nanos. The percentage of Canadians comfortable with the idea has dropped four point in the last year to 29. Public perceptions of heavy-handed news management on everything from Afghanistan to isotopes to the weather may be contributing to this slide.

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Muzzling / Freedom of expression, democracy
  Scripting / Free press

Links and sources
  Foreign service faces financial, moral crisis, October 8 2007, The Canadian Press
  Afghan mission tough PR sell, Toronto Star, February 04, 2008

Posted: February 09, 2008

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