a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leaks are part of democracy just like politicians

Let’s face it, leaks have become as much a part of democracy as those we elect to represent us in legislatures.

In Ottawa, the biggest leaker of information these days is not WikiLeaks but the Harper government.

Since this government is so obsessed with message control, the leak has become its weapon of choice.

A case in point is the negotiations now going on between Ottawa and Washington about a common Canada-U.S. perimeter at all entry points into the two countries. Existence of these negotiations was leaked to several media outlets.

The government has not denied there are negotiations. Nor has it really confirmed their existence. All it will say is that there is no agreement between the two countries, leaving us to infer there really are negotiations. And of course the Feds have not denied being involved in the leak.

Why leak rather than formally announce existence of negotiations in Parliament? A formal announcement means you will be held accountable for what you say or promise. A leak that is fuzzy on details means you can say publicly whatever you want later.

If the negotiations don’t go anywhere, you can say they were only exploratory talks, rather than admit failure.

You can also use the leak to test public reaction. This is called trial ballooning in politics.

If people hate the idea of negotiations with the U.S., the government can simply say a leaked report was simply a draft and not policy. Or it can say the media reports were exaggerated.

The media of course love leaks as much as government because they are easier to report than detailed public announcements. They also add an air of mystery and suspense to their coverage. Journalists after all are in the infotainment business.

And of course we prefer to read about leaks instead of formal government announcements because they are less stuffy and free of the weasel words that public officials love so much.

The government and media of course know that we know where this leak came from. And we know that they know that we know. But as long as leaks are so useful to democracy, we can all pretend that we don’t know because leaks serve an important function.

I will be taking two weeks off from this blog for the Holiday season. I wish all of you a safe and happy Holiday season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why would Ford allow himself to be upstaged?

Normally, municipal politics barely attracts local interest. And the swearing in ceremony for a new mayor would warrant as much national attention as a Rotary Club picnic.

But last week’s swearing in of Rob Ford as the new Toronto mayor was a national story.

First, His Worship had the chain of office placed around his neck by someone who looked like a cartoon character – Don Cherry. Then Cherry, dressed in pink, launched into a diatribe against bicycle-riding, elitist pinkos.

We really don’t know much about what Ford said at the ceremony, except that he declared the war against the car to be over.

As for Mr. Ford’s vision for Toronto, we know that the mayor wants to halt the gravy train. He doesn’t much like streetcars or anything resembling them. Beyond that, there have been a few hints about outsourcing city services to private contractors and little else.

This peek-a-boo approach in which you let others upstage you seems to be part of a pattern with Ford.

Normally, a mayor’s chief of staff is next to invisible to the public. But Ford’s chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis, has become a celebrity after bragging publicly last month how his campaign team tricked John Tory into staying out of the Toronto mayor’s race.

We can expect Kouvalis to remain the target of intense media scrutiny for as long as he is chief of staff.

Perhaps, the strategy is to allow those around you to develop a notoriety to distract the voters from measuring your own performance.

There also appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Ford administration to start a class war in which someone not using a car in Toronto is being cast as elitist.

Toronto is not the only city where the class warfare card is being played. There is an excellent article in The Tyee this week by Yves Engler that documents how the pro-car interests are claiming to be standing up for the little guy in several cities.

Practitioners of right-wing populism usually have a designated public bad guy to keep the voters interested and motivated about their political brand.

The former Harris government of Ontario did this many times by targeting welfare cheats, union bosses and teachers. The Harper government has done this with Russian aircraft to justify the expensive stealth fighters it wants to buy.

Ford wants the suburbs, where his support lies, to be blaming the downtown crowd for their high taxes.

It will be interesting to see if Ford can make this type of politics work at the municipal level. Expect Toronto city council to be getting a lot of national attention while Ford is mayor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Keeping an eye on Big Brother

For most of the past century, society has grown used to the idea of Big Brother watching us all.

Big Brother still does of course. But increasingly, thanks to Access to Information laws, advances in technology and changed attitudes, we have been keeping an eye on Big Brother.

WikiLeaks has provided us all with a reminder of that.

What is interesting about the latest document dump by WikiLeaks is how governments, business and other institutions seem to be resigned to a new age of disclosure.

Remember all the predictions a few weeks ago about international upheaval because thousands of pages of U.S. diplomatic cables were about to appear on the WikiLeaks site.

Well those documents are now out in the public realm and the international world seems to be stumbling along as well as it usually does. In fact, the very politicians who predicted chaos now seem to be dismissing WikiLeaks as a nuisance.

Sure, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be in a heap of legal trouble. The site may wind up being shut down, at least temporarily. But there will likely be someone else ready to step in with a replacement.

With a few exceptions, most of the material being disclosed on WikiLeaks can be classified as little more than gossip. And as long as human nature is what it is, there will be a demand.

Diplomats will go on speaking in euphemisms, extending insincere courtesies, and nudging and winking at each other. Governments will go on making deals with each other. And the world will remain as unstable tomorrow as it was before WikiLeaks.

Some of the web sites devoted to the public relations industry are now filled with chatter about adequate crisis planning just in case WikiLeaks blabs sensitive corporate secrets. No doubt some enterprising PR firms are already marketing Wikileaks damage control packages.

Bank of America is rumoured to be putting together a special WikiLeaks SWAT team because the bank believes the web site has some of its internal documents.

What’s interesting is how much Wikileaks is altering the media landscape so quickly.

A case in point is Canada’s spy agency, CSIS. For several years, CSIS directors past and present have been saying that the courts are too inflexible in dealing with terrorism threats. But CSIS could never get much traction in the media.

Thanks to disclosure by WikiLeaks of remarks by former CSIS director Jim Judd, the agency’s longstanding lament finally appeared on front pages across the country last week. A lot of government spindoctors will be assuming a sure way of getting something in the media is to leak it to WikiLeaks.

The Prime Minister’s Office seems to have developed a WikiLeaks play of its own.

As we know, William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, offered his resignation after he discovered the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted him as saying very unflattering things about Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

We know he offered to quit because his resignation offer was leaked to the Globe and Mail and National Post.

The RCMP is investigating this leak. But they probably don’t have to look too far for the leaker because the PMO had the most to gain.

Governments like to appear to be in front of a developing story instead of struggling to catch up.

The strategic leak is a time-honoured tool of all governments. Both the strategic government leak and now web sites like WikiLeaks will be around for a long time.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why would cops knowingly assault Stacy on camera?

By now we all have been appalled by the video of Ottawa police assaulting Stacy Bonds at the station – Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Police Chief Vern White, everybody. This is universal condemnation.

This one short video seems to have had more impact on public officials than the hundreds of hours of police video we have seen from the G20 Summit.

Yet there is one troubling question. Why would five officers, who would have known they were on video monitor, rough up a 125-pound woman like that without the slightest sign of inhibition? What would make them think that was acceptable behavior inside a police station?

The Ottawa police chief sounds like a sincere man and we can probably take him at his word that he will get to the bottom of what happened. And he probably does believe that only a minority of police are excessively violent.

But there appears to be widespread problem with police culture in Ottawa and elsewhere.

We all have heard unsubstantiated stories of police brutality without any tangible evidence. The brutal behaviour of the Ottawa police would suggest at least some of them might be true.

Now that there are cameras everywhere from store monitors to cell phone cameras, we may be finding out some ugly truths about Canadian law enforcement.

Indeed there may be a serious disconnect between police and the society they are supposed to serve.

Perhaps this is just part of wider decline in public morality by our officials everywhere, which might explain the mindlessly cruel treatment of military veterans by the federal government, or the recent behaviour of a Toronto prosecutor who caused a mistrial by making faces at the jury.

Whatever the answer, the Ottawa police chief could make a good start in restoring public confidence in his police force by embracing the gracious remarks of Bonds in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen over the weekend.

“People do need to know that police do abuse their power, and people need to speak out. But there are a lot of great cops out there, too, and people need to know that.”

These are the words of a wise woman.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peter MacKay, the sequel

Normally, wearing a baseball cap that mocks your employer anywhere near the office would be considered a dumb career move. And being widely quoted in the media as critical of your employer’s policy would be considered suicide – especially when your boss is Stephen Harper.

But maybe Peter MacKay, Canada’s defence minister (for now), is being dumb like a fox.

In the past week, it has been MacKay’s turn to dole out the humiliation after being very publicly cut out of the loop over the extended mission in Afghanistan the previous week.

First MacKay sported a red baseball cap that said ``Fly Emirates’’ during a fire drill on Parliament Hill. Then he told a couple of fellow Tories in the presence of a radio reporter that continued refusal to allow flights to and from the United Arab Emirates beyond a couple of times a week was unwise.

Subsequently, MacKay told the media at large that diplomatic relations with the Emirates have been set back 10 years by Ottawa’s intransigence on the landing rights.

To finish off the week. MacKay joined the Prime Minister on a flight to Lisbon for the NATO Summit. The atmosphere on the plane might have been a bit frigid.

So what was MacKay up to?

Most ministers publicly breaking ranks like that would be on the back benches by now. But MacKay is in a unique position as the last leader of the Progressive Conservatives before the merger with the Alliance that formed the current Conservative party.

Aside from the fact that Harper owes MacKay for going along with the merger, the Prime Minister knows that bouncing his defence minister from cabinet will set off speculation about a rift in the party.

It is pretty obvious the Conservatives would like to have a spring election after the 2011 budget even though the most rabid Harperites don’t expect to win a majority. An election before economic growth can slow down any more simply makes strategic sense.

Plans for a spring election would have to be shelved if speculation about an internal rift gets out of hand. So MacKay likely is the minister with the most job security at least until the next cabinet shuffle.

MacKay likely will make a career change in the New Year. Perhaps he will join Jim Prentice in self-imposed exile Bay Street and wait for his party’s leadership to come open.

After almost five years of minority government, a Conservative leadership race is a growing likelihood. After all this amalgamated party never did get around to a founding policy convention after its factions – the Red Tories versus the Neo Cons – spent years disliking each other.

The Conservatives likely will win the next election. But a victory with fewer seats would almost certainly bring out the knives for their leader.

In the meantime, Prentice and MacKay and who knows who else may be watching and waiting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The decline of a political superstar

There is nothing like someone being sent in to do your job to focus your thinking on a career change. Just ask Peter MacKay.

But maybe the moderates in his party, the so-called ``Red Tories’’ should be thinking about their own futures.

MacKay is being publicly humiliated. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. The defence minister has even had to stay silent while Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister’s communications director, spoke to the media about Canada’s extended mission in Afghanistan.

When the government got around to providing details about the extended mission on Tuesday, there was MacKay in the background with Bev Oda, the very junior minister of international aid, while Cannon ran the news conference.

As is the custom at multi-ministered news conferences in Ottawa, MacKay was allowed to provide a couple of sound bites, lest we all think he was just there as a prop. But his appearance will do nothing to stop the public speculation on what sparked one of the more spectacular falls from grace in federal politics.

Most of that speculation has centred on personal disagreements with Stephen Harper. Your guess is as good as mine. But there may be reasons beyond personal hard feelings.

When the former Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged in 2003 to form the present Conservative party, the focus was on how to break a 21-year Liberal dynasty rather than how to merge two different political cultures.

In fact those behind the rushed merger never did get around to a founding policy convention. Nor was there much time for public breaking of bread by former foes.

Over the years, the former PCs’ influence has been diminishing to the point where the merger has clearly become a takeover. With Jim Prentice now gone, MacKay is about the last trace of the PCs in cabinet. And if Heritage Minister James Moore winds up seeking the leadership of the B.C. Liberals to replace Gordon Campbell, there won’t be many moderates left either.

So while MacKay may continue to deny he is leaving, he likely will be gone in the New Year. (Remember, he hasn’t actually denied speaking with a Toronto law firm.)

Nothing personal, Peter. It’s just business.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ways to shut people up: Firing isn’t one of them

If it hasn’t happened already, somebody in the Prime Minister’s Office must be asking ``why did we fire Pat Stogran?’’

Stogran will be remembered as the veterans’ ombudsman who had the audacity to speak up early and often on behalf of Canada’s war veterans – so much so that the government fired him. His last day on the job is Wednesday and his successor takes over on Thursday, Remembrance Day.

How is that for getting the bum’s rush out the door?

Stogran’s difficulties with his employer are reminiscent of the late Dr. Morton Shulman’s tenure as chief Ontario coroner in the 1960s. The government of Ontario Premier John Robarts thought it was making a routine patronage appointment. But Shulman took the job seriously.

So after six years, the Robarts government fired Shulman for being a pain in the ass. But Shulman became an even bigger pain in the ass after he was fired. It prompted Robarts to remark his biggest mistake was hiring Shulman. His second biggest was firing Shulman.

The papers are full of stories about veterans and how they are being shortchanged and shafted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Even the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Jean Pierre Blackburn, has conceded his own department has been heartless.

Disabled vets are protesting on Parliament Hill. Strogran says he is prepared to launch a class action law suit on behalf of veterans everywhere.

As they say in the PMO, the optics of Pat Stogran’s appointment and firing really suck. You wouldn’t want to be the person who recommended Stogran to the Prime Minister’s appointment office.

The Harper government has a history of firing cabinet appointees who have turned out not to be quite the team players they had in mind. It was only a matter of time when one of them would refuse to go quietly.

In contrast, the government of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty came close to firing the provincial ombudsman, Andre Marin, but then wisely decided it would be easier to just put up with him.

The former Liberal government likely would have buried Stogran in work by calling a royal commission or or kicked him upstairs into a higher paying, but less visible, job before he caused anymore trouble.

The current government is likely learning that the bluntest instrument isn’t the best instrument for dealing with trouble.

And if they look up Morton Shulman on Wikipedia, they will find that the doctor was able to launch a very successful political career in the Ontario legislature as a New Democrat after his firing.

Maybe Stogran will be offered a Senate appointment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Glen Murray tweets himself into trouble

Aside from being Ontario Research and Innovation Minister, Glen Murray has the distinction of being the first Canadian politician to have to apologize for something he said on Twitter.

For some reason, the rookie minister decided it would be a good idea to tweet the world that Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were prime examples of right-wing ignorance and bigotry.

Murray’s tweet was prompted by homophobic references in some campaigns around the province during the Oct. 25 municipal elections.

He wound up apologizing. Still he isn’t the first Canadian politician to make an ass of himself within 140 characters. That distinction likely belongs to federal Industry Minister Tony Clement, who rushed to take credit for preventing a drowning in a tweet almost as soon as the person was safely out of the water.

And you can be sure Murray won’t be the last politician to put his foot in his mouth over Twitter. Politicians have taken to Twitter in the much the same way they take to kissing babies or getting their pictures taken with hockey players.

Several dozen federal MPs have Twitter accounts. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tweeted his entire budget this year, 140 characters at a time. Tweets were an emerging tactic in the 2008 federal election and will be in the next.

One reason is that the public relations industry, always on the prowl for new services to sell, is almost as infatuated with Twitter as the politicians. Believe or not, there are already people in the PR industry selling their services as ghost tweeters to CEOs and others too busy to tweet for themselves.

But another reason might be that politicians today are so heavily scripted on what to say by the bureaucracy and the party leaders, Twitter offers them an easy opportunity to get something off their chest unsupervised.

Nobody has figured out a way to control tweeting by politicians, lest the parties take away their Blackberries. And that is not going to happen because modern government would soon grind to a halt.

Of course, 140 characters don’t leave much room for context or explanation, which explains why we have been getting a lot of nonsense from politicians’ tweets.

Murray’s adventure on Twitter might be a cautionary tale to other politicians. But we can only expect tweets to grow as a political tool of choice, whether they aid democracy or not.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Williams trial will affect information we receive

No, this blog is not another reminder of the horrific crimes of Russell Williams. So relax.

But just as Williams will be a case study of the evil of which human beings are capable, the way his sentencing was covered by the media will be a case study of its own.

The sentencing represents the first major court case in Canada in which reporters were allowed to cover every detail on Twitter, 140 characters at a time.

Every time there was a lurid detail of Williams’ crimes, a roomful of Tweeting reporters was there to alert the outside world – so much so that visitors to the Twitter site started asking for a halt within hours.

There is no point in worrying about how Tweets and other social media may or may not corrupt journalism. They will be affecting how the media report what we see and hear from now on.

In my experience – I first started writing for a living in the 1970s -- any new communications technology affects how the news is reported.

Computer keyboards meant journalists could write up to deadline. Videotape meant video could be on the air in minutes and so on. Technology affects how we are informed about our society.

What has not changed – and probably never will – is the media’s love for being first to report the news. Speed too often trumps accuracy, context or comprehension.

Believe or not, there was a time not too long ago when reporters could provide thoughtful coverage that gave their audience clear reasons why their stories were important.

How is a roomful of journalists constantly tweeting information supposed to supply context and perspective to Canadians?

Let’s hope the media come up with a way to compensate for what will no longer fit into Twitter journalism.

One thing is already apparent. Reporters rushing out Tweets will now be deciding on the spot what we see and hear instead of the editors back at the office. That means sound editorial judgment will often be missing from the product we receive – at least until the next technological development comes along.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to spin and how not to

If there were an Olympic gold medal for political spin doctoring, Reinaldo Sepulveda would win it hands down.

So who is Reinaldo Sepulveda? He is media director for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. But most importantly, he is the person who assembled eight cameras with 55 technicians and media from all over the world at a remote mine site in the Atacama Desert in Chile for a drama that enthralled an entire planet.

About a billion people were watching live last week when 33 miners were hauled up one by one at the San Jose mining site in an operation that will likely set the gold standard for mining industry rescues for many years.

The operation will also be a case study for governments around the world on how to turn a potential political disaster into what will probably be a vote getter for Chile’s media-savvy president. Pinera is also the former owner of TV channel Chilevision.

When the miners were trapped Aug. 5, there was potential for disastrous consequences for any government. Safety had been an issue at the mine and the owners were not exactly forthcoming with details on what happened.

Pinera decided to put together a media spectacle thanks to Sepulveda’s three decades as a television producer with experience at several Olympics and World Cup soccer matches.

The Chilean government took incredible risks by showing the miners underground on a day-to-day basis and of course the long recovery operation. But it also did a good job of managing people’s expectations by announcing early it may take until Christmas to rescue the miners 700 metres below the surface.

Contrast this with the way BP handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP kept building up people expectations only to announce a litany of failures.

Safety and other nasty issues are bound to come up in the aftermath of the San Jose disaster. But nothing can dilute the world’s initial memories of that dramatic rescue operation.

We likely will see more governments stage managing disaster relief operations after this one.

Any bets that Canada will be one of those governments?

We are not likely to forget the way the Harper government controlled the damage of losing a seat on the UN Security Council last week.

Since we all knew Canada faced a tough vote, you’d think Ottawa would have had a carefully-crafted cover story in reserve just in case we lost.

But the best Ottawa could do was try to blame everything on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff – sort of like the dog ate my homework. The Harper government’s lack of strategy is very telling.

Maybe the Prime Minister’s Office should dip into the contingency fund to send its chief spindoctor, Dimitri Soudas, to Santiago to study how real professional communicators take the high road.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Like Trudeau, Harper the man we love to hate

Their admirers may be far apart. But Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau now have something in common.

With the publication of Harperland by journalist Lawrence Martin, Harper’s personality will likely become a dominant issue in Canadian politics. Much the same thing happened with publication of Shrug: Trudeau in Power by the late Walter Stewart in 1971.

Stewart’s book, published three years after Trudeau was elected in 1968, served to validate all those who said he was arrogant and disconnected from most Canadians. In fact, Stewart’s book likely was a contributing factor in the 1972 election, which reduced Trudeau’s huge majority to a minority government.

Martin’s just-published book likely will publicly brand Harper once and for all as a secretive control freak four years after taking office.

But before Harper’s many critics get too smug, they should be mindful of one thing. Trudeau may have been permanently cast as arrogant and aloof. But he was still our prime minister from 1968 to 1979, and then, after a nine-month hiatus, from 1980 to 1984.

Those who attacked Trudeau’s personality may have helped keep him in power.

There is something in human nature that is attracted to a domineering, take-charge leader. Trudeau owned that franchise in his day. Harper appears to now.

Robert Stanfield may now be remembered as the greatest prime minister we never had. But in his years as Trudeau’s chief opponent, he was derided much in the way Michael Ignatieff is now.

No one could accuse Harper of being charismatic like Trudeau. As a result, Harper may not dominate our national psyche quite as Trudeau did.

Trudeau was swept into office by the then-emerging and idealistic baby boomer vote, fed up by years of minority government. He was also kept in power by the baby boomers.

Harper crept into office, helped by an angry, aging and fading baby boomer vote.

With this difference in demographic scenarios, Harper could be swept out of office by the children of the baby boomers, should they become just as fed up with minority government.

But at this point, that is just another maybe scenario.

Harper may never win a majority. But he will be tough to dislodge just the same.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The return of gotcha journalism

Just as the political landscape goes through changes, so does journalism. Right now we seem to be witnessing a return to the journalism of the Mulroney years.

So-called gotcha journalism is a particularly aggressive type of reporting that plagues a government when the media collectively decide to join the opposition. Every decision of a government is scrutinized for any appearance of malfeasance, favourtism or conflict of interest.

Gotcha journalism is based on true information. But it also implies a lot and invites its audiences to draw a lot of inferences.

A case in point is a story in Monday’s Hill Times by veteran reporter Tim Naumetz. The HT reported that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s new chief of staff, was until last week a director of aviation company Hawker Beechcraft. Hawker Beechcraft partners with Lockheed Martin in supplying the U.S. military with a precision war and reconnaissance plane, the AT-6.

The parent company of Hawker Beechcraft is Onex Corp., Wright’s former employer.

According to the article, Hawker Beechcraft also makes a .50-caliber cannon used in Lockheed’s F-35 stealth fighter. Canada is buying 65 of these Lockheed fighters.

Several media outlets have reported that Wright will be returning to Onex in a couple of years. In addition, he still owned about $2 million in company stock as of last week.

The HT quotes New Democrat MP Pat Martin as saying Wright’s connection with Onex ``doesn’t pass the smell test.’’ Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc said the connection feeds people’s cynicism about Ottawa’s decision to buy the F-35s without a formal tendering system.

He is probably right even though no one has established any direct connection between Wright and Lockheed.

The story does not directly state that Wright’s directorship had any influence in the selection of the F-35 by Ottawa. What it does do is imply that there is a connection.

The media and the public are suspicious about the current federal government. We can expect many more stories that imply almost as much as they report.

Before you get all huffy about the media, just remember that a government that practises gotcha politics on its opponents brings this type of reporting on itself. Why wouldn’t nasty politics spawn nasty journalism?

In addition, the current government has not exactly been forthcoming with the media.

Gotcha-style journalism is validated in many people’s minds when the government gets caught fudging the truth. Remember the census issue when Industry Minister Tony Clement implied Statistics Canada supported the decision to get rid of the long-form census?

This style of journalism is something that comes and goes as it did when the Mulroney government left office. But expect more of it as long as the current government remains in office.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Maclean’s disses carnival mascot, wounds Quebec pride

It has been a very long time since any magazine has caused much of a stir. So the Oct. 4 edition of Maclean’s really is a trip back to when magazines, or any other printed medium, mattered to most people.

The Quebec government is demanding a retraction. Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe says it is Quebec baiting. Quebec City says Maclean’s has horribly libeled Bonhomme, the carnival mascot because of the cover. (The cartoon icon is carrying a suitcase overflowing with cash.)

For the rest of the country to understand the reaction in Quebec, imagine a Maclean’s cover with Tim Horton’s donuts laced with heroin.

At Maclean’s offices, I’m sure there hasn’t been this much excitement since religious fundamentalists pressured the magazine’s management into firing Pierre Berton in 1963 for daring to write about sex education.

For someone who was born before the world had IPods and cable news, it was like a long-lost guilty pleasure to read a full-length article that dared to be controversial.

Was it good journalism? I would say yes for a number of reasons.

The lead story, by Martin Patriquin, cites a litany of scandal after scandal in Quebec since the days of Maurice Duplessis, the dictator-premier who ran the province for almost 20 years until 1959 like a personal fiefdom. The article reprises a quote from historian Samuel Huntington, who said in 1968 that Quebec was ``perhaps the most corrupt area in Australia, Great Britain, United States and Canada.’’

For the sake of fairness, Maclean’s pointed out Quebec doesn’t have a monopoly on bad behavior. Atlantic Canada is notorious for patronage. B.C. has punted three premiers out of office in recent years amid scandal. And there was quite a stench from Saskatchewan in the early 1990s when 12 members of Premier Grant Devine’s government faced criminal charges for expense account fraud.

The author might have mentioned that Quebec was the first jurisdiction in the country to outlaw political donations from corporations and unions. Because of this, the government of Rene Levesque was able to clean up provincial politics, at least briefly.

But for the most part it is solid journalism that asks what we all have been asking ourselves for years: What is it about Quebec and scandal?

Some answers are offered. Chief among them is that perhaps that Quebec has been so preoccupied over the years about referendums, good government hasn’t been much of an issue.

Perhaps Maclean’s has now done Quebec a favour.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Was Ottawa testing reaction to Quebec arena?

It is not often we see government MPs drop a huge hint that $180 million in public funds is going to be spent on a hockey arena only to have the Prime Minister pour cold water on the project less than a week later.

Yet this is what appears to have happened between Sept. 8 and Sept. 13. So what were the Tories up to?

Was it simply a photo opp that got out of hand? Or was the Harper government testing public reaction or trial ballooning, as political professionals call it?

A new arena apparently is needed to bring back NHL hockey to Quebec City, which happens to be the core area of the government's support in the province. The provincial and municipal governments have agreed to jointly provide 55 per cent of the $400-million cost. Ottawa is being nudged for the remaining 45 per cent.

The Conservative MPs from the Quebec City area, sporting vintage Quebec Nordiques sweaters, were on hand for a photo opp celebrating a consultant's report that concluded it was viable to bring back an NHL team.

But the idea of Ottawa forking out $180 million didn't seem viable to many people, particularly among Tories. Maxime Bernier, the Tory backbencher from the Beauce region of Quebec and a libertarian, ridiculed the idea. So did Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

Within days it was clear the idea was not going to fly politically in the rest of the country. Harper waded in to say it is up to the private sector to fund pro hockey, not the taxpayer. The government also let it be known that Harper had no idea his MPs were going to don the Nordique sweaters.

It is entirely possible Harper didn't know about the sweaters. It wouldn't be the first time an organizer of a media event got carried away. But it is unlikely he didn't know about the participation of his MPs since he took four days to nix the idea of federal funding.

The Tories are desperately trying to hang on to their handful of seats in Quebec in the next election. Hockey borders on a religion in the province and Harper has plenty of reason to be testing the idea of funding an arena.

The government even acknowledges it has been talking to local officials about how Ottawa can help bring NHL hockey to Quebec City, which is likely why the Conservatives are up two percentage points in the province, according to the latest Leger poll taken Sept. 13-17.

Stay tuned sports fans. We likely haven't heard the last of federal funding to bring the NHL back to Quebec City.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ottawa not winning friends for Oil Sands

It was quite a spectacle last week when delegations of provincial politicians, oil executives and environmentalists traveled to Ottawa for an audience with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the third most powerful American politician. You would think it is up to Pelosi to determine the future of the Alberta Oil Sands.

Then again, maybe it is.

Over her three-day visit to Ottawa, the U.S. Speaker also met with federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice. But Prentice and the rest of the federal government seemed to do their damnedest to be invisible, leaving it to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to defend the Oil Sands and speak publicly for Canada.

We all know where the federal government stands on the Oil Sands. The Tories are in favour. Conservative MPs on the Commons natural resources committee demonstrated this in June when they not only voted to suppress a report on often critical witness testimony on the Oil Sands, but to order every copy of the report destroyed.

With friends like that, the petroleum sector doesn't need enemies. What these Tory MPs have likely done is galvanize opposition to the Oil Sands and give Canadians the impression there is something nasty to hide.

The petroleum sector should be just as angry with the Conservatives as the environmentalists are.

Like the destruction of the Commons committee report, federal invisibility during last week's Pelosi visit made Stelmach and his province look defensive. In fact, the federal tactic of leaving Alberta on its own to defend the Oil Sands is about the last thing the petroleum sector needs.

It is understandable that the Tories would not want a national debate on the Oil Sands on the possible eve of an election. But that debate will likely come one way or other because of this resource's impact on the economy and the environment.

Leadership is part of governing and the federal government should start leading Canadians in developing a national consensus on the Oil Sands.

As pollster Nik Nanos has just noted, the Conservatives have been acting like an Opposition party in the last two elections. The time for that tactic is running out.

Waiting for the Americans to decide how the Oil Sands should be regulated is hardly leadership or good governance.

Monday, September 6, 2010

No election but the battle for your mind continues

An election this fall may be unlikely. But a struggle seems to be shaping up for the hearts and minds of Canadians just the same.

To understand what is going on between the two major parties visualize a couple struggling to control the TV remote. Each wants to change the channel to suit themselves.

The Conservatives seem bent on taking us back to the Cold War and a frontier mentality as they plan to build more prisons, despite a falling crime rate, and spend billions on military equipment to protect us from the Russians.

The strategy would appear to be one of keeping us preoccupied with our security and physical well-being so we won't think about gaping holes in the healthcare system until after the next election.

The Liberals are trying to cash in on Tory heavy-handedness by scaring Canadians into thinking the Conservatives have a hidden agenda for a dictatorship built on the politics of meanness.

In addition, Liberal leader Micheal Ignatieff is inviting us into his " big red tent" of a political party in which all Canadians are welcome, not just those who happen with agree with the leader. With a bit of luck, Canadians may even forget they kicked the Liberals out of office just over four years ago.

It has been a terrible summer for the Tories with one miscue after another. The Liberals believe they are finally on to something now that the Tories' 11-point lead in the polls has evaporated over the summer.

Up until recently, playing on people's fears and anger has kept the Tories well ahead of the Liberals. Now that the two parties are neck and neck in the polls, it's the Liberals' turn to play on public paranoia.

Unfortunately, issues that really do matter to Canadians, like a sustainable healthcare system, are going to have to wait until one of the two parties gains the upper hand and feels comfortable enough to start proposing solutions.

In the meantime, watch for an image makeover of the Prime Minister to make him appear kinder and gentler. As for the Liberals, now that their guy has had his transformation, the challenge will be to convince the public they really have regained the capacity to be Canada's natural governing party again.

Sadly, Canadians may not really know what either party stands for until after the next election.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Political landscape very different when Parliament goes back to work

Parliament goes back to work the week of Sept. 20 and a lot has certainly changed since it recessed for summer. The Tories are no longer on cruise control toward a majority and Michael Ignatieff may be doing a Lazarus act in his political fortunes.

Let's look at how things may shape up:

Conservatives: A clear, understandable narrative was the Tories' most potent weapon against the Opposition when Parliament broke for summer. It was the law and order party standing up for a strong and secure Canada as well as ordinary Canadians.

It is going to be a little more difficult for the Tories to continue to present themselves creditably as the law and order party while they continue to feud with the country's police chiefs, who oppose the government's plans to abolish the gun registry. In addition, it is going to be difficult to continue to be the party that stands up for the troops when war veterans are complaining publicly of shoddy treatment by the government

Pat Strogan, the recently fired federal ombudsman for veterans, may have done the Tories more damage than the whole census fiasco.

Speaking of the census, the worst for the Tories may be over. But this was a miscue that branded the government of Stephen Harper as ideologues with a hidden agenda. No wonder the Tories have lost their enthusiasm for a fall election. It may be too early to write them off but they're going to have to work a lot harder just to stay in office.

Liberals: Ordinary Canadians can be forgiven for being confused by the way the media have been reporting current Liberal fortunes. When the summer began, the Liberals were framed as a faded party that had lost its way with a leader as inspiring as dishwater.

Now Ignatieff is being portrayed as an invigorated leader of a party that somehow got it's game back on the summer barbecue circuit. Sure Iggy's bus tour not only went better than most expected, it really was a cleanly executed, professional operation.

But neither Iggy nor his party have undergone that much of a metamorphosis in the months of July and August. In reality, the media have switched news frames after tiring of the Tory juggernaut narrative of last spring. Expect to be reading and hearing a Cinderella story starring the Liberals for most of autumn.

This would be a good time for a reality check among Liberals, however. So far they've been fortunate that the Tories have been doing more damage to themselves than any Opposition party could ever hope to do. The Liberals should not count on the Tories shooting themselves in their collective feet forever.

NDP: Party leader Jack Layton is in danger of being the major casualty of the gun registry debate. The caucus is the most divided among the parties on this issue.

If the gun registry ends because enough NDP MPs side with the government, the party will undoubtedly face the wrath of urban voters as the price for saving a handful of rural seats.

No wonder Layton is now trying to straddle the issue with a compromise for a kinder and gentler gun registry that looks a lot like something Iggy proposed a few months ago.

Bloc Quebecois: If there is one constant in federal politics, it is the Bloc. It may present itself as the party that will one day break up the country. But those intentions really are a useful fiction for everyone on Parliament Hill.

As long as the Bloc exists, the Tories don't have to worry about the Liberals holding Quebec as the fortress it was in the Trudeau years. Meanwhile, the Liberals also don't have to worry about being wiped out by a Tory majority as long as the Bloc controls Quebec.

For the NDP, it is nice to have a second left-leaning party that can be an ally on important issues.

As for the Bloc, a separate Quebec may be growing less likely. But isn't it nice to have generous federal salaries with indexed pensions, courtesy of the country you want to break up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rob Ford bid points to serious voter discontent

It would be easy to dismiss Rob Ford as just another one of those nut bar mayoral candidates who turn up in municipal elections.

His views on immigrants and what he calls "Orientals" are nothing short of offensive. He has been caught twice now fibbing to the media about unsavoury things in his background -- most recently a drunk driving conviction in Florida.

Then there was the time he was over-refreshed as a Leafs Game in 2006 and had to be escorted out by security after accosting other spectators.

There is just one tiny detail, however.

He is the front runner for mayor of Toronto in the upcoming civic elections.

Have the good burghers of Toronto lost their minds?

For some reason, Canadians have elected quite a collection of assorted colourful individuals as their mayors -- people like Mel Lastman and Allan Lamport in Toronto, William Hawrelak in Edmonton, Jean Drapeau in Montreal and Larry O'Brien, the current mayor of Ottawa.

Maybe it is our way of seeking comic relief from all the concerned and faux-serious candidates seeking our votes in provincial and federal elections. Whatever the reason, Ford's candidacy is not very funny.

The best thing that can be said about his candidacy is that he is a nihilist who opposes everything and stands for nothing. He is the kind of candidate who comes along every so often when voter cynicism is higher than usual.

Those who practise politics for a living across Canada should be paying attention to Toronto's municipal race. The voters are trying to tell the political class something.

Over the weekend, The Toronto Star published several revealing Q and As with voters who support Ford. They talked about their discontent not just Toronto politics but all three levels of government.

Ford's candidacy is a flashpoint for widespread voter discontent throughout an overtaxed and cynical middle class. The voters are telling the political class to stick it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer politics recasting Iggy

Michael Ignatieff must be wondering if he should spend more time outside of Ottawa.

When Parliament rose for the summer, Iggy was badly bruised by a critical media and the Tories were making steady advances in the polls. Even his much-touted barbecue tour had a lousy beginning when the bus broke down on the highway outside Ottawa and had to be repaired at a place called Harper's Garage.

You could almost hear the guffaws coming from Parliament Hill.

But as Iggy winds down the summer tour, things have changed dramatically on the federal scene.

The Tories are trending downward in the polls. Much attention is being devoted to their bone-headed decision to get rid of the mandatory long-form census. Even the management ability of the Prime Minister's Office is an issue.

The Tories have been nice enough to change the channel in the media away from Iggy's problems to their own.

As a result, nice things have started to crop up in the media about Iggy.

Has the Liberal leader changed dramatically since the summer began?

Hardly. Political journalists like to have a common narrative or news frame to provide a backdrop to their daily stories. The life span of these frames can last for months until a major development -- like a sudden drop in the polls -- alters perceptions of the political landscape.

Of course, Iggy and the Liberals have received a big boost from the census controversy and the fact that Prime Minister Harper made himself scarce for most of the summer.

Even the fact that expectations were so low for Iggy's barbecue tour has worked to the Liberals' advantage. There were no disasters beyond the bus breaking down; therefore the tour is being reported as a success.

Watch for a new media narrative of Iggy and the Liberals closing the gap with the Tories.

As a former member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I can tell you that the media enjoy playing God with the politicians. Build them up for a few months (or years, as they did with Paul Martin) and then tear them down. In Iggy's case, the media started with tearing him down. Now they will likely build him up and tear Harper down.

The media love a good horse race, always.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Few traces left of original Reform Party

There were a couple of milestones in the past week or so that served as reminders of how few traces are left on Parliament Hill of the old Reform Party.

Jay Hill, the government's House Leader and one of the original Reformers, has announced he will not seek re-election. He was quickly replaced by John Baird.

The current ruling party may have grown out of the original Reform caucus of 51 MPs who were elected in 1993. But today there are just 11 of those members still sitting in the House of Commons, and one of them, Keith Martin, is now a Liberal.

The original Reform gang had some wacky ideas (like canning prisoners or outlawing deficits). And they were certainly naive. But they brought a refreshing attitude to a very cynical city in their demands for transparency and respect for the taxpayer's dollar.

For the most part, they were well liked on all sides of the House and by the media. Hill's departure as a congenial House Leader is a reminder of how things have changed.

Another reminder is the performance of couple of government ministers in the past week.

Industry Minister Tony Clement demonstrated very nicely what members of cabinet do when they are in serious trouble -- he made personal attacks against citizens who disagree with him.

He said the wide range of groups opposing the end of the long-form census were doing so out of self interest because they have been getting market research data at the taxpayers' expense. "They had a good deal going," he said, with the clear implication his critics are a bunch of freeloaders with their noses in the public trough.

Never mind that the Constitution makes it clear it is Ottawa's job-- and no one else's-- to conduct the national census, or, that only a public impartial agency could ever be entrusted to collect personal information from the public.

Then Treasury Board President Stockwell Day argued Canada needs to spend $9 billion on an expanded prison system despite a falling crime rate. Apparently, this is because of the rising rate of unreported crime.

So how did he know this? If the crimes are unreported, where do you the statistics?

To bail out the minister, the government produced a six-year-old study from Statistics Canada that said 34 per cent of crimes go unreported to police. What the government didn't mention was that the study dealt with penny-ante crimes that likely wouldn't be investigated by police. Things like car break-ins or graffiti vandalism.

The original Reform gang used to howl in derision when ministers tried to stretch things. Many of the original Reformers must be in despair at what has happened to their party.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Parliamentary media shirked their duties

The topic of this blog is really something one would expect in a banana republic, not in Canada. And the topic is all the more bizarre because you have not been able to read about it or hear about it through the media.

In the dying days of the spring session on Parliament Hill just before the summer recess, the Commons environment committee voted, in secret, to not only reject a draft report on the Oil Sands but to order it shredded.

The draft report was written by committee staff after almost three months of testimony by environmentalists and oil industry executives.

Commons committees routinely use draft reports by staff as working documents while MPs on all sides deliberate on recommendations. But the committee, at least a majority of MPs on the committee, decided this particular report, based on 300 pages of testimony, had to be suppressed.

We don't know why exactly because parliamentary committees deliberate on draft reports behind closed doors. But since the report likely would not have included recommendations --that's the MPs' job -- we can only conclude someone didn't like what was in witness testimony. Could it have been the Conservative MPs who dominate the committee?

At the moment there is only one copy of the report locked up in the Commons Clerk's office. It will not be tabled in Parliament. Nor will it be released to the public.

According to The Hill Times, Conservative MPs on the committee are claiming the public is not being deprived because anyone is free to examine transcripts of almost three months of testimony. But that is a hollow argument.

In fact, the committee's action goes against everything a democratic Parliament should stand for.

But the committee's action isn't the only thing that is disgraceful in this sordid affair.

Where was the Parliamentary Press Gallery? This incident went unreported in mainstream media at the time and continues to be ignored, at least by major newspapers and broadcast outlets.

As a former member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I can tell you there is no media conspiracy here. Media have been neglecting the important work of parliamentary committees for years. In addition, media are so preoccupied with covering politics like it was a horse race, they frequently miss important issues unless the Opposition decides to raise them.

And that leads to another question -- where was the Opposition? Had environmentalists not demanded to know what happened to the committee's report, no one off Parliament Hill would know.

If parliamentary democracy does die in Canada, the media and the Opposition will have to share the blame.

If you would like to know what the Commons environment committee did hear about the Oil Sands, check out article by Andrew Nikiforuk on TheTyee.ca or a story by Kristen Shane in the July 26 edition of The Hill Times.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Census decision a stupid waste of credibility

When I first came to Ottawa as a journalist in the 1980s I used to think this country was being run by a bunch of Machiavellians capable of the most clever and diabolical conspiracies. It was not long though, after seeing government and politics close up, that I realized just because someone was running the country didn't necessarily mean they knew what they were doing.

Sure there are plenty of Machiavellians in Ottawa and some conspiracies actually do look pretty clever. But that has to do more with plain, dumb luck rather than anything else. Here on the banks of the Ottawa river, the ruling class stumbles through its work week just like everybody else.

With those thoughts in mind, let's look at the Great Census Controversy.

Someone in the Langevin Block, where the Prime Minister and all his bright young things hang out, probably decided months ago that getting rid of the compulsory long-form census questionnaire would be a good idea.

But it was decided not to announce the decision while the Opposition was in town, lest there be controversy. So the Prime Minister's Office sat on its decision until Parliament had risen for the summer and then tried to quietly announce it in the dog days of July when Opposition MPs would be on the barbecue circuit.

Unfortunately for the PMO, the only thing going on at the federal level was the bus tour by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, hardly enough to hold the press gallery's attention for more than a day. As a result, the census decision got inordinate attention and still does as the only game in town.

One has to wonder what would have happened if the PMO had chosen a busier time like budget week to announce the census change. The media likely wouldn't have noticed.

As for the reason for the decision, your guess is as good as mine about what the Tories had hoped to gain. But here's a theory.

During the days of Mike Harris in Ontario, the provincial government liked to have successive target groups, such as welfare cheats, teachers or union bosses. What better way to show the voters what a good job you were doing than by setting up a straw man issue and dealing with it.

The Harrisites who haved moved to Ottawa seem to have brought that modus operandi with them. After all the Harper government got elected by campaigning against crooked lobbyists (real and imagined). Then the Harperites turned their attention to the press gallery, then Liberal-appointed civil servants, then an evil Liberal-NDP-Separatist coalition, and so on.

Claiming the census was a threat to people's liberty and then doing something about it seems to fit that pattern -- create a crisis, then appear to solve it.

It might have worked had Industry Minister Tony Clement not tried to mislead us by implying Statistics Canada was on board with the changes. That prompted the chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, to quit and publicly proclaim the government's idea as goofy as we thought it was.

Now the Tories have a real crisis.

In fairness, this isn't the first government to come up with a dumb idea. After all, the Liberals' sponsorship strategy didn't quite work out as planned. The Mulroney Tories thought it would be a great idea to designate Montreal and Calgary international banking centres in order to drain thousands of jobs from Toronto.

Clement should watch his back. Another part of the Tory MO is to throw a scapegoat under the bus. Ask Helena Guergis.

One bit of advice from the late Frank Magazine for all those who insist on defending the indefensible. You can't polish up a turd.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A story you won't read in the media

There is an adage among political professionals that while polls may not matter, trends in polls do. The current trend in polls is that they are trend less.

One week the Tories are ahead of the Liberals by 11 points. A little over a week later, another poll indicated their lead over the Grits has shrunk to just two points.

Whether this is the result of a volatile electorate or ambivalence about all politicians in general might be hard to determine. Certainly it explains why no party seems eager for a fall election.

So how come we don't read or hear much about polling trends? The answer is that since most media outlets commission their own political polling, they don't want to publish anything that might cast doubt on content they paid for or highlight what their competitors might be saying.

Some might call this simple business logic. Others might call it a conflict of interest.

In recent years, before and during elections, we have seen several polls that stood out because their conclusions have been quite different from the pack. Sometimes they stood out because they were first to spot an emerging trend. But most times they were simply wrong.

Political types privately dismiss erroneous polls as rogue or, in some cases, as push polls-- when questions have been tactically orchestrated to elicit a desired response.

The media tend not to touch talk like that even if it involves a competitor's poll just as GM won't criticize one of Ford's cars for fear of feeding public doubt about an entire industry.

But the media are in the business of alerting their audiences to trends as well as new and sudden developments. If one bank posts a loss while the rest are turning in profits that departure from an industry trend is reported. It is called context.

Context is as important as fact except, of course, when it comes to reporting the findings of a poll commissioned by one's employer.

In another gripe, media tend to report polls in plain vanilla terms of winners and losers. But nothing else that might point to any sort of trend.

For example, most pollsters ask decided voters what their second choice would be. Second choices are rarely reported in the media.

To knowing eyes, a party that is rising as a second choice may be on the verge of assuming the lead in coming weeks. Or it could mean the support of the leading party is soft.

This is one are where the public should be demanding more from the media and a higher standard of reporting.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New GG announcement well executed

There has been plenty of criticism in this blog about the federal government's communications techniques. So let's look at something that went right in terms of strategy and tactics.

Last week's appointment of academic David Johnston as Canada's new Governor General was well executed by Tory spindoctors.

We have all read, copiously by now, about how our new GG was a practical joker at Harvard and the inspiration for a character in the book Love Story.

What we haven't read much about is how the prime minister owes the new GG for getting his government out of a dangerous situation with the Mulroney/Schreiber affair. We also haven't read much about how this had been expected to be an Aboriginal appointment.

This is probably because the Prime Minister's spindoctors didn't want us to.

The government followed the time-honoured tradition in Ottawa of the strategic leak. On the eve of Johnston's appointment, the identity of the new GG was leaked to CTV News in time for the late night network newscast.

By the following morning, the rest of the media had picked up the leak with attribution to CTV.

When it came time for the government to make the actual announcement, the media were loathe to simply repeat what had already been reported overnight. Quite naturally, they were looking for a fresh angle.

And lo and behold, the media somehow found their way to former roommates and old anecdotes, courtesy of sources only too happy to assist in getting that fresh angle.

Aside from the book connection, Johnston was also the man who wrote the terms of reference that kept the Airbus scandal out of the Oliphant Inquiry and protected the Harper government from being pulled into a long-running scandal.

Had the media not been spoon-fed anecdotal material, journalists likely would have focused on how the government owed Johnston, big time.

In the current media climate, the narrative of least resistance wins every time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More thoughts on the Toronto G20 Summit

By now most of us -- at least those who weren't arrested or didn't suffer property damage -- are growing weary of the Toronto G20 Summit. But fallout from the event isn't likely to go away for a long time. Please bear with me.

What was interesting to me was how preoccupation with security demonstrated some traits of modern government that Canadians may not like to talk about but should.

Secrecy: Let's face it. Secrecy is second nature to those in government, no matter what the Charter of Rights, Access to Information Act and provincial freedom of information laws say. Transparency and accountability may be buzz words politicians and civil servants use constantly. But the fact is that public officials, at any level of government, will default to secrecy in a stressful situation.

In the days leading up to the summit, the Ontario government temporarily invoked the Public Works Protection Act, a relic of the Second World War, to give police extra powers to ensure the site perimeter would be secure, and then said nothing. Even the Mayor of Toronto first learned about this draconian measure through the newspapers.

When word did leak out, the media reported that this statute gave police the power to search anyone within five metres of the perimeter fence and demand identification. Now we are told the police did not have such powers at all. Neither the police nor the Ontario government made any effort during the summit to clarify what the law did or say. Withholding information like that borders on lying.

Rights of the state trump yours: Regardless of what the Charter might say, the state acts like it has virtually unlimited rights of expropriation for a higher good. This is why Maher Arar spent a year in a Syrian prison. The state expropriated his life in the interests of nationals security. This is why innocent people find themselves on no-fly lists with little recourse.

And this is why police scooped up hundreds of innocent people and incarcerated them without charge on the weekend of June 26-27. Apparently, the concern was that organized anarchists, known as the Black Bloc, were using crowds to shield themselves. So the state responded by taking away the crowds and ordinary people's civil liberties for several hours, or days in some cases.

Public officials know full well most of those arrested were guilty of not crime. That is why they have suddenly become reluctant to say anything publicly. For the most part, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has been left on his own to defend an unwritten policy.

Rights of Inquiry: Governments only call inquiries into their own conduct when there is an overwhelming compelling reason. That is why it took 25 years for Canadians to find out what they always suspected about the Air India tragedy. That said, Canadians should persist in demanding one into the Toronto summit -- regardless of government reluctance.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The summit that left a foul odor

Monday morning's papers were all over the map on whether the summit was a success or not, just as the police response to protesters was reported as either measured or over-aggressive depending on who was being quoted.

Chances are, if you believed international summit meetings productive, you probably continued to believe the same Monday morning. Conversely, anyone who questioned the usefulness of these events before the weekend likely hasn't changed their opinion either.

Canadians remain ambivalent about summits and media coverage reflects that.

Ironically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can rightly claim victory because the 20 developed nations agreed to his proposal of a commitment to cut their government deficits in half by 2013. This agreement is all the more remarkable since U.S. President Barack Obama was pushing for continued economic stimulus.

Harper's win was part of the weekend's media coverage. But it was over shadowed -- at least in Canada -- by protester violence, 900 arrests, and a $1-billion price tag for security. As The Toronto Star noted in a deadline: "Arrests, tear gas outweigh glory."

In contrast, Harper took top billing over Obama in Sunday's New York Times. The Times coverage, which only mentions the protests in passing, made it clear Harper was able to get the upper hand behind the scenes and Obama had to back track and go along with the deficit reduction plan.

This may be the first time in U.S. media that an American president was portrayed as a subordinate player to a Canadian prime minister.

Harper likely wishes today that the G20 summit had been held in an isolated location. The protesters have muddied the narrative the Tories were looking for in advance of an election. And unfortunately for Harper, the Tim Horton's crowd doesn't usually read The New York Times.

One thing not lost in the fray is the odious aftermath of summit security. No doubt there will be continued demands for an inquiry to find out why police arrested so many -- almost twice those held under the War Measures Act in 1970.

Joggers, bystanders and even tourists were scooped up in a giant police dragnet. There were also a disturbing number of reports of journalists being detained or even roughed up.

Toronto Mayor David Miller is fortunate he was already announced he will not seek re-election. Otherwise, his hast defence of police actions would likely come back to haunt him.

Even the Toronto police were smart enough Monday to acknowledge that innocent people may have been held by accident as officers worked to restore order and protect the city from further destruction.

In fairness, it shouldn't be surprising that people's rights suffered while police had to work frantically to put down a major riot. But it is reasonable to wonder if police weren't taking out their frustrations on the public after losing control on the streets on Saturday.

The images of what happened in Toronto this past weekend will likely be remembered by Canadians long after Harper's summit accomplishments are forgotten.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

PR industry takes a hit with BP disaster

The petroleum industry won't be the only sector to be worried about its credibility when the BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico finally ends.

Ten years ago BP spent $220 million U.S. on an award-winning image makeover. The campaign recast its brand as a leading socially-responsible and green company.

The "Beyond Petroleum" campaign was so effective that as recently as 2007, customer surveys ranked BP as the leading environmentally-friendly oil company.

No doubt BP's current troubles will lead people to conclude the campaign was just so much green washing by PR flacks. Corporate image makers should be just as worried about the aftermath as the overall energy sector.

In the PR industry's defence, it is the client's responsibility to live up to its brand. BP wasn't doing that, according to media reports in the two months since its deepwater well blew out.

Last year, for example, it cut investment in alternative energy by 28 per cent.

In addition, had the company been willing to spend an extra $550,000 on its deepwater rig for something called a remote control acoustic trigger, the Gulf of Mexico disaster might have been limited.

Such technology would have allowed company workers to close the well by remote signal after the rig was destroyed by explosion and fire on April 20.

American regulators considered making such technology mandatory early in the past decade. But BP and other oil companies lobbied against it because of cost. That $550,000 must now seem like chump change.

Of course, BP's current communications problems in the Gulf go well beyond a gaffe-prone CEO. Documents are now surfacing that show the company had been withholding material information about the extent of the catastrophe. BP will have far more trouble than a toxic brand to worry about for years to come.

As for professional image makers, the PR and ad industries will likely huddle soon to discuss how they can force clients to live up to the hype they created for them. Perhaps there should be some sort of liability code for spin doctors.

What remains is astonishing is this: why would any corporation risk an environmental disaster to save a few bucks? Have they forgotten lessons learned over the past 30 years -- Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl?

Perhaps simple human nature is also toxic.


There was much in the news last week about Quebecor's plans to set up a Fox News style infotainment channel in Canada. What didn't get much attention was how Quebecor's Sun Media trashed one of the best reporting bureaus on Parliament Hill because of a format change.

The Sun's predominately female bureau had been leading much of the parliamentary press gallery for months in breaking stories and asking tough questions about government spending. Reporter Elizabeth Thompson, for example, won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for revealing how heritage silver from Rideau Hall was accidentally sold.

Kathleen Harding as been replaced as bureau chief. Thompson and fellow reporters Christina Spencer and Peter Zimonjic have been simply dumped.

Quebecor is free to make whatever changes it wants. And those who follow Parliament Hill will be free to judge whether Sun Media's new predominately male bureau is an improvement or not.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mistake by the lake should tell us something

Think back to the summer of 2005 when Stephen Harper was still the leader of the Opposition.

Remember a particularly hideous photo that was taken at the Calgary Stampede in which Harper was wearing a leather vest that was too tight and a goofy looking hat?

He was between communications directors at the time. And the photo clearly demonstrated there was no one in his entourage with either the cachet or experience to say "Stephen, lose the look."

In the months following, Harper showed much more communications savvy in front of the cameras and became prime minister as a result.

The predicament Harper is now in over the costs of the G8 and G20 summits, in particular the supposed need for an artificial lake in the Toronto media centre, should also be telling us something about his government's communications ability, or lack of it.

When first reported, the cost was $1 million to put an artificial lake about four blocks north of the real thing. Subsequently, this was revised to $57,000 out of the total media centre budget of $1.9 million.

Even at $57,000, voters across the country may think the fake lake is a mistake. But it's interesting that the government's huge communications machine let several news cycles lapse while the price was being reported at seven figures.

This could point to several things going on behind the scenes. In the past 12 months leading up to the summits, the government has been keeping details of costs quiet. Is it possible their own communications people were not fully briefed?

Even the government's ministers seemed to be blindsided when the story broke. Did the summit expenditures get a full review at cabinet, or just inside the Prime Minister's Office?

In addition to the fake lake, the Tories have not been able to defend a whole raft of summit expenditures that smell like pre-election largesse in rural Ontario. G8 leaders are unlikely to venture outside a guarded compound.

Perhaps if the Tories had released details of summit spending gradually over several months they wouldn't now be facing a public backlash.

It has been mentioned in this blog before but it's worth repeating. For a government obsessed with controlling its messaging, it doesn't seem to communicate about is own affairs very well,
particularly when things don't go as planned.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

BP sunk before it started damage control

I have resisted commenting in this blog on BP's saga of disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because I didn't want to pass instant judgement on a horrendous environmental and public relations catastrophe.

It has been five weeks since the company's gushing well head began destroying the shores of Louisiana and who knows where else. So it is time for a report card on the company's crisis management.

The first thing PR pros will tell a company in crisis is to own up to its responsibility. BP did that -- sort of-- when its well head began spewing oil into the gulf. However, it equivocated by laying blame on a subcontractor.

This was probably a mistake because most people would infer the company was just trying to cover its butt. BP should have been unequivocal in accepting blame up front. There will be plenty of time later to parcel out blame and examine who did what.

Secondly, the company may have displayed some arrogance in the beginning that it will undoubtedly regret in years to come. Although the world has never seen an environmental disaster quite like this, BP acted like it could fix it and make everything right, no problem.

It even gave cute, snappy little names like Top Hat to its various attempts to stop up the flow. As a result, the media have been busy reporting a litany of failures.

It would have been better had the company owned up to the fact it would be a long arduous task to stop the leak, and said as little as possible while it searched for a solution.

As Susan Reisler, vice-president at Toronto PR firm Media Profile, noted to The Globe and Mail: "What would have helped them from the very beginning is for them to say, 'We're in uncharted waters.' Because they didn't do that, they created the expectation they knew how to fix it."

BP has far too much in retained profits in its treasury to be on the brink of bankruptcy. However, it is hard to imagine how BP can carry on business as usual in the U.S., which accounts for 40 per cent of the company's market. Watch for the company to be sold off in pieces.

Also BP CEO Tony Hayward will be lucky to survive the balance of the year in his current job. Aside from a wobbly start in his company's damage control efforts, Hayward has said some dumb things such as "I would like my life back" as thousands of people in Louisiana are likely wondering what they will be doing for a living when all this is over.

Still, Hayward inherited an ill-fated oil well from his predecessor, John Browne, and therefore doesn't deserve all the criticism. But a struggling multinational will want to make a dramatic statement that it is changing its ways. The quick way to do that is to get a new skipper.

It happened on Hayward's watch. So he wears it.

Overall, this disaster will likely have the same effect on the petroleum industry as the Three Mile Island disaster did on the nuclear sector in 1979. Policy makers will find applications for deep water drilling just as toxic as they did for new reactors for for almost three decades.

The Alberta tar sands must be looking awfully good to investors right now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy ending for Bryant leaves questions for the rest of us

A few months ago this blog dealt with how Michael Bryant was able to clear his reputation in the court of public opinion. Now that the former Ontario attorney general has been cleared in the court that counts most, let's have another look at this bizarre case because there are still questions that should be answered.

Prosecutor Richard Peck withdrew all charges against Bryant in connection with the death of a Toronto bike courier, Darcy Allan Sheppard, in a curbside altercation, saying there was no chance of conviction. Then he cited a litany of incidents involving the cyclist and other motorists, including an elderly woman.

Peck, a Vancouver lawyer brought in to avoid any appearances of special treatment, concluded by saying Bryant should never have been charged.

The prosecutor was very thorough in explaining why the charges -- criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death -- were being dropped - so much so that most people were satisfied justice has been served.

The defence made the unusual move of turning over its evidence to the Crown in advance of a preliminary hearing in the hopes the prosecution would see the folly in pursuing a guilty verdict and drop the whole thing. It worked.

As a result, the official victim has been cast in the public mind as the actual villain and the original villain has become the victim.

Case officially closed. However, a few questions come to mind.

Considering another recent high-profile court case, why couldn't the prosecution have been as forthcoming as Peck when most of the charges against former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer were dropped in an Orangeville court in March?

In that case, the Crown simply said there was little chance of conviction with charges of cocaine possession and impaired driving. As a result, Jaffer was able to plead guilty to careless driving and got off with a slap on the wrist. No other explanation was given and the prosecution left politicians in Ontario and Ottawa to deal with a hostile public.

Perhaps it was because Peck, a defence lawyer, didn't have the secretive mindset that most Crown Attorneys seem to have in Ontario. Clearly, the Ontario legal system could learn something about public accountability from the visiting counsel from B.C.

Back to Bryant: If the prosecution says he should never have been charged, then why did the police charge him so quickly within hours of the incident?

Sure there were witness statements the night of the incident that would seem to indicate Bryant was trying to flee the scene of the accident. But how reliable would any witness statement be of an incident that lasted 28 seconds?It was determined that Sheppard had a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit. He also had been in a police cruiser earlier that same evening after an alleged domestic dispute.

Did police canvass the area to determine if Sheppard had been involved in other altercations with motorists? Remember, most of the evidence Peck cited came from the defence's investigation.

The police certainly had an obligation to show that a former politician was not getting any special treatment But how thorough was the investigation?

Finally, the most disturbing question of all: What would have happened if a person of ordinary means without the sophistication of a former attorney general had been caught up in an incident like this and why was a very troubled Darcy Allan Sheppard not receiving mental health care?

There are questions we all should be thinking about.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Iggy and the AG: Talk about lost opportunity

The recent decision by MPs to keep the Auditor General away from their expense accounts and office budgets may say a lot about the disconnect between Parliament Hill and the rest of the country.

But it also says something about Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and why he is struggling as a politician.

If there ever was an opportunity for the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition to score some political points this was it.

To recap briefly, MPs essentially started a one-week adjournment May 13, adamant that Auditor General Sheila Fraser would not be given jurisdiction to audit how taxpayers' money is spent on Parliament Hill. Only the Bloc Quebecois was on public record as supporting the Auditor General in her bid to audit House of Commons expenditures.

Rather than explain their reasons for opposing the AG, the three parties tried to hide behind something called the Board of Internal Economy, which meets in secret and basically runs the House of Commons. It consists of the Speaker and the House leaders of each of the four parties.

Since the Board of Internal Economy had ruled against the AG,that wast that, MPs said. But when public outrage became apparent as phones in constituency offices started to ring, MPs began breaking ranks. One of those was Iggy.

Instead of giving the AG a flat no, Iggy now said the Board of Internal Economy should meet with her and try to work something out. Within days he was joined by the Prime Minister who said his government would be happy to talk about expanded audit powers.

Clearly both leaders saw how the public wind was blowing and knew there was no point trying to defend the indefensible.

The Auditor General likely will soon win the right to audit how the House of Commons is run.But the Liberals have lost an opportunity. Had they joined the Bloc in supporting the AG, they could have shown voters they really were in tune with Canadians and willing to make Parliament Hill more accountable.

Now three of the four parties on the Hill are rushing to cover their posteriors.

Something is wrong with the Liberal leader's instincts, just as there is something wrong with federal politics.