a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interesting attempt to defuse Jaffer scandal

One difference between the Guergis/Jaffer affair and other political scandals is that the government seems to be playing a dual role of accuser and defender.

Last Friday, Environment Minister Jim Prentice rose in the House of Commons to disclose that former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer had made representations on behalf of a private company to one of his aides. By implication, Jaffer was working as lobbyist even though he is not registered in the federal registrar of lobbyists.

Subsequently, Prentice disclosed in the Commons on Monday that those representations were made by Jaffer to the environment minister's aide in the office of Helena Guergis, Jaffer's spouse and status of women minister at the time.

Earlier last week, Jaffer and his business partner had to endure aggressively hostile Commons committee questioning from his former caucus colleagues.

At that hearing, Jaffer said he hardly ever was in the office of his spouse after he was defeated in the 2008 election and certainly did not do any lobbying there. In fact, Jaffer denied doing any lobbying under the definition set out in federal legislation.

Thanks to the minister of environment, Jaffer will have some explaining to do.

Whenever the government is attacked by the Opposition in this affair, it goes on the defensive by reminding us that the Prime Minister turned over allegations against Guergis to the RCMP and the Commons Ethics Commissioner.

So on one hand, the government has likely sunk Jaffer. On the other hand, it is vigorously defending its actions in this three-week affair. It is plaintiff and defendant in the court of public opinion at the same time.

In the short term, the dual strategy makes sense. By making a target of its former caucus chairman, the government is trying to keep the focus on Jaffer in much the way one tries to localize an infection.

So far, the government's strategy may be working because the Jaffer/Guergis affair has yet to have a major impact on any party's standing in the polls.

That may be because Canadians are disillusioned with politics in general. But it may also be because the government has been able to keep the daily narrative focused on Jaffer rather than the government's actions.

In the long-term, the Tories may still pay a price. This was a government that was elected on an ethics platform. Its first major piece of legislation was the Federal Accountability Act, which was supposed to clean up Ottawa and open the place to scrutiny.

In fairness, Jaffer may be innocent of illegal activity. There are loopholes in the legislation that allow lobbying without registration.

However, most voters won't notice legislative nuances and could decide over time that nothing has changed in Ottawa since the Conservatives were elected in 2006. That makes the government's strategy very risky.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quite a body count so far in Guergis affair

In his 1965 book, The Shape of Scandal: A study of a government in crisis, Canadian journalist Richard Gwyn made a very telling observation about political scandal. Once a scandal has caught the public imagination, it takes on a life of its own with some surprise victims.

Long out of print, The Shape of Scandal documented how the prison break of a drug dealer in Quebec consumed Parliament, led to a royal commission, the resignation of a justice minister and hurt the careers of countless others during the years of the Pearson minority government.

To this day, this scandal is remembered by all sides on Parliament Hill as an affair that got out of hand like a horrendous brush fire.

Those involved in the current controversy surrounding Helena Guergis, Rahim Jaffer and other characters might like to scout out some second-had book stores for Gwyn's book.

Aside from Ottawa's most famous former power couple and business promoter Nazim Gillani, this affair has taken a large casualty list in under two weeks.

Derrick Snowdy, the private detective who started this all by making allegations, still unclear, to a Conservative party lawyer, is under almost as much scrutiny as the three central players.

Mary Dawson, Parliament's ethics commissioner, should probably be thinking about career options once this affair is over. So far she has looked indecisive and less than eager to investigate.

This officer of Parliament has already antagonized the Opposition because of a couple of goofy past rulings. Although government advertising on the recovery plan looked a lot like campaign propaganda, according to Dawson it did not violate conflict of interest rules because the Conservative party is neither a person nor a corporation. Huh?

Is Dawson is using every possible loophole and pretext to avoid investigating the government?She is bound to be in Opposition MP sights as this affair continues.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have appeared to be doing the right thing at first by quickly calling in Dawson and the RCMP. But since nothing much of substance has emerged against Guergis so far, he may have been a little too quick.

There is now wide speculation he used the slimmest of pretexts to rid himself of a gaff-prone minister. The Prime Minister has something to lose in this affair just as the other players do.

Political scandals rarely result in formal legal action. But they damage careers of anyone in their path.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Second-rate scandal shows Tories losing control of narrative

As scandals go, the Helena Guergis affair is pretty second rate. It pales against the sponsorship scandal of the Liberals -- at least so far -- and hardly rates among the ongoing peccadilloes of the Mulroney government.

But the current government should be concerned just the same. As we have seen time and time again, what matters on Parliament Hill is not the actual transgression but how the government deals with it.

We don't know why the Prime Minister has called in the RCMP to investigate allegations by a "third party" into the former minister's conduct because the government claims neither it nor the RCMP can say.

(Strangely the RCMP had no problem announcing in the middle of the 2006 election that the Martin government was under criminal investigation for possible insider trading violations -- allegations that didn't go anywhere. Or how as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney able to explain why he was firing Andre Bissonette from cabinet in the Oerlikon affair?)

We all love a mystery. That's why this story has legs and will continue to do so for another week at least. The Prime Minister likely regrets already not being more forthcoming.

As an added bonus, Helena Guergis has a reputation as Ottawa's equivalent to Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean. This is why there are enough former employees of the Hon. Helena to fill a good part of the Charlottetown Airport.

When it is time for the Tories to do a post-mortem on the Guergis affair, they might want to look at issue management.

Last fall the governing party was able to swat away an inconvenient issue like an annoying gnat. But since the prorogation affair, this government hasn't been able to control the narrative that comes out of Ottawa daily.

They are like a sports franchise that has lost its winning ways and can't get the magic back.

So far the Opposition has been unable to capitalize. It will be interesting to see how long the Tories can count on their opponents' inability to take advantage.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Government could learn something from Hillary Clinton

Things may be quiet on Parliament Hill this week because of the Easter break. But at the Prime Minister's Office across the street in the Langevin Block, they are probably still dusting themselves off and assessing the damage after Hurricane Hillary blew into town last week.

From time to time, all governments have to deal with a critical comment or subtle double entendre from a visiting dignitary. But three critical comments in one week from one foreign VIP -- the U.S. Secretary of State no less -- will not be contained in a couple of covering statements.

Hillary Clinton has put Ottawa on notice to change its ways in foreign policy if it wants to retain Washington's confidence.

For the record while in Ottawa for the G8 foreign ministers' meeting, she said:

  • The Americans are distressed to see Canadian forces leave Afghanistan in 2011 as the government plans.
  • Family planning has to be included in the Harper government's G8 initiative to protect the lives of mothers and children in the developing world.
  • Excluding three member states of the Arctic Council -- Finland, Sweden and Iceland-- from Ottawa's ill-fated summit on the Arctic was a mistake because those countries have legitimate interests in that region.
Her first point was likely of least concern to the government because most Canadians are opposed to their troops staying any longer in Afghanistan than necessary. However, it will be interesting to see how much military Ottawa winds up leaving there as special or policing task forces because of American pressure.

The family planning issue is more serious because somebody in the PMO appears to have decided to turn an inherently good initiative into a wedge issue to appease the Tory core vote.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon initially said there would be no family planning component in the motherhood initiative. Then he said he misspoke himself after much obfuscation. Now the Harper government has boxed itself into a position in which it can't give a clear answer one way or the other. Canada's G8 partners must be quite befuddled.

As for the Arctic issue, the Arctic Council was set up as a forum for countries with an interest in that region to air their differences and views in an atmosphere of good faith and trust. Canada was a co-founder.

Again, some genius made the decision to send the message that Canada would only deal with the big guys.

Granted the summit, held as a sidebar to the G8 meeting, was officially open to the five Arctic coastal states -- Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark/Greenland and Norway. But it is hard to believe Ottawa would want to hear from Greenland and not Iceland. Why Norway and Denmark but not Finland and Sweden?

As Hillary was probably thinking to herself -- dumb, dumb, dumb. If the current government learns from Hillary's swats on the nose, then she will have done Ottawa a huge favour.

Putting petty politics ahead of diplomatic protocol and leadership sends the wrong message all around.


Speaking of dumb messaging, I would be remiss not to comment on the Vatican's increasingly nasty PR campaign against media coverage of allegations of child abuse inside the church.

The Vatican is behaving like allegations are being directed at the Pope himself. In reality, of course, the institution he represents has mishandled a longstanding problem and the buck stops with the person in charge.

But showing contrition might also open the door to other hot issues like getting rid of celibacy or opening the priesthood to women. And the Vatican would rather damage its own credibility and moral authority than open itself to modern thinking.