a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.

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