a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How not to manage a scandal

If there is ever a university course on scandal management, the Guergis/Jaffer affair would make a great case study.

Ottawa's handling of this episode is a fine demonstration of what not to do. In fact, the government's strategy and tactics appear to have backfired.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked Helena Guergis out of cabinet and the government caucus on April 9, citing accusations of a criminal nature that were being turned over to the RCMP and the parliamentary ethics officer.

Since Guergis had been a embarrassing thorn in Harper's side, most of us expected her to disappear into history quickly. Six weeks later she is still a thorn in Harper's side.

Harper didn't say what those accusations were at the time. Since then the government has only acknowledged they came from a third party who turned out to be a Toronto private detective.

That private detective testified before MPs last week that he had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Guergis or her husband, former MP Rahim Jaffer. In fact, the private eye testified he was misquoted in a letter to Mary Dawson, the ethics officer, by Guy Giorno, Harper's chief of staff.

And in a recent CBC-TV interview with Peter Mansbridge, Guergis broke into tears after claiming the allegations have never been made clear to her. Nor has she heard anything from the RCMP. It was a convincing performance.

As a professional politician, Guergis knows how to play an audience. However, the private detective's testimony, or lack of it, appears to back her up.

In addition, the government's response has been rather weak. It now says it has other sources of allegations against the former junior cabinet minister in much the same way the security bureaucracy kept saying Maher Arar was a dangerous person without saying why.

It took a royal commission to establish that suspicions about Arar were groundless. What will it take to get to the bottom of the unknown allegations against Guergis?

Parliament is not sitting this week and lucky for the government. Otherwise the Prime Minister would have to explain why he kicked Guergis out of caucus while allowing an Alberta Conservative who is under RCMP investigation for mortgage fraud to stay.

As a minister, Guergis stayed in the cabinet at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. So why all the histrionics to remove her? And why expel her from caucus?

Guergis is looking more and more like a victim, while the government is looking more and more conspiratorial. Did the government grab the first excuse that came by to get rid of a hapless minister rather than admit the mistake of keeping her in cabinet for as long as it did?

The accuser is becoming the accused.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why didn't Canadian media touch this Toyota safety story?

Since there has been a lot of criticism in this blog about how people communicate through the media, let's shift attention to the media's performance this week.

Last Thursday, the New York Times ran a story about how Transport Canada has been handling the safety issue that has been dogging Toyota for the past eight months.

Written by the paper's Ottawa correspondent, Ian Austen, the story revealed that while Transport Canada publicly applauded Toyota last November for its protection of consumers, the department's own employees wrote memos that said the exact opposite. The story was based on internal e-mails and it was very thorough.

"Toyota Canada's action seriously undermines this safety issue," wrote a Transport Canada field inspector last October in an e-mail concerning floor mats.

Yet a few weeks later, a departmental news release declared: "Transport Canada applauds Toyota's action to protect consumers" over the same issue.

As shocking as this story may be, Canadian government departments have a very long history of valuing commerce over simple truth and ignoring what their own officials tell them.

Almost 20 years ago, Health Canada told Canadian women silicone breast implants were completely safe when its own scientists were telling the department they weren't. More recently, the Department of Foreign Affairs chose to pretend Afghan detainees weren't being tortured despite warnings from its own officials.

Canadian media are well aware that government department behave this way yet continue to allow them to get away with it.

Although last week's New York Times story was given very prominent display, there was no coverage by Canadian media even though the quoted documents were publicly released by a House of Commons committee.

The Times speculated that the auto industry's importance to the Canadian economy was the reason why Transport Canada has been taking a far softer approach to Toyota than its American counterpart.

Perhaps the Canadian media also value commerce over safety. Or perhaps Canada's overly severe libel laws have left a lasting and chilling legacy.

Whatever the reason, Canadians deserve better from their media.


This posting marks a return after a one-week hiatus. It's my policy to post every Tuesday. My apologies for missing last week.