a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.