a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.