a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why would cops knowingly assault Stacy on camera?

By now we all have been appalled by the video of Ottawa police assaulting Stacy Bonds at the station – Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Police Chief Vern White, everybody. This is universal condemnation.

This one short video seems to have had more impact on public officials than the hundreds of hours of police video we have seen from the G20 Summit.

Yet there is one troubling question. Why would five officers, who would have known they were on video monitor, rough up a 125-pound woman like that without the slightest sign of inhibition? What would make them think that was acceptable behavior inside a police station?

The Ottawa police chief sounds like a sincere man and we can probably take him at his word that he will get to the bottom of what happened. And he probably does believe that only a minority of police are excessively violent.

But there appears to be widespread problem with police culture in Ottawa and elsewhere.

We all have heard unsubstantiated stories of police brutality without any tangible evidence. The brutal behaviour of the Ottawa police would suggest at least some of them might be true.

Now that there are cameras everywhere from store monitors to cell phone cameras, we may be finding out some ugly truths about Canadian law enforcement.

Indeed there may be a serious disconnect between police and the society they are supposed to serve.

Perhaps this is just part of wider decline in public morality by our officials everywhere, which might explain the mindlessly cruel treatment of military veterans by the federal government, or the recent behaviour of a Toronto prosecutor who caused a mistrial by making faces at the jury.

Whatever the answer, the Ottawa police chief could make a good start in restoring public confidence in his police force by embracing the gracious remarks of Bonds in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen over the weekend.

“People do need to know that police do abuse their power, and people need to speak out. But there are a lot of great cops out there, too, and people need to know that.”

These are the words of a wise woman.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peter MacKay, the sequel

Normally, wearing a baseball cap that mocks your employer anywhere near the office would be considered a dumb career move. And being widely quoted in the media as critical of your employer’s policy would be considered suicide – especially when your boss is Stephen Harper.

But maybe Peter MacKay, Canada’s defence minister (for now), is being dumb like a fox.

In the past week, it has been MacKay’s turn to dole out the humiliation after being very publicly cut out of the loop over the extended mission in Afghanistan the previous week.

First MacKay sported a red baseball cap that said ``Fly Emirates’’ during a fire drill on Parliament Hill. Then he told a couple of fellow Tories in the presence of a radio reporter that continued refusal to allow flights to and from the United Arab Emirates beyond a couple of times a week was unwise.

Subsequently, MacKay told the media at large that diplomatic relations with the Emirates have been set back 10 years by Ottawa’s intransigence on the landing rights.

To finish off the week. MacKay joined the Prime Minister on a flight to Lisbon for the NATO Summit. The atmosphere on the plane might have been a bit frigid.

So what was MacKay up to?

Most ministers publicly breaking ranks like that would be on the back benches by now. But MacKay is in a unique position as the last leader of the Progressive Conservatives before the merger with the Alliance that formed the current Conservative party.

Aside from the fact that Harper owes MacKay for going along with the merger, the Prime Minister knows that bouncing his defence minister from cabinet will set off speculation about a rift in the party.

It is pretty obvious the Conservatives would like to have a spring election after the 2011 budget even though the most rabid Harperites don’t expect to win a majority. An election before economic growth can slow down any more simply makes strategic sense.

Plans for a spring election would have to be shelved if speculation about an internal rift gets out of hand. So MacKay likely is the minister with the most job security at least until the next cabinet shuffle.

MacKay likely will make a career change in the New Year. Perhaps he will join Jim Prentice in self-imposed exile Bay Street and wait for his party’s leadership to come open.

After almost five years of minority government, a Conservative leadership race is a growing likelihood. After all this amalgamated party never did get around to a founding policy convention after its factions – the Red Tories versus the Neo Cons – spent years disliking each other.

The Conservatives likely will win the next election. But a victory with fewer seats would almost certainly bring out the knives for their leader.

In the meantime, Prentice and MacKay and who knows who else may be watching and waiting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The decline of a political superstar

There is nothing like someone being sent in to do your job to focus your thinking on a career change. Just ask Peter MacKay.

But maybe the moderates in his party, the so-called ``Red Tories’’ should be thinking about their own futures.

MacKay is being publicly humiliated. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. The defence minister has even had to stay silent while Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister’s communications director, spoke to the media about Canada’s extended mission in Afghanistan.

When the government got around to providing details about the extended mission on Tuesday, there was MacKay in the background with Bev Oda, the very junior minister of international aid, while Cannon ran the news conference.

As is the custom at multi-ministered news conferences in Ottawa, MacKay was allowed to provide a couple of sound bites, lest we all think he was just there as a prop. But his appearance will do nothing to stop the public speculation on what sparked one of the more spectacular falls from grace in federal politics.

Most of that speculation has centred on personal disagreements with Stephen Harper. Your guess is as good as mine. But there may be reasons beyond personal hard feelings.

When the former Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged in 2003 to form the present Conservative party, the focus was on how to break a 21-year Liberal dynasty rather than how to merge two different political cultures.

In fact those behind the rushed merger never did get around to a founding policy convention. Nor was there much time for public breaking of bread by former foes.

Over the years, the former PCs’ influence has been diminishing to the point where the merger has clearly become a takeover. With Jim Prentice now gone, MacKay is about the last trace of the PCs in cabinet. And if Heritage Minister James Moore winds up seeking the leadership of the B.C. Liberals to replace Gordon Campbell, there won’t be many moderates left either.

So while MacKay may continue to deny he is leaving, he likely will be gone in the New Year. (Remember, he hasn’t actually denied speaking with a Toronto law firm.)

Nothing personal, Peter. It’s just business.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ways to shut people up: Firing isn’t one of them

If it hasn’t happened already, somebody in the Prime Minister’s Office must be asking ``why did we fire Pat Stogran?’’

Stogran will be remembered as the veterans’ ombudsman who had the audacity to speak up early and often on behalf of Canada’s war veterans – so much so that the government fired him. His last day on the job is Wednesday and his successor takes over on Thursday, Remembrance Day.

How is that for getting the bum’s rush out the door?

Stogran’s difficulties with his employer are reminiscent of the late Dr. Morton Shulman’s tenure as chief Ontario coroner in the 1960s. The government of Ontario Premier John Robarts thought it was making a routine patronage appointment. But Shulman took the job seriously.

So after six years, the Robarts government fired Shulman for being a pain in the ass. But Shulman became an even bigger pain in the ass after he was fired. It prompted Robarts to remark his biggest mistake was hiring Shulman. His second biggest was firing Shulman.

The papers are full of stories about veterans and how they are being shortchanged and shafted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Even the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Jean Pierre Blackburn, has conceded his own department has been heartless.

Disabled vets are protesting on Parliament Hill. Strogran says he is prepared to launch a class action law suit on behalf of veterans everywhere.

As they say in the PMO, the optics of Pat Stogran’s appointment and firing really suck. You wouldn’t want to be the person who recommended Stogran to the Prime Minister’s appointment office.

The Harper government has a history of firing cabinet appointees who have turned out not to be quite the team players they had in mind. It was only a matter of time when one of them would refuse to go quietly.

In contrast, the government of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty came close to firing the provincial ombudsman, Andre Marin, but then wisely decided it would be easier to just put up with him.

The former Liberal government likely would have buried Stogran in work by calling a royal commission or or kicked him upstairs into a higher paying, but less visible, job before he caused anymore trouble.

The current government is likely learning that the bluntest instrument isn’t the best instrument for dealing with trouble.

And if they look up Morton Shulman on Wikipedia, they will find that the doctor was able to launch a very successful political career in the Ontario legislature as a New Democrat after his firing.

Maybe Stogran will be offered a Senate appointment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Glen Murray tweets himself into trouble

Aside from being Ontario Research and Innovation Minister, Glen Murray has the distinction of being the first Canadian politician to have to apologize for something he said on Twitter.

For some reason, the rookie minister decided it would be a good idea to tweet the world that Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were prime examples of right-wing ignorance and bigotry.

Murray’s tweet was prompted by homophobic references in some campaigns around the province during the Oct. 25 municipal elections.

He wound up apologizing. Still he isn’t the first Canadian politician to make an ass of himself within 140 characters. That distinction likely belongs to federal Industry Minister Tony Clement, who rushed to take credit for preventing a drowning in a tweet almost as soon as the person was safely out of the water.

And you can be sure Murray won’t be the last politician to put his foot in his mouth over Twitter. Politicians have taken to Twitter in the much the same way they take to kissing babies or getting their pictures taken with hockey players.

Several dozen federal MPs have Twitter accounts. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tweeted his entire budget this year, 140 characters at a time. Tweets were an emerging tactic in the 2008 federal election and will be in the next.

One reason is that the public relations industry, always on the prowl for new services to sell, is almost as infatuated with Twitter as the politicians. Believe or not, there are already people in the PR industry selling their services as ghost tweeters to CEOs and others too busy to tweet for themselves.

But another reason might be that politicians today are so heavily scripted on what to say by the bureaucracy and the party leaders, Twitter offers them an easy opportunity to get something off their chest unsupervised.

Nobody has figured out a way to control tweeting by politicians, lest the parties take away their Blackberries. And that is not going to happen because modern government would soon grind to a halt.

Of course, 140 characters don’t leave much room for context or explanation, which explains why we have been getting a lot of nonsense from politicians’ tweets.

Murray’s adventure on Twitter might be a cautionary tale to other politicians. But we can only expect tweets to grow as a political tool of choice, whether they aid democracy or not.