Stealth government won't work

Thursday, February 23, 2006

During the election campaign, the Conservatives were quite successful in keeping the media away from issues that they didn’t want them to talk about. They did this by leading the media to other stories, ensuring that Stephen Harper presented fresh policy each day and providing quick responses to everything that the Liberals did or said.

They also advised their candidates to avoid giving any interviews. You didn’t hear from Cheryl Gallant or Rob Merrifield this time around, nor did you hear much about the extreme social conservatism of non-incumbent candidates such as David Sweet (who won) and Cindy Silver (who didn’t). They were simply “unavailable for comment”. When Harper visited Waterloo Region, Kitchener-Conestoga candidate (and now MP) Harold Albrecht was said to be “in a meeting”, although he was clearly visible to some of the reporters, standing alone in the kitchen.

When hiccups happened in the campaign, they were dealt with quickly and forcefully. When it was revealed that British Columbia candidate Derek Zeissman was facing smuggling charges, for example, he was immediately cut loose by the party and the media moved on to the next story.

The Conservatives were aided to a large degree by the Liberals’ own approach to the campaign, which was basically to run the 2004 campaign all over again (since, oddly enough, they saw losing their majority and coming perilously close to losing government all together as “a victory”). But, the story about Harper and his MPs being scary monsters had already been written; the media were looking for a new narrative and the Liberals simply didn’t give it to them. Moreover, the Liberals’ attacks on Harper were so shrill and so over-the-top that the credibility of more reasonable questions about his fitness to govern was undermined.

While politicians can’t forget the lessons that they learned on the campaign trail, they need to move on to a new strategy once they are elected. Any political strategist – except perhaps the ones working for Stephen Harper – will tell you that what works during an election campaign doesn’t always work once you’re in government. Once they get off the media campaign bus and get back to Parliament Hill, reporters are not as patient with anything that smacks of manipulation. And, with all of your MPs conveniently in one location, it’s far less feasible to hide any of them in imaginary meetings in the kitchen or to have them be unavailable for comment.

Within minutes of swearing in his new Cabinet, there were at least three major problems apparent with Harper’s choices. First, appointing former Liberal minister David Emerson, someone who less than two weeks before had described himself as “Stephen Harper’s worst enemy” (he now describes himself as “not the sharpest knife in the drawer”), outraged voters in his riding as well as many Conservatives, who remembered how the party had reacted to Belinda Stronach’s defection and genuinely believed that their party would act differently when in government.

As well, the appointment of backroom party hack Michael Fortier to Cabinet contradicted both the party’s commitment to an elected Senate and Harper’s own promise that anyone appointed to Cabinet would have to be elected. As Minister of Public Works, Fortier will be handling government advertising and procurement (the key issues in the sponsorship scandal), but he won’t be in the House of Commons to answer questions.

Meanwhile, former defense industry lobbyist Gordon O’Connor is now in the position to reward the very companies that he once represented. The Conservatives’ new ethics rules may stop public servants from selling their contacts to the lobbying industry, but they ignore the poor optics of having a lobbyist at the Cabinet table.

Incredibly, Harper seems to have no other media strategy but to follow the same stealth tactics that worked so well for him during the campaign. Not only is he applying the muzzle to MPs who have a problem with the questionable appointments (Garth Turner being the only one still willing to speak out), but he’s now rationing his own media availability to a ridiculous degree. The Politics Watch website noted last week that “Whether it's bad news days – a whirlwind of controversy surrounding two cabinet appointments and dissident MPs speaking out – or good news days – his first meeting with a premier and the appointment of a popular (sic) new ambassador to the U.S. – Harper has been about as available to the media as a reclusive silent era movie star.” Even the Harper-friendly Globe and Mail published a feature headlined “Why has Stephen Harper stayed out of sight?”

The “shush up” campaign strategy worked because Harper was out there ever day delivering an alternative message. If he’s going to avoid the media entirely, and instruct everyone in his Cabinet and his backbench to do the same, the media will find something to cover – and the coverage is not likely to be too favourable to the Conservatives. And, if the ammunition that Harper handed to them with his Cabinet choices is any indication of the acumen that he’ll bring to government, they’ll have plenty of topics to choose from.
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