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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

The price we pay for a government of fear Add to ...

Anyone who watches the Harper government up close, or even at a distance, becomes aware of the intense and overwhelming preoccupation with message control, photo-ops and spin.

Although centralized control of messaging has been a growing feature of federal governments - indeed, governments in many democracies - nothing in Canada has come close to the attention, time and effort the Harper government puts into managing and manipulating information and image-making.

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Every message from anyone, be it a minister or civil servant, has to be vetted by the Prime Minister's Office and, astonishingly, quite often by the Prime Minister himself.

The whole operation has a manic, all-consuming quality to it, further witness to which are excellent reports from Michael Blanchfield and James Bronskill of The Canadian Press explaining what are called MEPs at the heart of the message machine.

An MEP is a Message Event Proposal. (This is governmentspeak, not plain English, remember.) Every time the government gets a request for information, or every time a government person is designated to speak, an MEP is prepared.

The MEP describes the request/event, the likely audience, the desired headline or sound bite, the appropriate backdrop, the best photograph or camera angle, the appropriate clothing, the accompanying materials, and so on. Nothing, if possible, is left to chance by this spin machine, which is why so many of Stephen Harper's events, and those of other ministers, have such a lifeless, deadening sense about them. Spontaneity is the sworn enemy of this government.

Watching this overwhelming preoccupation with message control and spin raises the question of how many people and how much time are involved in such matters. Think about how many proposals a government receives, how many interview requests, how many ministerial announcements, how many MPs' speeches, to say nothing of appearances by Mr. Harper - most, if not all, requiring an MEP and all that goes into preparing one.

Of course, the system gets jammed up waiting for Mr. Harper's approval, or that of the PMO, with the result that delays plague the system. Worse, there is a pervasive fear within this government - fear of making a mistake, of saying something ever so slightly off-message or creating the mildest unexpected controversy.

Within the federal public service, there is widespread disgust at this centralized mania for message control, since it leaves public servants feeling neutered, their expertise unwanted. They are replaced instead for explanatory purposes about policy by young ministerial staffers who seldom know much about anything, except guarding their rear ends against the PMO.

A distinguishing feature of this system is that even the young staffers seldom say anything except "no comment" or some other such statement of anodyne ignorance. In other words, those who are supposed to communicate seldom have anything to communicate, either because they know so little, are utterly terrified of the PMO or can do little beyond reading its spin notes.

Any prime minister who needs a valet, as this one feels he does, is obviously transfixed by image, not only of himself but of his entire government. It shows in everything the government does, including how few ministers ever say anything at all. These are the handful Mr. Harper has come to trust. The others are held on a chokingly short leash, their utterances scripted by the same centralized message centre as everyone else.

That this government distrusts the media is old, unimportant news, but it also doesn't trust the public with information it hasn't prepared and precooked. It especially dislikes members of the public, or groups, who the government suspects will not agree with its position.

Apart from the Prime Minister's own personality, this mania goes back to the Conservatives' first campaign as a united party. when individual candidates ran off at the mouth about abortion and other subjects that made headlines the leader did not want.

From then on, centralized message control, enforced by the Prime Minister himself and reinforced by fear, became the modus operandi of this government.

Obviously, the Prime Minister thinks this system works, or it would have been changed. It offers the spin and control he desires. It also conveys the impression of a government of little emotion, with distant, even fearful men and women.

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