Federal public servants were trying to understand the wholesale “harperization” of Government of Canada communications six months before a spokesman for the prime minister emphatically denied any change in policy or practice.
New documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act directly contradict published claims by Stephen Harper’s chief spokesman that bureaucrats have not been directed to replace the words Government of Canada with “Harper Government” in departmental news releases and backgrounders.
Top former civil servants say the wording change marks a disturbing new trend in the politicization of the bureaucracy – and breaches both communications policy and the civil service ethics policy.
Insiders say ongoing editing skirmishes continue between some government departments with strong leadership and the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy known as PCO that serves the prime minister.
Industry Canada took nearly nine months to deliver documents based on the access request, ignoring statutory deadlines for releasing the records. The Information Commissioner deemed a complaint by The Canadian Press about the delay to be well-founded, determining the department had refused to provide access under the Act.
The “deemed refusal” appears profoundly political, given the contents.
Industry Canada’s e-mails and edited releases from autumn 2010 make a mockery of Conservative government denials offered when The Canadian Press first published reports of the name-change orders last March.
“The directive we have from the (director general’s office) is that if PCO adds the Harper Government reference, then we leave it in,” says an e-mail to communications officials at Industry, dated Oct. 5, 2010. “Please proceed with this approach. Sorry – it is what PCO has instructed.”
An editor responded: “Given this directive, and with mild distress, I have reinstalled the phrasing.”
“French release harperized and good to go,” quipped another.
Civil servants were clearly alarmed by the change in nomenclature as far back as late September 2010.
“‘Harper Government’ is not in line with the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, so I have modified it,” wrote a member of Industry Canada’s communications branch after PCO sent back an altered release.
“Please see Chris Fox to make sure we are actually adding ‘Harper Government’ to the release,” wrote another. “This is not appropriate language, in my opinion.”
“We understand that Harper Government will not be used by Editorial,” wrote yet another public servant at the time. “It has been requested of us by PCO, however.”
When the change in nomenclature was revealed last March, Mr. Harper’s chief spokesman at the time, Dimitri Soudas, wrote to Canadian newspapers asserting “no directive” went out to civil servants. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he declared.
Mr. Soudas, who has since left the PMO to become executive director of communications for the Canadian Olympic Association, also called the revelations by The Canadian Press the stuff of “black helicopters and conspiracy theories.”
Stockwell Day, then the Treasury Board president, told the House of Commons “there has been no change of policy or practice.”
Despite scores of pages of internal e-mails about the orders from several different departments, the PMO continues to maintain the enforced name-change didn’t happen.
“Dimitri’s comments from March stand,” Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s associate director of communications, said late Monday.
He noted Industry Canada’s website currently includes plenty of “Government of Canada” usages.
“As for the term ‘Harper Government”, as we’ve said many times, this has been long-standing practice across various governments,” Mr. MacDougall continued in an e-mail. “This terminology is widely used by journalists and the public.”
Yet more than a year ago, on Oct. 22, 2010, an Industry public servant noted in writing that “as per our directive from PCO, I have left in the phrase ‘Harper Government.”‘ Another editor further up the chain repeated the same caveat, word-for-word – “as per our directive from PCO” – in clearing the changes.
Why the ostensibly non-partisan Privy Council would undertake such a controversial change in communications policy, if not on directions from the prime minister, remains a mystery.
The Prime Minister’s Office has simply ignored for months repeated inquiries about the motivation for the shift in language.
Jonathan Rose, an expert in political communication at Queen’s University, suggests it’s a partisan branding exercise designed to “encourage a subtle shift to occur where the government of Canada is equated with a particular party or leader.”
“It allows for a more seamless connection between the neutral machinery of the state and the partisan interests of those in government,” said Mr. Rose.
Canadians should take note, he said.
“The public service is correctly asking questions, as there does not seem to be a clear policy rationale for neutral public servants to do the partisan bidding of a government,” said Mr. Rose.
On Sept. 30, 2010, a Privy Council official wrote he was “waiting to hear back from my friends next door,” when asked by Industry about editing changes that added “Harper Government” to a news release.
“My counterparts next door have requested a change to the headline (below),” the official responded soon after, above a “Harper Government” headline.
Others within government were also wondering where and why the change was being ordered.
An official with the Networks of Centres of Excellence, a research granting agency that deals with business, academic and not-for-profit organizations, sent an e-mail to Industry’s communications group last December: “Is there an official policy change that now allows for changes such as Harper Government. I may need an official explanation for our partners.”
The communications official kicked the request up to Shannon Cassidy, a manager in public affairs and “ministerial services” at Industry.
“Did you ever get any rationale from PCO or anyone on this?” asked the official.
No response to the e-mail was included in the Access to Information package.
There is still none to this day.