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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a Vancouver news conference on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a Vancouver news conference on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tories re-brand government in Stephen Harper's name Add to ...

It's official: Stephen Harper rules.

And lest anyone forgets, a directive went out to public servants late last year that "Government of Canada" in federal communications should be replaced by the words "Harper Government."

Public servants from four different line departments told The Canadian Press the instruction came from "the Centre" - meaning the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office that serves the prime minister.

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None would speak on the record for fear of retribution. It's a well-grounded concern given the treatment of a senior government scientist who was fired in 2006 after rebelling against a directive to use "Canada's New Government" in government communications.

Andrew Okulitch was subsequently reinstated after his story became public, and the Conservatives finally retired the "Canada's New Government" handle after 21 months in office.

The "Harper Government" moniker rose to prominence in 2009, when its use was noted in light of a controversy over Conservative MPs posing with giant, mock government cheques bearing the party logo and MPs' signatures. The mock cheques were consigned to the dust bin, and the "Harper Government" handle went into partial hibernation.

Since December, the "Harper Government" has returned with a vengeance, sprouting like mushrooms across departmental communications.

Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said in an e-mail that the style is "a long-standing practice that accurately reflects the government's leadership, regardless of who was the prime minister."

Mr. Soudas pointed to a number of previous government releases, such as "Budget 2004, announced today by the Paul Martin government," and one heralding economic progress "during the Chrétien government's time in office."

Scores of recent news releases - from the Canada Revenue Agency to Fisheries and Oceans, Finance, International Trade, Health Canada and Industry Canada - are all headlined by "Harper Government" actions.

Even the Treasury Board Secretariat is using the term.

Treasury Board is the federal department charged with policing government communications policy, including the Federal Identity Program - which to a layman's eyes appears to forbid such off-handed personalization in government titles.

Among other things, the policy states that "the criteria for creating an applied title include that it must: incorporate the word Canada or appear with the words Government of Canada. ..."

Treasury Board spokesman Robert Bousquet said by e-mail "the use of the expression 'Harper Government' is not prohibited by either the Treasury Board's Federal Identity Program Policy nor the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada."

Mr. Bousquet added in a brief phone interview, "In fact it's factual, in that it is the government of the day."

Indeed, journalists routinely use the "Harper government" to describe Conservative government actions. But the moniker's employment by the government itself is raising hackles among more than just some strait-laced civil servants.

"It is one thing for journalists or even the public to use the more partisan 'Harper government,' but it is another thing for the state to equate the Government of Canada with the leader of the governing party," said Jonathan Rose, a specialist in political communications at Queen's University.

He said such language is expressly forbidden under an Ontario law that prohibits partisanship in government messaging.

"The effect of this subtle framing just before an election is to equate government with Harper," Prof. Rose said. "It creates a perception of a natural affinity between one party's leader and the act of governing."

The Harper-centric messaging prompted Prof. Rose to recall French King Louis XIV and his 17th century divine right of kings: " L'État, c'est moi" ("The state is me").

But Mel Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council, finds nothing amusing in the development.

"It is not the Harper Government," Mr. Cappe said in an interview, tersely enunciating each word. "It is the Government of Canada.

"It's my government and it's your government."

Mr. Cappe said the usage brings to mind Mr. Harper's own quip of last summer on the Arctic tundra: "I make the rules," Mr. Harper told journalists after he disembarked from an all-terrain vehicle.

"What this shows is the hubris of this government's approach," said Mr. Cappe, president of the Institute for Research in Public Policy in Montreal.

"We are governed by laws. Not by men. This is trying to change that."

Peter Aucoin, an expert in public administration at Dalhousie University, also said the "Harper Government" branding exercise should be belled for public consideration.

"It's the executive abusing the powers of government for purely partisan reasons. Period," Prof. Aucoin said.

Leslie Seidle, another former Privy Council official who now works with Mr. Cappe's IRPP, had a far more sanguine view, calling the moniker "simply a creative use of language."

"I can understand that some people might find it unusual, but quite honestly I don't think there's a lot of 'there' there," Mr. Seidle said.

Mr. Cappe agrees with Mr. Seidle that the issue is "totally inside baseball."

"It matters to maybe 600 people in Canada," said Mr. Cappe, before exhorting The Canadian Press to take the issue public.

"But my sense is it's this subtle erosion of our understanding of the institutions of government that leads to a lack of credibility and respect on the part of the public.

"And that's why it is important. That's why it counts."



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