The long arm of Tory message control has reached around the world in an attempt to orchestrate virtually every public utterance by seasoned diplomats from Britain to Bangladesh, a Canadian Press investigation concludes.
The secret to this unprecedented attempt to stage-manage Canada's most experienced high commissioners, ambassadors and diplomats is the Message Event Proposal - a finely developed information tool aimed at giving the Prime Minister's Office total control over communication.
MEPs obtained under the Access to Information Act reveal how Stephen Harper's office has employed the device to micromanage Canadian diplomacy in the United States, Britain, continental Europe, Asia and Africa.
There's no question it has a bit of a chilling effect on people, because they know that they have to avoid being off-message at all - and that's what the government wants. Serving Canadian diplomat
Even the most able and trusted foreign service officers have been subjected to strict controls - not by the Foreign Affairs Department - but by the PMO through its public service arm, the Privy Council Office.
"There's no question it has a bit of a chilling effect on people, because they know that they have to avoid being off-message at all - and that's what the government wants," said one serving diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of career reprisals.
The central direction of foreign service officers is unparalleled, said retired diplomat Gordon Smith, who served Conservative and Liberal prime ministers as ambassador to NATO and the European Union, was a deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and a senior official at PCO.
"What other conclusion can one draw? But it reflects a very considerable concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office," said Mr. Smith, who left government to join the University of Victoria in 1997.
"I cannot recall one occasion, when I was in those posts, I ever cleared a speech back through Ottawa."
A PCO spokeswoman has defended the use of MEPs as a legitimate communication tool. The Prime Minister's Office has declined comment.
The new level of control meant that a routine 2007 speech by James Wright, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, was subjected to close PCO scrutiny, prompting a two-page MEP to discuss its merits.
Mr. Wright was to speak to the Canadian Studies Department at the University of Birmingham on Oct. 11, 2007. The speech piqued the government's interest because the university wanted a recording.
"Expected media attendance: None. Media have not/not been invited to this event," the MEP states in boldface. "However, event organizers would like to record [head of mission's]speech and make a podcast version available via the Canadian Studies Departmental website."
The MEP goes on to discuss the "strategic objectives" and "key messages" of the event. It proposes a "desired soundbite" for Mr. Wright: "The historic, cultural trade and investment links between Birmingham/the West Midlands, and Canada, and the strength of the Canada/U.K. relationship."
Mr. Wright was appointed the previous year after a distinguished career that also included time as a high-profile federal spokesman.
All diplomats should keep their public comments within the framework of government policy, said Mr. Smith, but the prime minister must trust them once they are sent abroad.
"You've got to have the right people in the right place and let them go and do it."
Mr. Wright had more experience than most foreign service colleagues. As Canadian war planes joined the NATO bombardment of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis, he was assigned to explain on an almost daily basis - with cameras rolling and little room for error - Canada's participation in a war in Europe.
Mr. Wright was eventually promoted to head of the international security branch at Foreign Affairs, a hot-button job that included managing the country's escalating role in the Afghanistan war.
The October, 2007, MEP said one of Mr. Wright's "key messages" in Birmingham should be "Canada's role with the U.K. in NATO and current commitments in Afghanistan, and the resilience and continued growth of this relationship."
A senior government official who toiled in the Privy Council Office after the Conservatives introduced MEPs said the template has stymied public diplomacy and severely damaged morale in the foreign service.
"At the end of the day, every embassy markets Canada," said the official. "If you can't even engage the power brokers of that country or people of influence, what purpose are you serving?"
Mr. Smith said today's diplomats have developed "coping mechanisms" for dealing with Ottawa.
"Quite apart from anything else, it becomes a tremendous burden to get everything cleared," Mr. Smith said. "I think what people are trying to do is develop generic speeches and get those cleared so they don't have to be done on a regular basis."
The MEPs have been used widely in embassies and diplomatic missions. In some cases, the government has weighed so-called diaspora politics - how the handling of an event in a far-off land will play with a particular ethnic group in Canada.
The Conservatives won their minority government in January of 2006 without winning seats in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - all of which have large numbers of African Canadians and Asian Canadians.
Capturing that elusive majority government means the Tories have to make inroads in such large urban communities.
In November of 2007, then-junior foreign minister Helena Guergis was bound for Costa Rica and Nicaragua to "promote Canada's re-engagement with the Americas," but not before her every movement was laid out in a detailed MEP.
Earlier that summer, Mr. Harper toured Latin America and made it clear that Canada wanted to bolster ties with its hemispheric neighbours, including the pursuit of free trade.
"Local media will be present for identified portions of the program. No media interviews are planned," states the Guergis MEP.
Each country had its own "desired soundbite." For Costa Rica, it was: "Canada and Costa Rica are strong bilateral and multilateral partners, and benefit from a well-established free trade agreement." For Nicaragua: "Canada is playing a constructive and responsive role in development in Nicaragua."
In San Jose, Ms. Guergis was to "congratulate Costa Rica on its election to a seat on the United Nations Security Council." In Managua, at a reception of local officials and business leaders, she was to "express condolences following Hurricane Felix as well as the storms and heavy rains that have hit Nicaragua, causing flooding, landslides and crop damage."
Ms. Guergis has since been kicked out of the Tory caucus as allegations of improper lobbying engulf her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer.
Closer to home, a three-day December, 2007, tour of the Canada-U.S. border organized by the Canadian consulate in Seattle was scripted to circumvent Canadian media and "dispel myths and negative perceptions" among American media outlets.
"No media invited," said the MEP for a visit by state legislators and staffers from Washington State, Idaho and Alaska for what was billed as "an extensive tour" of the border.
News releases would be issued after the tour "targeting local state media" in Washington, Idaho and Alaska, stated the MEP, which specified this coveted sound bite: "U.S. Legislators get a first-hand look at how co-operation, partnership and dedication to security is making the Canada-U.S. border work."Report Typo/Error
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