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

Jeffrey Simpson

And the Conservative spin machine spins on … Add to ...

Stephen Harper's Conservatives just cannot help themselves. They carry on for a while sticking to a carefully controlled message, appearing reasonable and sensible. Then, the temptation for ferocious partisanship gets the better of them.

This temptation is deeply ingrained in the Harper party. It shows itself in the Conservatives' propaganda attack machine, in which opposition leaders' physical mannerisms are mocked and patriotism is impugned. It is displayed with how Conservative MPs use their mailing privileges, as in the recent outrageous mail-outs playing politics in the Jewish community against the Liberals.

It is revealed almost daily in the Commons and beyond in the ad hominem partisan attacks on previous Liberal governments. But, most starkly, it appears in the verbal muggings given anyone - even civil servants - who dare get in the way of the government's massive, well-financed and all-pervasive spin machine.

Two weeks ago, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, attacked, of all institutions, the RCMP for having dared to suggest that the Canadian Firearms Program's latest statistics "highlights the importance of the program to law enforcement."

Immediately, the minister turned on the RCMP, whose evidence suggested the government was wrong to abolish the long-gun registry. Quite deliberately, Mr. Van Loan had delayed release of the RCMP report until after the Commons vote on the registry, a typical example of the spin machine in action. The supposedly "tough-on-crime" Harperites (whose anti-crime policies are mostly flops) therefore turned on the police, of all institutions.

This week, however, the partisanship descended even lower with the assault on the integrity and motives of diplomat Richard Colvin.

Significantly, for those who paid careful attention to substance rather than bombast, in all the sound and fury from the government and former military personnel, no one actually contradicted a single thing in Mr. Colvin's testimony.

Canada's chief military blusterer, retired general Rick Hillier, who led Canada's military foray into the Afghan mission, predictably dismissed the Colvin testimony, saying the diplomat wasn't "qualified." Even in Canadian prisons, "somebody can get beaten up. We know that." It turns out, from Mr. Colvin's sworn evidence, that he served in Afghanistan from April, 2006, to October, 2007 - for three of those months as political director of Canada's provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar. It was dangerous work in a dangerous place where one of his diplomatic predecessors, Glyn Berry, had already been killed by a suicide bomber. It was a lot more dangerous there than at Defence headquarters in Ottawa.

Mr. Colvin knew, as well as anybody on the ground in Kandahar, what was going on. He tried repeatedly to alert his superiors in the Foreign Affairs department and the military about the systematic abuse prisoners would face when turned over to Afghan authorities.

In his testimony, he said he sent messages to 76 people in the Canadian lines of command, just to be sure that everyone would know. Mr. Colvin says he specifically wanted the information to be known by four "key recipients": the Foreign Affairs group responsible for detainees, the senior military chain of command (up to Gen. Hillier) in Ottawa and Afghanistan, Defence headquarters, and local Canadian officials.

In other words, his testimony suggests he blanketed the government of Canada with his many messages, warning that prisoners would be routinely tortured and that, as a result, Canada would be complicit in their torture.

When The Globe and Mail began reporting about abuse of prisoners through the redoubtable correspondent Graeme Smith, the Harper response was typical: Deny and attack the source. Typical, too, is Mr. Hillier's description in his memoirs of the reporting as "yellow journalism: innuendo, implication and assumption without fact." Writes he: "The Canadian Forces handled the detainees correctly and professionally." The whole affair, he writes, was a "massive kerfuffle." Maybe soldiers did act properly - before handing prisoners over to the Afghans, whom the Canadians had to know (unless they deliberately chose not to know) would be abused and likely tortured. And if reasonable conjecture wasn't enough, there were Mr. Colvin's reports, sent far and wide in the bureaucracy and military.

The attack script written this week for Conservative MPs by the Prime Minister's Office and party research office impugn Mr. Colvin for a) wanting to assist the Taliban, b) undermining the morale of the Armed Forces, and c) making recruitment difficult.

These are the classic responses of politicians whose government, and the military it supposedly directed, are engaged now in a massive campaign against someone who reported what he saw, tried to alert his superiors to danger, but found that plausible deniability and professions of ignorance were the preferred elements of the endless spin campaign that characterizes everything this government does.

And, as Mr. Colvin (a career diplomat with top security clearance) is learning, anyone who gets in this government's way or does not reflect the dictates of its spin machine will be targeted, diminished and, if possible, crushed.

The Harper party loved whistleblowers when in opposition. They even ran a high-profile one as a Conservative candidate. But when the whistle is blown against the Conservatives, no one actually contradicts the whistleblower's sworn evidence, they just attack and spin.

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