Bureaucrats told to provide Rob Nicholson 3 terrorism-related statements a week
Move to set quota on a topic called 'unusual' by one former deputy minister
Foreign Affairs bureaucrats were told this spring to produce three terrorism-related statements for minister Rob Nicholson to make to the media each week, ahead of a fall election in which security and Canada's response to terrorism are expected to be key issues.
The email, dated April 24 and obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics, suggests the regular ministerial statements should be crafted from an event reported by the news media, such as developments in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the email is an example of the way the Conservatives choose to engage with the public.
"They much prefer to highlight fears and play up insecurities that Canadians may have, rather than [...] talking about the terrible economic news that is surrounding them."
We're not making a special effort to fulfil this odd request.- Foreign Affairs bureaucrat, on condition of anonymity
Security and Canada's response to terrorism are expected to be key issues in the upcoming election. Canada is part of a U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a mission opposed by the NDP and Liberals.
The email relays a request from Nicholson's communications team and is addressed to all bureaucrats working in security-related divisions. It tasks them with providing the minister's communications team with "...three MINA (ministerial) statements to the media regarding security in the context of terrorism each week."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair went a step further in his criticisms of the internal email. He suggested the instructions could be a breach of protocol.
"If any minister is actually planning to use the resources of the state for partisan political purposes, the public should and could be calling them to account on it."
While public servants are routinely asked to produce information about the government's agenda, establishing a quota of three statements a week is also seen as "odd" by some bureaucrats and by at least one retired official.
"I think it's pretty unusual," said Gordon Smith, a former deputy minister in the department in the 1990s under the then-Liberal government. "One has to wonder if this isn't because we're coming up to an election."
But another former deputy minister, Leonard Edwards, who left the post in 2010, said it's normal for the government to ask civil servants to help promote its agenda.
"This doesn't surprise me. It is normal for the government of the day to ask civil servants for the information and materials its needs to promote and communicate its policies and its approaches to issues."
Quota rarely met
A review by CBC News of the department's releases since the email was issued has found the number of security and terrorism-related statements has only rarely met the three-a-week target.
In an email to CBC News, the department confirmed that since April 1, Nicholson has made 97 ministerial statements, 27 of which dealt with security or terrorism.
"World events dictate the number and nature of statements produced by the department," spokesman François Lasalle said.
One Foreign Affairs bureaucrat, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, said: "We're not making a special effort to fulfil this odd request."
In June, the thrice-weekly quota was only met once. In July, there have been only a handful of terrorism-related statements, including one in which Nicholson strongly condemns this week's suicide bombing in Turkey. In another, Nicholson condemns attacks in Egypt claimed by ISIS.
"This is a further reminder of the serious threat that jihadist terrorists pose, and why, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's leadership, Canada is participating with our allies in the international coalition against ISIS," the statement read.
CBC News asked Nicholson's office why the directive had been issued and whether it was a new request.
"We make no apologies for communicating with Canadians on important issues, such as security, when they arise," said Johanna Quinney, Nicholson's press secretary, in an email to CBC News Wednesday.
The government has been burnishing its record on both security and economic issues in the run-up to the scheduled Oct. 19 election, amid a drop in oil prices and the view by some economists that Canada has been experiencing negative growth since the start of the year.
The government has highlighted security measures since last October's attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. and Ottawa, and passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill, C-51. The legislation was opposed by the NDP and supported by the Liberals, who said they opposed some measures and would amend the legislation if elected.