PMO holds grip on message control: records

Newly obtained documents show Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been using a little-known tool to control the messages from cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and Tory MPs.

Newly obtained documents show Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been using a little-known tool to control the messages from cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and Tory MPs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in last month's G8/G20 National Youth Caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
The Message Event Proposal was instituted by the Conservatives after they won power in 2006 and is blurring the separation of non-partisan public servants and political staffers, sapping morale across the civil service.

The Canadian Press has obtained almost 1,000 pages of MEPs that all ask the increasingly powerful Prime Minister's Office to vet requests for public events across the federal government.

They have become the political tool for literally putting words in the mouths of cabinet ministers, federal bureaucrats, low-profile MPs on the barbecue circuit and seasoned diplomats abroad.

In some cases, MEPs for routine events — spending announcements in particular — have often been quickly approved. But in most cases, Harper's office is where MEPs go to die with no explanation, sources say.

One MEP sought permission for the former president of the Canadian International Development Agency to speak to a UN Panel.

Myriam Massabki, the official spokeswoman for the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic nerve centre of Ottawa, said federal policy dictates "a requirement to plan and co-ordinate communications and this (the MEP) is a tool for that."   

She played down the notion that public servants are doing the bidding of their political masters.

Heavily scripted events

"It's in the role of PCO to consult PMO. Not only in communication, but in policy."

While all governments try to control the message, critics say the MEPs contradict Harper's core campaign promise of transparency and accountability in government.

The MEPs themselves show that approved events are heavily scripted. Senior government sources have detailed how these documents are shuffled back and forth between public servants and their political masters before reaching the PMO.

"We discussed every single issue and micromanaged every news release — everything," said one former Harper-era PCO official. "Pretty much any event, or any rollout of an announcement, would have an MEP that would lay out the strategy."

The July 15, 2007, announcement of $12,360 for a retirement centre in Edmonton was approved by PCO for its "friendly and celebratory" tone that would help MP Laurie Hawn "highlight Canada's New Government's contribution to helping seniors," says the event's MEP.

An August 2008 MEP envisioned Defence Minister Peter MacKay and then Public Works Minister Christian Paradis standing on the back ramp of a Chinook helicopter as the "ideal event photograph" for the rollout of new military copters and drones — a "proactive opportunity" to highlight the federal government's commitment to provide life-saving equipment to the Canadian Forces.

A 2008 request from an Ottawa journalism student for an interview with CIDA on its Canada Fund for Africa generated a detailed two-page MEP -- even though there was only "remote potential for sale of the article to a Canadian magazine or weekend feature section of a national daily."

'Not good for democracy'

The Conservative government's message control is "putting the shackles on everyone," said John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"I've been around for a long time," said Gordon, who joined the public service in 1974. "Governments come and go, and this type of thing takes place. But I've never seen it as closed as this."

The MEP is worrisome because it erases the traditional line separating public servants and politicians, said political scientist Jonathan Rose of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"You've got bureaucrats who are doing the government's partisan work and also political staffers who are doing bureaucrats' work," he said. "So there's this huge blurring of lines between the two."

Rose said he sees the MEP process as a "pre-emptive strike" by the Prime Minister's Office on all federal communications.

"In other words, the political wing of government needs to have control over what is said prior to it being said. I think that's not good for democracy."