Robyn Benson, PSAC

Preston Manning's advice

Preston public domain.JPG The godfather of the present Conservative party has some words of wisdom for his political friends: don’t tell people what you really think. Given the recent unfortunate comments by Conservative guru Tom Flanagan, he may have a point—one in fact made earlier by Flanagan himself: “The lesson for the future: message discipline. You’ve got to stick with the script.”

Well, sure: in politics everyone knows you need to watch your mouth. But that should be true only up to a point. Wouldn’t we all prefer to know where our elected representatives and their allies stand on the issues that matter to us?

Manning’s apparent political common sense may in fact conceal a darker intent. This is a federal government, after all, that operates behind closed doors, a government that prefers to work in the shadows.

In a Globe & Mail column not too long ago, Jeffrey Simpson talked about a typical day in the House of Commons:

“Mr. Kenney declined repeated requests for comment.” (The Globe and Mail)
“The government did not respond Monday to questions about its position.” (The Globe & Mail)
“La Presse posed the question to Mr. Flato [a public servant], but he was bound by strict rules about interviews with journalists so that he had to direct the question to the media relations service of Environment Canada. This service refused to respond to the question.” (La Presse)
“Conservative campaign manager Guy Giorno and the party’s director of political operations, Jenni Byrne, did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment Monday.” (Ottawa Citizen)
“The Defence Department could not comment.” (Ottawa Citizen)

One day, three papers, five no comments, just another day at the ranch for the media operations of the Harper government and Conservative Party.

Then Simpson moves on to governance:

…The communications people are on the shortest possible leash. They say only what the centre authorizes. Civil servants, who actually know things, are gagged. Formal contacts are verboten; informal contacts with media or interest groups are discouraged.

We in the PSAC know about this culture of silence first-hand. Try to present our members’ concerns to the powers that be in this government? They’ll get back to us on that. Don’t call them, they’ll call us. Who’s going to be axed in the current round of cuts? Not telling. You’ll find out.

The independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, not long ago reported that the cuts would directly affect frontline services to Canadians. The government claims the exact opposite, and took to personally attacking him—but it won’t release the data. Page was forced to go to court to try to obtain it. Given that his term of office has recently come to an end, that case is now unlikely to go anywhere.  

Try to imagine a union run like this. Leaders refusing point-blank to answer members’ questions. Staff instructed to repeat their simplistic talking-points, like so many robots, when members bring forward their concerns. Phone calls never picked up, just voicemail, going unanswered.

Silence, from elected representatives, is not golden. It’s just a refusal to be held accountable. In a word, it’s contempt. Our members hold us to a higher standard. Why shouldn’t we all do the same thing with our government?

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on March 11, 2013 8:30 AM.

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