Documents show Harper’s extreme political control

The Canadian Press has obtained almost 1,000 pages of documents that represent the federal government’s “hyper-extreme” political control.

Known in government jargon as MEPs – Message Event Proposals – the documents are a communications tool used to vet requests for public events, everything from seniors’ home visits to military purchases to questions from journalism students, CP found.

“If a department wants to make a public announcement, respond to a question, announce a spending initiative or hold virtually any public event, then an MEP is prepared to make the case to PCO as to why the event should be allowed to take place,” CP reports. The documents were obtained under the Access to Information Act.
Brian Gable for Globe and Mail
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable for The Globe and Mail

MEPs have been used for nearly every request for information or interviews from Canadian journalists, CP reporters Mike Blanchfield and Jim Bronskill write:

“The MEP is also a reactive tool to track and analyze the wide array of requests for information that pour into government departments on a daily basis. When a journalist seeks an interview with a department official — or even a background briefing that would not identify the official by name — the request is almost always cleared by the PCO.

“All major news organizations, including the three major television broadcasters, The Canadian Press, newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Canwest chain have had requests for information dissected by individual MEPs.
The names of individual journalists were generally stripped from the documents, but not always. A request to CIDA by Maclean’s magazine writer Michael Petrou generated three pages of talking points to help him craft an “informative” article on Haiti.”

The problem?

The MEPs have “blurred the time-honoured separation of non-partisan public servants and political staffers.” 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.”

Why MEPs? Quite simply: control. CP writes: “The MEP is the crucial communication instrument for a minority government that values staying on message above all else — a transformation that federal officials and public-policy analysts say is undermining democracy.” It also serves to blur the line between public servants and politicians, as bureaucrats are forced to do partisan work while politicians do civil servant work.

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes:

“The MEP describes the request/event, the likely audience, the desired headline or sound bite, the appropriate backdrop, the best photograph or camera angle, the appropriate clothing, the accompanying materials, and so on. Nothing, if possible, is left to chance by this spin machine, which is why so many of Stephen Harper’s events, and those of other ministers, have such a lifeless, deadening sense about them. Spontaneity is the sworn enemy of this government.

“Watching this overwhelming preoccupation with message control and spin raises the question of how many people and how much time are involved in such matters. Think about how many proposals a government receives, how many interview requests, how many ministerial announcements, how many MPs’ speeches, to say nothing of appearances by Mr. Harper – most, if not all, requiring an MEP and all that goes into preparing one.

“Of course, the system gets jammed up waiting for Mr. Harper’s approval, or that of the PMO, with the result that delays plague the system. Worse, there is a pervasive fear within this government – fear of making a mistake, of saying something ever so slightly off-message or creating the mildest unexpected controversy.”

The result, Simpson writes, is ” those who are supposed to communicate seldom have anything to communicate, either because they know so little, are utterly terrified of the PMO or can do little beyond reading its spin notes.”