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Harper's code of silence revealed

[PoliticsWatch Updated 4:45 p.m. March 17, 2006]

OTTAWA  — Opposition MPs and government officials said Friday that a newspaper story reporting on a PMO directive to limit access and control and restrict most communication from cabinet ministers has confirmed their suspicions about the Harper government. 

On Friday, the Globe and Mail reported the details of an e-mail recently sent to bureaucrats outlining the government's rigid communications strategy. 

"PMO will have final approval for all communications products -- even Notes to Editors or Letters to the Editor," the e-mail obtained by the Globe stated. 

According to the e-mail, bureaucrats were told to reduce the amount of ministerial and public events that take away from the government's five priorities outlined during the election campaign. 

The PMO must approve all ministerial events also, the email said. 

And the e-mail contradicts the explanation Prime Minister Stephen Harper's staff gave to reporters last week when they were informed they would no longer be allowed to scrum cabinet ministers at two microphones set up outside the cabinet meeting room in the Centre Block. 

Cabinet scrums were moved to a lower level of the Centre Block, but reporters were suspicious that by moving the scrums it would allow cabinet ministers a number of escape routes out of the Centre Block so they could avoid questions and cameras. 

The PMO staff denied that suggestion and argued the move was to give reporters "more space."

But the e-mail obtained by the Globe suggests another reason not related to greater space for the press.

"Set-up for post cabinet scrum is intentional -- Ministers have been told they are not allowed to speculate on future direction of government."

One government official told PoliticsWatch the Globe story on the e-mail describes the reality of the government's communication strategy at the moment. 

"That is our lives right now," the official said of the story, adding that bureaucrats feel like they're being kept in the dark if their roles do not involve the five priorities.

The Conservatives were credited with running a successful election campaign due in part to staying on message because there were no off-message outbursts from candidates, many of whom had been kept at arms length from the media.

The Tories said at the time that they were running a campaign focused on the leader. 

Currently, the Conservative government is in a minority situation and only nine of the 25 cabinet ministers have prior cabinet experience. 

One explanation is the Conservatives are taking their cautious campaign strategy into government for the time being or at least until the five-priorities are passed and cabinet and staff gain more experience in how to deal with what many conservatives believe is a hostile media.

But the Liberals are criticizing the approach and are questioning whether such a strategy will be sustainable once the new Parliament opens on April 3. 

Liberal Senator Jim Munson, a former journalist who later served as director of communications for former prime minister Jean Chretien, said the way Harper appears to be operating his government is not standard procedure. 

"Monsieur Chretien allowed his ministers to speak their minds," Munson said.

"He believed in and trusted his ministers because he believed in the concept of team. At the end of the day he was the ultimate voice of the government but just as important was the message."

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who was also a minister in the Chretien government, said the strategy shows "very serious contempt for openness and public accountability."

"This kind of behaviour is not what we expect from a prime minister in the Western world," he said. "We expect cabinet to be open, we expect cabinet ministers to face members of Parliament in the House of Commons and to face members of the media on a daily basis."

Easter said he can't see how it is possible for this "tight control" to continue once the House is in session. 

He also called the proposal to move the two microphones outside the cabinet room "ridiculous."

"To set up a situation where a cabinet minister can hide from the media is abdicating their responsibility as a cabinet minister."

Easter said the proposed set up allows cabinet ministers to bypass reporters on their way out of cabinet meetings and "skip out of town" without facing questions from the media.

"There's days I know I would have slipped on (reporters) if I could have," Easter quipped. 

After the last cabinet meeting, Trade Minister David Emerson, who did not scrum with Press Gallery reporters for a month at the time, walked out of the cabinet room while most reporters were downstairs at the proposed new cabinet scrum area asking Harper questions. 

Emerson took about five questions and then hopped in an elevator and did not go to the microphone in the foyer of the House of Commons where most of the press were located at the time. 

Last week, the Press Gallery wrote a letter to Harper's director of communications, Sandra Buckler, to formally protest the attempt to move the microphones. 

The Press Gallery is also trying to organize a meeting with Harper's communication staff to iron outlogistical issues and other problems before Parliament opens in two weeks. 

: Related Links

> Press Gallery accuses PMO of impeding freedom of the press

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