No wonder governments stonewall

A lot of bad things have been said about the Harper Conservatives’ grimly sour approach to communications. And rightly so. But why shouldn’t they do it that way? The obvious response, that it’s not good for our democracy, has considerable merit. But those not hopelessly naive about politics (most cynics are) ought to understand that the question “why shouldn’t they do it?” has two very different meanings.

One is “Why don’t we want them to do it?” which is answered above. But the other is “How might we try to discourage them from doing it?” And on that subject I wish you could have been at Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s Monday press conference on job protection for reservists called to active duty.

For what it’s worth, I support the government on this one. The reserves are extremely important to Canada’s military preparedness and always have been, despite some legitimate concerns about their training standards in years gone by. As the ministers noted, the national government can only legislate such job protection for people in federally regulated industries and the federal public service (and post-secondary students), though a number of provinces have taken similar steps while others are expected to. But I was delighted to hear Mr. MacKay say the things I’ve long wanted to hear a senior minister say about the reserves, and back his words with appropriate deeds.

Of course I realize that holding the press conference at the Cartier Square Drill Hall standing in front of a bunch of reservists was a photo op. I’d go further and say the only real reason for this press conference was TV visuals. For all other purposes they could just have sent us a press release. But that’s OK. If the government thinks it has an important story to tell, they try to frame it in a compelling way. It’s neither incompetent nor unreasonably calculating.

Alas, after that things went wrong. When Mr. MacKay and Mr. Blackburn finished their prepared remarks, the first question was not about reservists generally or the new law in particular but prisoners in Afghanistan. The second was about helicopters. The third concerned the upcoming NATO meeting in Vilnius on Feb. 7 and 8. The fourth returned to helicopters. The fifth was whether Mr. MacKay expected acrimony in Vilnius.

What on Earth did the journalist think or hope the defence minister would say in reply? “Yeah, I’m betting we slap one another’s glasses off and throw cutlery?” Instead he was smooth, dull, unmemorable, and therefore unharmed.

The sixth question also concerned detainees, as did the seventh. Finally the guy in charge of the question queue asked wearily if anyone had anything to ask about the reserves. Yes. What was the government doing about thousands of reservists not covered by the new legislation? Mr. Blackburn patiently explained the division of powers under the Constitution, again. Then I asked how many of the roughly 350 reservists now in Afghanistan would come under the new policy, which they couldn’t answer, and time ran out.

Why ask the other questions in this setting? Acrimony at NATO is an interesting and important story, but best pursued by speaking to experts after obtaining and comparing the considered positions of various NATO allies. As for questions about detainees, helicopters and so forth, the best hope for a genuinely informative response is to submit them in writing or by telephone to Mr. MacKay’s office.

To be sure, his reply might be evasive, tendentious or both. But to ask them with the cameras running, when the ostensible topic is something different, is to abandon any pretence at seeking enlightenment and lunge for a “Gotcha!” TV shot of the minister red-faced and incoherent as his bullying right-wing incompetence is exposed.

Mr. MacKay’s polished responses made it evident that he and his communication team saw it coming. Which speaks better of him than of us. In the end, the Tories didn’t really get their story out, but at least they avoided embarrassment. I’m not convinced the journalists did. Instead of setting traps as futile as they were crass, why not interview one of the 36 Cameron Highlanders or 14 Governor General’s Foot Guards headed to Afghanistan in the next rotation in August 2008? Or at least ask something genuinely tough about the new legislation?

I cannot guarantee this or any other government would be more forthcoming if asked better questions under more appropriate circumstances. But neither the press nor citizens benefit from doing things this way.

So I ask again: Why shouldn’t the Tories stonewall? It may be bad for democracy but it’s not bad for them. And for that you cannot entirely blame them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson