Saturday, April 01, 2006

So THAT'S why Harper muzzled his caucus

Going into the third week of dictated "message discipline" by Stephen Harper and the communications directors of the PM's office, this is starting to come true. The can is starting to spring leaks. Not the kind we expected, but, in all honesty, the kind we actually hoped for.

While the edict out of the PMO only appeared to apply to ministers, it was obvious that the cone of silence extended beyond cabinet. Whenever a Conservative MP of any stature was asked a question on any subject you could hear "five key principles" and then crickets chirping.

Until March 31st, and then Colin Mayes couldn't hold it in any longer.

Mayes' press release suggested, “boy, would the public get accurate and true information if a few reporters were hauled away to jail!” And, the crickets went silent. The cone had slipped, and we all watched as Harper's worst communications nightmare spread from a small town newspaper in BC to a nationwide burst of anger. This is what the reformers in the Conservative party actually stand for.

It was the reason for the muzzle. Harper was less concerned that public party policy would be tossed about than he was that the far right members on the government benches would begin to prattle on about their own strongly held beliefs. Harper did have something to hide: them. He needs them and at some time he is going to have to accommodate them. If Canadians see that or come to know that, disaster could ensue. For, even if Harper has moderated his view, there are many more Colin Mayes in the government ranks.

Mayes has now retracted his statement, to no effect. The sin he committed is unforgiveable. He demonstrated a lack of control, a failure to observe discipline and distributed his outrageous vision of Canada; a country which would lock up reporters for no other reason than they pissed him off. It was, in his mind, a retaliatory action to which he felt he was entitled.

Retaliatory? Oh yes.

Many smaller newspapers had accused their Conservative MPs of subjecting themselves to censorship. Some sent out emails asking about the prime ministerial gag order and received no reply. The Vernon Daily Courier confronted Colin Mayes about it and received an agitated reply. Scott Neufeld wrote it up as a story on March 22nd.

Not satisfied with Mayes answer, The Courier's managing editor, David Wylie, took the decision not to publish Mayes' regular columns, and said so in a March 29th editorial specifically citing Harper's media policies, suggesting they were, “mimicking the ploys of an authoritarian state..."

Now, it's necessary to understand that politics in British Columbia is a "blood sport". Pundits from across Canada have said so for years. British Columbians are switched on to the politics of the province, and that extends to the federal breed. Politicians are there for one reason: to be provoked into doing something publicly stupid. It may stem from the fact that small town newspapers in BC actually have an iconic figure from whom to draw strength - Margaret "Ma" Murray. To "Ma", politicians were never to be trusted; they were there to be skewered.

David Wylie will probably never admit it, but in Neufeld's March 22nd story he saw a button fully exposed on Mayes and, in the finest "Ma" Murray tradition, on March 29th, he pressed it - hard. Mayes exploded in print. That he had to retract words which were now spread across the country could only have made it better.

And Harper was in Cancun, Mexico... receiving blessings from his idol.

Despite the horror Harper must have felt when he was told of Mayes' absurd behaviour, he has only himself to blame. It was his edict to cabinet and his arrogant treatment of the media which gave at least one small newspaper editor a bad case of gas. That Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, didn't see this coming is a testament to her incompetence and Harper's own political naivety.

It will happen again. Welcome, Mr. Harper, to the forest of mirrors.

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