A directive went out to public servants late last year that “Government of Canada” in federal communications should be replaced by the words “Harper Government.”
Public servants from four different line departments told The Canadian Press the instruction came from “the Centre” — meaning the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office that serves the prime minister.
None would speak on the record for fear of retribution. It’s a well-grounded concern given the treatment of a senior government scientist who was fired in 2006 after rebelling against a directive to use “Canada’s New Government” in government communications.
Andrew Okulitch was subsequently reinstated after his story went public, and the Conservatives finally retired the “Canada’s New Government” handle after 21 months in office.
The “Harper Government” moniker rose to prominence in 2009, when its use was noted in light of a controversy over Conservative MPs posing with giant, mock government cheques bearing the party logo and MPs’ signatures. The mock cheques were consigned to the dust bin, and the “Harper Government” handle went into partial hibernation.
Since December, the “Harper Government” has returned with a vengeance, sprouting like mushrooms across departmental communications.
Scores of recent news releases — from the Canada Revenue Agency to Fisheries and Oceans, Finance, International Trade, Health Canada and Industry Canada — are all headlined by “Harper Government” actions.
Even the Treasury Board Secretariat is using the term.
Treasury Board is the federal department charged with policing government communications policy, including the Federal Identity Program — which to a layman’s eyes appears to forbid such off-handed personalization in government titles.
Among other things, the policy states that “the criteria for creating an applied title include that it must: incorporate the word Canada or appear with the words Government of Canada….”
Indeed, journalists routinely use the “Harper government” to describe Conservative government actions. But the moniker’s employment by the government itself is raising hackles among more than just some straight-laced civil servants.
“It is one thing for journalists or even the public to use the more partisan ‘Harper government,’ but it is another thing for the state to equate the Government of Canada with the leader of the governing party,” said Jonathon Rose, a specialist in political communications at Queen’s University.
He notes such language is expressly forbidden under an Ontario law that prohibits partisanship in government messaging.
“The effect of this subtle framing just before an election is to equate government with Harper,” said Rose. “It creates a perception of a natural affinity between one party’s leader and the act of governing.”
The Harper-centric messaging prompted Rose to recall French King Louis XIV and his 17th century divine right of kings: “L’Etat, c’est moi,” quipped the political scientist. “The state is me.”
But Mel Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council, finds nothing amusing in the development.
“It is not the Harper Government,” Cappe said in an interview, tersely enunciating each word. “It is the Government of Canada.
“It’s my government and it’s your government.”
Cappe said the usage brings to mind Harper’s own quip of last summer on the Arctic tundra: “I make the rules,” Harper told journalists after he disembarked from an all-terrain vehicle.
“What this shows is the hubris of this government’s approach,” said Cappe, president of the Institute for Research in Public Policy in Montreal.
“We are governed by laws. Not by men. This is trying to change that.”
Peter Aucoin, an expert in public administration at Dalhousie University, also said the “Harper Government” branding exercise should be belled for public consideration.
“It’s the executive abusing the powers of government for purely partisan reasons. Period,” said Aucoin.
Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun writes, “So when are we going to start seeing the massive billboards erected? How about a Harper coin? We could have the loonie, toonie and for a $3 coin call it the Harpoonie. Perhaps there should be a statue, or 10? Or even some Harper Palaces?
It worked for Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah, Lenin and even Gaddafi — at least for a while.”