Saturday, April 15, 2006

harper slaps on the muzzle orders, too bad his fire policy wasn't in for local mp mayes ...

Harper cautions his ministers
April 14, 2006

Ministers in the new Conservative government have been warned they could be banned from travelling, publicly humiliated or even fired for verbal gaffes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined not to have his agenda derailed and his ministers have been made aware they will face punishment for loose-lipped indiscretions.

Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, has given colleagues in ministers' offices stark warnings about varying sanctions for cabinet members who either embarrass or contradict the government in public, sources say.

The worst of those penalties - being dumped from cabinet, shuffled to another portfolio, or barred from official trips - have not been imposed yet.

But the lesser punishment of public embarrassment has been swiftly levelled on at least two cabinet ministers and one B.C. MP.

All have been forced to publicly swallow their words in pride-pummeling mea culpas within hours of causing unwanted headlines.

"It's constant," one government official said of the pressure on ministers.

"The message comes from the top: if you (mess) up you will publicly and embarrassingly retract - no 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts.'

"So stick to the party line, or you'll go out there and tell the whole world that you're a dumb (jerk) who screwed up."

Industry Minister Maxime Bernier became the latest victim this week. Bernier told a radio interviewer that Canada could lose its legal battle against the U.S., and that taxpayers shouldn't be left covering loan guarantees for the softwood industry.

At the urging of the Prime Minister's Office, he issued a press release to declare that his remarks on lumber did not reflect the views of either his government or even his own department.

"Mr. Bernier clarified his position," was all Harper said about his minister's comments.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has been on the job for just two months but has already been compelled to hold a news conference and issue a press release to clarify a pair of statements - one about hostages in Iraq and another about aid for the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

B.C. MP Colin Mayes quickly issued a press release to "retract without reservation" his suggestion that journalists should be jailed if they write misleading stories.

The prime minister's insistence on message discipline is longstanding and has been reinforced by his recent string of political successes.

He's won two leadership races, brought together rival parties, instilled discipline in a once-unruly caucus, and been victorious in a general election that began with him as the decided underdog.

One veteran MP said he doesn't feel muzzled, and suggested any discipline is self-imposed or just plain common sense.

"I do speak my mind and that's never changed," said Alberta MP Myron Thompson.

"I think we're all smart enough to know that when policy is developed, we're moving in one direction."

But several Tories privately admit they resent the tight leash.

Many MPs and ministers pride themselves as defenders of free expression - and few do it more ardently than old Reform party types who trace their political roots back to what was once a grassroots movement.

"It rankles because they're politicians and they want to talk," said a high-level Tory source.

"But they (Harper's aides) have succeeded in raising the stakes so high that people are afraid to step out of line."

One observer with close ties to the party agreed it might be difficult for politicians who feel they're being muzzled. But recent history vindicates Harper, says Faron Ellis.

"At each stage (Harper's) management style has been successful," said Ellis, a political scientist at Lethbridge Community College.

"Success bears repetition. (And) they see the utility in it because it works. They're playing along because it works."

Tories have watched the Liberals use a different style - and they have learned from their opponents' mistakes.

They watched Liberals self-destruct as MPs commented publicly on private meetings, staffers leaked confidential documents and the party fail to launch critical elements of their platform without journalists beating them to the punch.

The election-campaign controversies that did hit the Tories and Liberals this year provided a telling study in contrasts.

Liberals were battered by the income-trust scandal and word that the RCMP was investigating for criminal leaks of inside information. The Tories drew several unwanted headlines for the exact opposite reason: they resorted to near-comical lengths to impose silence.

Late in the campaign, one of their more socially conservative candidates scurried into a banquet-hall kitchen and attempted to conceal himself next to a dish rack in an unsuccessful bid to escape from reporters.

The stunt might have earned the party a little bad press. But it might have been less damaging than the musing about abortion, bilingualism, and the courts from some MPs that sank the party during the 2004 campaign.

The Conservatives are steadfastly sticking to what they see as a successful approach from 2006: keep Harper in the spotlight and shunt everyone with a history of verbal bloopers off to the sidelines.

Opponents might call it muzzling. Tories call it discipline.

"This job is not a game. It has to be done properly and professionally," said one government official.

"Canadians expect nothing less."