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Feds’ ‘propaganda’ videos reflect ‘manic obsession with image management,’ undermine public service independence: experts

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies.

The videos public servants shot of Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre glad-handing constituents and explaining Conservative tax breaks are “propaganda” that show the government’s “manic obsession with image management,” experts say, and they’re undermining the public service’s independence.

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies after The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported May 15 that Mr. Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) had three public servants work overtime on a Sunday to film him talking to parents at a consignment sale in his riding about the Conservatives’ family tax benefits. Some are also calling for senior bureaucrats to intervene.

The government has already been criticized for its use of public funds for what many see as partisan advertising, and for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 24/Seven video series.

University of Ottawa research professor Ralph Heintzman—a former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board who wrote a paper for think-tank Canada 2020 last year about the politicization of the public service—said Mr. Poilievre’s videos provide “additional and very powerful evidence” that a Charter of the Public Service setting clear boundaries and regulating government communications is  “not only necessary but urgent.”

“They just prove the abysmal situation we’re now in and the urgency for measures to restore some degree of integrity and credibility to the public service,” he said of the videos, calling them “clearly partisan political propaganda” that contravene the Treasury Board’s basic rules.

The Treasury Board’s Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector states that public servants should carry out their duties “in a non-partisan and impartial manner,” and that “chief executives are responsible for ensuring the non-partisan provision of programs and services by their organizations.”

Mr. Heintzman told The Hill Times that Employment and Social Development deputy minister Ian Shugart shouldn’t have allowed public servants and resources to be used in a partisan way, and he was critical of Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette and Treasury Board Secretary Yaprak Baltacioglu “for allowing this kind of flouting of the general principles and values of public service to go on and to demoralize the public service.”

Opposition MPs—including Liberal David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.) whose private member’s bill would create an independent board to review government advertising and approve it as non-partisan—and NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat (Pontiac, Que.) have called on Ms. Charette to explain why taxpayer money was used to create the “vanity videos.”

“If there’s any time in which the public service should be leaning over backward to emphasize its non-partisan character, it’s at this time,” Mr. Heintzman said, with a federal election five months away.

“If the clerk gave a clear signal that in a pre-electoral period she wants it to be clear to all the political parties that this is a non-partisan, professional public service that can serve any and all parties in an equally even-handed manner, she could make that very clear to her deputies and her deputies would know what to do.”

Mr. Heintzman said public servants should refuse to perform partisan tasks; while he admitted that’s difficult for those “down the food chain,” it “should be a piece of cake” for a deputy minister to intervene.

The major public sector unions have also criticized the videos as using public resources for partisan purposes.

Martin Ranger, legal counsel for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said he doesn’t know of any complaints from members being asked to perform partisan work.

The procedure, he told The Hill Times, if there were such a complaint, would be to “obey now and grieve later”: the union would meet with the member to review the matter and discuss whether it’s worth filing a complaint under the under Public Servant Disclosure Protection Act to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

A spokesperson for that office could not say, due to confidentiality provisions, whether any such complaints had been registered.

The Employment and Social Development department launched a five-member “creative production team” in 2008 that has a $50,000 annual budget, in addition to salaries, to produce video and photography.

The department said it followed government policies in making the video, pointing to Treasury Board communications policy that “institutions must maintain a capacity for innovation and stay current with developments in communications practice and technology,” and that ministers are the “principal spokespersons” to explain government policies, priorities and decisions.

The government’s communications policy, revised in 2006, states that “Public service managers and employees are expected to provide information services in a non-partisan fashion consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility.”

Mr. Poilievre defended the videos in question period May 15 saying that he’s proud to work seven days per week and that the opposition parties object because they don’t support the tax cuts.

“We will continue to deliver these benefits and I will work aggressively to communicate the benefits that families deserve and are entitled to receive,” he told the House.

Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said the argument that the videos fulfill the responsibility to inform the public is “unpersuasive.”

“Given the proximity to the election, the clearly partisan tone of the videos, and the fact that public servants were paid overtime on a weekend to produce them, I would argue they clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules and limits circumscribing legitimate communication between the government and public,” he said in an emailed response to questions from The Hill Times.

The videos don’t provide information in a non-partisan fashion, he said, and “explicitly undermine and erode” the public service’s impartiality and integrity.

“In many ways, the videos are yet another example of the current government’s persistent efforts to blur the boundaries between the neutral operations of the bureaucracy with its own partisan priorities,” he said.

Prof. Greenberg said the videos fit into the government’s efforts, already seen with the 24 Seven videos, to bypass the press gallery and traditional media and shape public opinion by speaking directly to Canadians, even if it’s not reaching very many of them.

When The Globe reported the story, Mr. Poilievre’s videos had about 300 views each; by press time on May 21, one had about 5,700, the other almost 7,500.

“The videos are consistent with the government’s manic obsession with image management, but also its commitment to transforming itself into a media organization,” Prof. Greenberg said.

The government’s communication policy needs modernizing to establish clear rules and roles for public servants, he said.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of advocacy group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, also said he didn’t accept the minister’s response that he’s informing Canadians about government policy.

“He’s not really informing them about the policies when he does these videos. He’s talking about the values behind them, the principles behind them,” Mr. Wudrick said in an interview.

“He’s panning the entire government record from 2006. This is not informational stuff—this is spin, this is propaganda. This is not something the taxpayer should be on the hook for.”

The CTF has already been critical of the advertising spending and called for a law similar to Ontario’s to govern partisan government advertising. The same individual or body evaluating ads could examine activities like the Poilievre videos, Mr. Wudrick said.

David Coletto, the CEO of polling firm Abacus, said the videos show a blurring of lines between electioneering and the public service.

“I don’t think you can deny that these videos that he’s producing are promotional and meant to increase awareness about what the government’s doing but also to have people view it positively,” he said in an interview.

But he’s not convinced the backlash in political Ottawa over the ads and videos will matter to average voters, or whether the negative attention would outweigh the ads’ benefit of promoting the tax breaks to voters.

“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, you probably don’t know this is happening,” he said.

His research on the ads shows most people view them as information like any other government ad, he said.

mburgess@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times


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Feds’ ‘propaganda’ videos reflect ‘manic obsession with image management,’ undermine public service independence: experts

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies.

The videos public servants shot of Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre glad-handing constituents and explaining Conservative tax breaks are “propaganda” that show the government’s “manic obsession with image management,” experts say, and they’re undermining the public service’s independence.

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies after The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported May 15 that Mr. Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) had three public servants work overtime on a Sunday to film him talking to parents at a consignment sale in his riding about the Conservatives’ family tax benefits. Some are also calling for senior bureaucrats to intervene.

The government has already been criticized for its use of public funds for what many see as partisan advertising, and for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 24/Seven video series.

University of Ottawa research professor Ralph Heintzman—a former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board who wrote a paper for think-tank Canada 2020 last year about the politicization of the public service—said Mr. Poilievre’s videos provide “additional and very powerful evidence” that a Charter of the Public Service setting clear boundaries and regulating government communications is  “not only necessary but urgent.”

“They just prove the abysmal situation we’re now in and the urgency for measures to restore some degree of integrity and credibility to the public service,” he said of the videos, calling them “clearly partisan political propaganda” that contravene the Treasury Board’s basic rules.

The Treasury Board’s Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector states that public servants should carry out their duties “in a non-partisan and impartial manner,” and that “chief executives are responsible for ensuring the non-partisan provision of programs and services by their organizations.”

Mr. Heintzman told The Hill Times that Employment and Social Development deputy minister Ian Shugart shouldn’t have allowed public servants and resources to be used in a partisan way, and he was critical of Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette and Treasury Board Secretary Yaprak Baltacioglu “for allowing this kind of flouting of the general principles and values of public service to go on and to demoralize the public service.”

Opposition MPs—including Liberal David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.) whose private member’s bill would create an independent board to review government advertising and approve it as non-partisan—and NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat (Pontiac, Que.) have called on Ms. Charette to explain why taxpayer money was used to create the “vanity videos.”

“If there’s any time in which the public service should be leaning over backward to emphasize its non-partisan character, it’s at this time,” Mr. Heintzman said, with a federal election five months away.

“If the clerk gave a clear signal that in a pre-electoral period she wants it to be clear to all the political parties that this is a non-partisan, professional public service that can serve any and all parties in an equally even-handed manner, she could make that very clear to her deputies and her deputies would know what to do.”

Mr. Heintzman said public servants should refuse to perform partisan tasks; while he admitted that’s difficult for those “down the food chain,” it “should be a piece of cake” for a deputy minister to intervene.

The major public sector unions have also criticized the videos as using public resources for partisan purposes.

Martin Ranger, legal counsel for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said he doesn’t know of any complaints from members being asked to perform partisan work.

The procedure, he told The Hill Times, if there were such a complaint, would be to “obey now and grieve later”: the union would meet with the member to review the matter and discuss whether it’s worth filing a complaint under the under Public Servant Disclosure Protection Act to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

A spokesperson for that office could not say, due to confidentiality provisions, whether any such complaints had been registered.

The Employment and Social Development department launched a five-member “creative production team” in 2008 that has a $50,000 annual budget, in addition to salaries, to produce video and photography.

The department said it followed government policies in making the video, pointing to Treasury Board communications policy that “institutions must maintain a capacity for innovation and stay current with developments in communications practice and technology,” and that ministers are the “principal spokespersons” to explain government policies, priorities and decisions.

The government’s communications policy, revised in 2006, states that “Public service managers and employees are expected to provide information services in a non-partisan fashion consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility.”

Mr. Poilievre defended the videos in question period May 15 saying that he’s proud to work seven days per week and that the opposition parties object because they don’t support the tax cuts.

“We will continue to deliver these benefits and I will work aggressively to communicate the benefits that families deserve and are entitled to receive,” he told the House.

Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said the argument that the videos fulfill the responsibility to inform the public is “unpersuasive.”

“Given the proximity to the election, the clearly partisan tone of the videos, and the fact that public servants were paid overtime on a weekend to produce them, I would argue they clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules and limits circumscribing legitimate communication between the government and public,” he said in an emailed response to questions from The Hill Times.

The videos don’t provide information in a non-partisan fashion, he said, and “explicitly undermine and erode” the public service’s impartiality and integrity.

“In many ways, the videos are yet another example of the current government’s persistent efforts to blur the boundaries between the neutral operations of the bureaucracy with its own partisan priorities,” he said.

Prof. Greenberg said the videos fit into the government’s efforts, already seen with the 24 Seven videos, to bypass the press gallery and traditional media and shape public opinion by speaking directly to Canadians, even if it’s not reaching very many of them.

When The Globe reported the story, Mr. Poilievre’s videos had about 300 views each; by press time on May 21, one had about 5,700, the other almost 7,500.

“The videos are consistent with the government’s manic obsession with image management, but also its commitment to transforming itself into a media organization,” Prof. Greenberg said.

The government’s communication policy needs modernizing to establish clear rules and roles for public servants, he said.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of advocacy group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, also said he didn’t accept the minister’s response that he’s informing Canadians about government policy.

“He’s not really informing them about the policies when he does these videos. He’s talking about the values behind them, the principles behind them,” Mr. Wudrick said in an interview.

“He’s panning the entire government record from 2006. This is not informational stuff—this is spin, this is propaganda. This is not something the taxpayer should be on the hook for.”

The CTF has already been critical of the advertising spending and called for a law similar to Ontario’s to govern partisan government advertising. The same individual or body evaluating ads could examine activities like the Poilievre videos, Mr. Wudrick said.

David Coletto, the CEO of polling firm Abacus, said the videos show a blurring of lines between electioneering and the public service.

“I don’t think you can deny that these videos that he’s producing are promotional and meant to increase awareness about what the government’s doing but also to have people view it positively,” he said in an interview.

But he’s not convinced the backlash in political Ottawa over the ads and videos will matter to average voters, or whether the negative attention would outweigh the ads’ benefit of promoting the tax breaks to voters.

“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, you probably don’t know this is happening,” he said.

His research on the ads shows most people view them as information like any other government ad, he said.

mburgess@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

  
Parliamentary Calendar
Saturday, May 30, 2015
HILL LIFE & PEOPLE SLIDESHOWS
As Justice Minister Peter MacKay prepares to announce he's is leaving politics, here's a look back at his time on the Hill May 29, 2015

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Peter MacKay joined by Senator Bob Runciman, Tim Uppal, and Corneliu Chisu met with the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Canadian Urban Transit Association to mark the passing of Bill S-221, which amends the Criminal Code to address assaults against public transit operators.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

On May 12, the day UN rapporteur James Anaya released his report on the situation of indigenous peoples in Canada, families of missing and murdered women demonstrated on the steps of Parliament Hill. Mr. MacKay and fellow Conservative MP Joy Smith happened to be on the steps at the same time, for a photo opportunity, where a life jacket-donning Mr. MacKay was confronted by the women asking for his help. He said he would be willing to sit down and talk about the issue of missing and murdered women. When the meeting in Mr. MacKay’s office was scheduled, it was arranged symbolically to be held on the six-year anniversary of Mr. Harper’s apology to First Nations for residential schools, said Mr. Fiddler.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacKay behind the bench at a 2013 Conservative Party hockey game.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Peter MacKay with his wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam and their son Kian.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacKay with Laureen Harper at the 2013 Sandbox Canada event on Sparks Street.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacKay, getting meta with his BlackBerry, alongside fellow caucus colleagues in 2013. From left: Bernard Valcourt, Shelly Glover, Peter Van Loan, Leona Aglukkaq, and Diane Finley.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

In committee with junior defence minister Julian Fantino, on March 13, 2012. During the meeting the pair said the government would commit to procuring the F-35 joint single strike fighter jets.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Then-U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates and Peter MacKay during his tenure as Defence minister.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Peter MacKay and Tim Powers. Mr. MacKay broke his arm while being tackled in a rugby game on the Hill on May 27, 2009. He was playing for the Canadian Forces team, against the Ottawa Irish Rugby Club, which Mr. Powers is a part of. Apparently Mr. MacKay barely flinched when the medics pushed his elbow back in place, and was doing interviews five minutes later.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacKay with the Brazilian foreign minister Celso Luiz Nunes Amorim in a 2007 joint press conference following their bilateral meeting.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Peter MacKay signing... as he was sworn in with the rest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Cabinet Feb. 6, 2006.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

July 20, 2006 Mr. MacKay speaks to press after a technical briefing in Ottawa over concerns about the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacKay tossing around a football on the Hill with Mr. Harper in 2005. Other photos from this afternoon on the lawn were cause for some contention for Mr. Harper at the time.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Peter MacKay, Jack Layton, and Anne McLellan in 2004, seen here debating the Throne Speech with CBC's Don Newman.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Then-leader of the Progressive Conservatives Peter MacKay, and Stephen Harper, then-leader of the Canadian Alliance announced on Oct. 16, 2003 that they agreed to join their two parties. 'Our swords will henceforth be pointed at the Liberals, not at each other,' Mr. Harper said at the time.

MICHAEL DE ADDER'S TAKE