Getting caught up in the syntax

Yesterday, I wrote a post with some general musings about political communications and how it complements politics and the public policy process.  In short, I argued that when one criticizes the method by which another releases news instead of the substance of the news itself, it’s already a lost battle.

The example I brought up yesterday was Ontario Premier Dalton’s McGuinty’s unsurprising leak of Ontario’s budget shortfall projecting an $18 Billion deficit over two years.  I suggested that we would be more productive debating how we got to this fiscal position and how to remedy it whereas the cheap and easy solution is to criticize the communications strategy of the leak (as the federal Liberals did when the Conservatives did this with the federal budget).

Today’s example is this business about the seal hunt and federal fisheries minister Gail Shea’s use of ministerial resources to put out partisan messaging.  The substance of the message is the suggestion that Liberals are against the seal hunt.  To be against the seal hunt may bring nugatious satisfaction to urban-dwelling self-styled sophisticates who would croak that such an industry is “dreadful” and “appalling” while it is the causus belli of the constituents of a block of Altantic ridings.  Even Stephane Dion recognized the political disaster that would come from speaking out against the hunt.  But the Liberals are not wisely measuring the risk of their latest moves against the Conservatives on the peripherals of this issue.

Yes, Gail Shea’s office made a mistake but it is perhaps a larger – yet characteristically instinctive – mistake for Liberals to criticize the method when by doing so they force wider the path to highlight the substance of the release.  While Ottawa people get caught up in the fact that Stephen Harper’s minister didn’t dot her i’s and cross her t’s in the proper and polite procedural fashion, the real folks in Atlantic Canada look right past the syntax snafu and have another news cycle to consider that the folks in Ottawa that may be taking away their livelihood and according to this “press release scandal” those folks are Liberals!

For the Liberals, this is a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees or in this case the seal hunt for the jobs.  Instead, they’re getting caught up in the syntax of it all.



  • Ted

    Or, another way of looking at it, is when a political party turns the government into a party machine that churns out propaganda against its own rules that bears zero – absolutely zero – connection with reality… one must begin to question just what the heck is up with this government.

    This is certainly not fascism here but it is far beyond a mere “dotting of i's and crossing of i's”. The Conservatives got caught after, not one inadvertent release, not even two, but three highly partisan and rule-breaking press releases.

    Given the Conservatives' history of using government offices for strictly and severely partisan purposes (eg. 80% of infrastructure spending in Tory ridings, the fiscal update, etc.), there is a real pattern of undemocratic governance here.

    And you wonder why Canadians don't trust the Conservatives with their $3 billion slush fund?

    As for the “substance” of the claim. There is none. How can you Conservatives claim, with a straight face (I assume because I can't actually see you), that “the Liberals” have made a move against the seal hunt here when Harb could not even get anyone to second his motion to to put the bill on the order paper??????

    However, I am feeling charitable today, so I am willing to put this down as yet another major bungling by a cabinet full of second-stringers and not some larger malicious anti-democratic abuse of government.

    Try as the Conservatives might, with this kind of non-issue or any of their many other attempts to change the channel and avoid discussing the economy, Canadians and the Liberals want and will keep the focus on Stephen Harper and what he is and is not doing for this economy.

    There is a new Liberal sheriff in town and he will hold the Conservatives to account for their actions.

  • EM

    Interesting you do not see the irony of this current use of government $ in the distribution of a partisan political message and their same willingness to use $3billion without accountability!

  • Stephen Taylor

    Maybe we can have the “Royal Commission on dodgy press releases that SUGGEST THE LIBERAL PARTY DOESN'T SUPPORT THE SEAL HUNT”

    Maybe then you'd show those Conservatives!

  • Maria

    Forgive me for going off topic, but after reading this article in the National Post, I am disappointed that the opposition cared to make a stand rather then PMSH.
    Stephen, why do you think our PM refrained from not coming out to condemn the way our Jewish citizens are being treated which brings to mind pre-WWII scenerios ?
    I am an unhappy conservative today.

  • Liz J

    It's just more proof the Liberal brains have left the building.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Ignatieff is to be commended for that op-ed today. It is refreshing to see grown up behaviour in the Liberal Party.

    As for the Prime Minister? Opposition leaders are limited in what they can do; they write op-eds and make speeches. I can tell you that this Conservative government's direction has been stronly and refreshingly pro-Israel. While Ignatieff as the opposition leader is limited to talk, Harper's government has been using its power to take a principled stand (and action) in support of Israel.

  • Cale

    right you are Stephen and the pity of it is the MSM is happy to help the Liberals blind themselves. What’s the counter move to all of this….just in case savvy bloggers want to fight back?

  • Gabby in QC

    “Given the Conservatives' history of using government offices for strictly and severely partisan purposes (eg. 80% of infrastructure spending in Tory ridings, the fiscal update, etc.), there is a real pattern of undemocratic governance here.”

    Can you direct me to a website or some official document where I can verify that 80% of infrastructure spending is going to Tory ridings? Somehow you don't inspire much confidence.

    And as far as the fiscal update is concerned, you must be referring to the political party funding as being partisan. I guess you didn't hear … that was withdrawn one or two days after it was introduced.
    “Tories blink on party funding
    Flaherty to make statement today; opposition forges on with coalition plans
    Andrew Mayeda, Canwest News Service
    Published: Sunday, November 30, 2008

    The opposition refused to back down from plans to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government yesterday, even as the governing Conservatives announced they will withdraw their controversial proposal to end public subsidies for political parties.

    Is this the “new Liberal sheriff in town” you're talking about?

  • Paul Canniff


    Do get real! This was a perfectly avoidable gaffe, plain and simple. The releases by Shea and Manning had a style and tone suited properly to a parliamentary caucus website but it was irresponsible to publish them on a departmental site. What next, you’ll tell us that mailing a ten percenter out of a departmental communications bureau is just a well-intentioned slip?

    :Last December after the economic statement flap, some “senior Tory source” was cited as saying that the shop was back under adult supervision. I remain unconvinced.

  • Kelly Jamieson

    Stephen – This was a mistake on Gail Sheas part. I see she has acknowledged the mistake, but has not apologized for it. She needs to set things right.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Fair enough, but the point here is…

  • Liz J

    Who should Gail Shea apologize to, the Liberals? The folks out in the real world are not too wrapped up in this mistake which the Minister has addressed, we're not talking about billions of dollars tossed to the wind.

  • wilson

    ''And you wonder why Canadians don't trust the Conservatives with their $3 billion slush fund?''

    Says who Ted?
    Have Canadians been asked and I missed it?

    Btw, I like that Liberals keep talking 'slush fund', reminds everyone of Adscam,
    maybe Iffy will tell us who the 12 Liberals candidates were,
    that Cote told Gomery he gave envelopes stuffed with $100 bills, $120,000 in total, of stolen taxpayers money.

    over at Joanne's blog, some very interesting info on trusts has been dug up…
    Since David Akin did such a good job exposing Shea and Manning's use of the wrong letterhead for their press release (will $0.34 cover the cost, cash or cheque buddy?)
    he could dig into a few Liberal trusts, untouchable by the Auditor General.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Newsire costs are about $1200. Liberals are clearing their schedule tomorrow for this?

  • Ted

    No Gabby, you are thinking of the old cowboy. But that was just a sketch; here's the photograph.

    Conservative pork barrelling the infrastructure spending: here (click on the backgrounder that follows the press release; the press release is obviously commentary but the backgrounder sets out the raw data which is irrefutable and was not refuted by the Conservatives); it is actually worse than it seems because of the non-Conservative ridings, almost all of them were won by the NDP or Liberals in 2006 by small voting margins.

    As for the fiscal update, yes they backed down… after the opposition and the country went nuts on them. My point was that they took that approach in the first place and only a week after claiming they would work with Parliament. They promised to be consensus builders and the first chance they got they lobbed a nuclear bomb into Parliament and one that brought no stimulus spending with it. If the opposition leaders had not been such idiots and signed up that coalition, Harper might have been dumped by his own party by now.

    The coalition was a mistake and Canadians (and most Liberals) did not like it, strongly so, but don't mistake opposition to the coalition with endorsement of Conservative behaviour in the fall.

  • Ted

    As much as I dislike the Conservatives Maria, I have to say I have a reluctance criticizing him here. Not just that he has made his position on Israel clear (too clear too often in fact, to the point where one wonders if it is just a political football for him). Having been beaten to the punch by Ignatieff, he may have thought it beneath him to “follow” Ignatieff's lead.

    But I am really not one who demands a statement from leaders on all things all the time. It makes real statements all the more meaningless when politicians are jumping all over each other trying to out-statement each other.

    His silence on this is indeed odd, but more odd than concerning.

  • Ted

    Funny how quick the “get tough on crime/accountability” crowd is when one of their own breaks clearly written, unambiguous rules.

    I agree it is not a huge deal. Canadians are used to and almost expect Conservatives to bend government rules for partisan gain and this is a minor infraction compared to In and Out, Cadman, etc.

    I just think it highly interesting how quick Conservatives are to dismiss the substance of the issue here.

  • Ted

    While it may get mentioned, I expect that the Liberals will drop this and get back to the serious business of getting some accountability for the Conservative slush fund.

    Gone are the days when the opposition will let itself get distracted by secondary or irrelevant issues like Shane Doan when they have the Conservatives on the ropes on a real and significant issue (I hope). That is one thing that Ignatieff and his team have brought to issues: a lot more focus and discipline.

  • Stephen Taylor

    We believe in getting tough on gangland murderers, not press releasers

  • Ted

    Seems to me that Harper got elected PM based on “accountability” more than his getting tough on gangland murderers. But that was three years ago, I guess.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Accountability to taxpayers and voters, not to Liberal party schemes.

  • TangoJuliette

    Can some librano-leaning fiction writer tell me just how exactly they think that all of the forgoing compares to Adscam, Shawingate Golf & Country Club Scam, the one million dollar budgeted, two Billion dollar actual cost over-run Gun Registry, Lib MP's being allowed to have more than one vote in any given election?

    As for that two billion dollar Gun Registry over-run? Please tell a waiting citizenry just where the libranos built their opulent, TajMahal-emulating Gun Registry HQ. It's gottat to be one hell of a gem, for that size of an over-run.


    t.e.& o.e.

  • Gabby in QC

    Oooh, send me to a Liberal website. Now THAT should really inspire confidence.
    Have you considered the possibility that those ridings had been neglected during the Liberals' 13 years reign, so they are doing catch-up? But of course you'd reject that possibility.
    In any event, I’ll wait for the AG’s report for verification, if you don’t mind.

    “yes they backed down… after the opposition and the country went nuts on them.”
    Your chronology does not correspond with this chronology:
    “A timeline of recent developments in the unfolding parliamentary crisis in Ottawa”
    Let's review some salient points:
    Nov. 27: Fiscal Update, elimination of political party funding introduced.
    Nov. 29: political party funding measure is withdrawn
    Dec. 1: formal coalition document signed.

    It's useless to fight that battle over again, since we'd never agree on it anyway, but I believe your phrase “the country went nuts on them” applies rather to the opposition going ahead with the coalition (which had been in the works during the election anyway) despite the withdrawal of the “offending” legislation.

    As for your rhinestone cowboy and my leather-clad one, I'll take the latter any time.
    You can sing along with your sheriff as he sings this:
    … There's been a load of compromisin' (Ignatieff can be FOR and AGAINST something at the same time!)
    On the road to my horizon (He thinks his destiny is to be anointed PM)
    But I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin' on me

    Like a rhinestone cowboy
    Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
    Like a rhinestone cowboy
    Getting cards and letters from people I don't even know
    And offers comin' over the phone …”

  • Ted

    As noted above, I don't think this is a big deal and certainly not criminal or corruption; it is just more of the same politicizing of government for strictly partisan gain which is wrong and the Conservatives admitted as much.

    But the direct implication of what Tango is saying and what others are saying above is that Conservative corruption and scams and accountability problems don't matter unless they are as big as Liberal problems from three prime ministers and over a decade ago.

    That is what you think accountability means Tango?

  • Michael

    That's a cop out.

    Is the $3 billion slush fund accountable to taxpayers?

  • Michael

    Go look at the departmental report, Gabby. That's where the numbers come from.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Budgetary measures are accountable via general election and confidence of the House

  • Stan

    Ted, you sound like a Liberal staffer. That is all fine but what time did you write your partisan comments? If it was on government time then the Canadian taxpayers have paid for it. I hope you are a private citizen….

  • Omanator

    Re. ” the New Sheriff in Town” It appears that the new sherrif is becoming less and less popular. The latest polls show he is slipping.

  • Omanator

    Re. ” the New Sheriff in Town” It appears that the new sherrif is becoming less and less popular. The latest polls show he is slipping.