Sandra Buckler resigns as Director of Communications

Sandra Buckler, Stephen Harper\'s Director of CommunicationsToday, Sandra Buckler informed her friends and colleagues that she’ll be leaving the Prime Minister’s office as Director of Communications.

Buckler started with the PMO shortly after the Conservatives took power in February 2006 and has served the PM for 28 months. She served in the Conservative war-room during the election and was one of the most effective communicators during that time. Her skills impressed Stephen Harper and the Prime-Minister-elect hired her on as his Comms boss.

In her role as one of Harper’s senior advisers, she often butted heads with members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery as the Prime Minister sought to define his communications style as disciplined and focused in contrast to Paul Martin’s frantic and chaotic style. Her departure comes as the PM’s new chief of staff Guy Giorno takes the helm in Langevin.

A moderate shuffle among senior staff is expected under the new boss and Buckler’s departure comes after two and one half years in government. The departure of Harper’s departing chief of staff Ian Brodie indicates a major reconfiguration has been in the works at the highest levels of government and Giorno and the new DComm will seek to put their own mark on upper management.

Sandra has earned a well-deserved rest. Best wishes and a job well done.

The Death of Oily – the tragic premature demise of an almost Canadian icon

Oily, the talking oil spotIt was the first brillantly sunny pre-summer weekend of June. Joggers in Ottawa hit the river parkway and canal while sun-bathers converged on Parliament Hill. In an air-conditioned office on Queen street, Conservative Party officials were preparing to unleash the first volley of their new advertising campaign.

A few short weeks earlier, hapless and troubled Liberal leader Stephane Dion first mused about a new policy that MP Garth Turner would later – in a turnabout way – described as the sort of idea that drove the former sociology professor into politics years ago.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien recruited the then-unelected Mr. Dion into cabinet as intergovernmental affairs minister and following that, Canada’s environmental direction was later guided by Dion’s hand as environment minister. Tethering his ambition on recent popular interest in the topic of Global Warming, Dion and his supporters donned green scarves at the Liberal leadership convention in 2006 and effectively won the contest with this topic as a single issue campaign. For Dion, it was a calculated risk and when he secured the leadership of “Canada’s Natural Governing Party” – despite its recent rejection to opposition status – Mr. Dion probably thought he scored himself quite a coup. Unfortunately for him, a shrewd Conservative Party set to work soon after defining his visibly weak personality as weak leadership and Canadians started to associate the man with the cleverly crafted Conservative catchphrase “not a leader”.

Fast forward to 2008 and the Conservative strategists are facing an alternative line of attack from the opposition. Scandal is the order (rather, strategy) of the day for the Liberal Party. Labeled as untrustworthy after the very public sponsorship scandal, Liberal minds went to work after receiving a bit of a hint from Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney. The former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister taught the Liberals that there is no shelf-life on unresolved scandal, but more importantly that the public spotlight on perceived dubious activity could harm Conservatives as it had done the Liberals. If the Liberal brand has a higher floor than that of the new Conservatives, framing all political parties as untrustworthy may just have Liberals coming out ahead (while at the same time setting everyone back). Chuck Cadman, Ian Brodie and NAFTA, and Maxime Bernier became key nodes on the Liberal strategic whiteboard as that party worked on degrading the key strength of the Conservative Prime Minister: trust and accountability.

The Liberals felt a new sense of energy after being demoralized by the constant barrage of attack against their leader. This was especially evident in daily question period when former Liberal leadership candidate Maurizio Bevilacqua rambled off expressive Italian tabloid headlines on the “scandalo” of Maxime Bernier that were dogging the PM on his European trip. A gang of OLO staffers and Liberal researchers showed up in the member’s gallery and held their sides as the Italian-Canadian MP made a great show of his question to the government.

The Liberal leader, however, still had his own problems. Facing a ‘save-the-furniture’ style election by elements within his own caucus – namely MPs loyal to Bob Rae – Dion promoted a new policy plank in his carbon tax. Later told by senior Liberal strategists that calling his plan a tax would turn off Canadians, Dion strode forward on the well-founded assumption that the only thing standing in the way of a Rae-Harper orchestrated defeat of the government, was a party-defining policy that could sustain the embattled leader through the summer. Environment played to one of Mr. Dion’s rare if wrongly perceived strengths and for the Liberal leader it will probably be his last playable hand. Going into a summer forecasted to be a scorcher too hot for even regular joggers along the canal, Mr. Dion may believe that the “green, don’t call it a carbon tax, shift” is his trump card.

In the meantime, Conservative insiders heard that Mr. Dion was set to unveil his carbon tax plan next Wednesday, just prior to the House rising after the spring session. In doing so, the professorial Liberal leader could define his plan outside of Parliament on the – ironic perhaps – propane-fueled BBQ circuit that politicians often take during the summer recess.

In focus groups and telephone-based market research, Conservative planners came to understand that a carbon tax in the abstract is a well-received concept to most Canadians. What they also found, however, that when the details of achieving such a policy objective are understood, a broad majority of Canadians don’t think of it as feasible. Words like “tax-shifting” and “revenue neutral” were panned and uncomfortably rejected by focus groups when polled and the general distrust of politicians regarding new tax became a palatable conclusion for Conservative strategists. Conservative-Liberal switchers, a group that holds victory for either party, was found to have a distrust for any politician with a plan for creative tax manipulation.

As they did before, the Conservatives moved to define the Liberal leader, however this time on his carbon tax, before Dion could do it himself. The party faced two decisions. On one hand, they could engage the Liberals in a debate on their carbon tax proposal, and on the other they could tap into the public’s well-grounded suspicion in creative tax schemes proposed by politicians. The Conservatives chose the latter. Using the specific terms of carbon taxation would be instrumental to the party’s strategy and this would not allow Dion to speak about it in general feel-good terms. Conservatives tasked themselves on warning Canadians of politicians promising new models of taxation. A key weakness for Dion in attracting swing votes that exist between Liberal and Conservative is that the Liberal leader is not viewed as a fiscally frugal Liberal and that he instead occupies the “tax and spend” left camp in the Liberal party. On trust numbers, Harper scores much higher than Dion on the issue of taxation. If Dion’s strength is in the environment, the Conservatives did well to frame this as a tax issue instead. From alluding to the then-promised temporary measure of income taxation to pay for the First World War to the recent McGuinty health premiums, Conservative messaging sought to enhance Canadian skepticism in Dion’s plan yet to be unveiled. Warning tape was streamed at the “willyoubetricked.ca” website the party built to compliment the campaign and scores of volunteers donned yellow shirts – yellow being the colour of warning or caution – to alert Canadians to what Conservatives claim would be Dion’s “tax on everything”. Indeed, the primary message of the campaign was caution underscored by the primary catchphrase “don’t be tricked”.

The party also signed a contract with Fuelcast, the company that runs the video screens at the gas pumps for very focused messaging. While representing less than 5% of their ad buy, the fuelcasting represented a unique angle to land coveted free advertising via earned media; no political party has ever used the gas pump video screens for political advertising and the unique nature of this advertising was a great news hook for the networks. Although the agreement unexpectedly fell through, the campaign earned increased exposure even in the negative attention that certain media outlets gave the ad spots as some reporters speculated that “Oily” (the talking oil spot in the fuelcast spots) was a deliberately engineered failure in order to get earned media.

Oily, as he’s been dubbed by reporters, was never intended to die. Though the Liberal response to the advertising was that such a campaign indicated that the Conservatives were in the pocket of big oil – in that the party purchased advertising on gas pumps, the irony is that the Fuelcast company eventually rejected their advertising citing that they didn’t want to be political. Oily was meant to be an eye catching, sort of in-your-face character to draw the attention of gas pumping consumers and the spot compliment the yellow warning colour of the campaign website. The willyoubetricked.ca website was meant to be a zany, humourous and interactive website that people could pass on to their friends.

Any successful campaign gets a lot of attention and it’s without dispute that this one did. A multi-faceted campaign that included the novelty (or promised novelty) of fuelcasting, an interactive website, a pedestrian literature push in yellow t-shirts and panel after panel of Conservative strategists warning Canadians not to be tricked by politicians promising crazy tax schemes. Surprisingly on Monday, while Conservative prodded Dion on redefining himself (after they had done so) on his carbon tax, Dion accepted the challenge and we bizarrely saw an opposition leader in fact responding rather than challenging. This suggests that the theory that Dion is desperate to cling to a medium-term campaign (rather than a snap election) to save himself as the leader of the Liberal Party.

So this summer, Dion will jump on a jet to visit all parts of Canada, flipping non-organic transited burgers on gas or charcoal grills telling people that he’s in a shifty mood when it comes to their taxes, the summer sun that Canadians will seek to avoid inside their cooled homes may prove to have too much disconnect when it comes to the tax they’ll pay on their gas, their groceries and their respite from the heat. For Conservatives, the party planted a successful seed of well-founded doubt among Canadians concerning Mr. Dion’s plan.

Maxime Bernier resigns

At 7pm this evening, the Prime Minister announced that he received an offer of resignation of Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Bernier this afternoon and accepted it. Bernier informed the Prime Minister that he had been careless in keeping classified documents secure while he was in a relationship with Julie Couillard. The Prime Minister has emphasized that the personal relationship of Mr. Bernier wasn’t the business of the state – or of the public.

Indeed, close relations of cabinet ministers including spouses, other romantic interests or family are neither cleared for such information (rated at Top Secret or even TS:SA), and they are not vetted by those that protect the government. Essentially, keeping of department and state secrets is the role of each and every minister and Bernier has admitted an inexcusable lapse in judgment regarding the security of classified information.

The Prime Minister is to board a Challenger jet within the hour for an extended multinational European trip and the settling of this business was urgent prior to his departure. Ms. Couilliard’s interview this evening with French-language network TVA would have heightened the opposition’s tone to fever pitch and it’s no secret that all three opposition parties were to focus on asking for Mr. Bernier’s resignation over the next week and up until Parliament rises for the summer break. In resolving this matter, the government gets somewhat of a reprieve from a scandal-obsessed opposition, still hungry despite recent setbacks in their narrative as the RCMP cited no evidence in the Cadman affair and the recent absolution of the Prime Minister’s outgoing chief Ian Brodie in the NAFTA-related leak which now seems to be refocused on the Canadian embassy and consulates in the US rather than upon PMO. By clearing the deck of the Bernier issue, the Prime Minister’s office will construct a narrative of promptly dealing with issues of substance and holding the line on fabrications from the opposition.

The opposition gets a trophy today in Bernier’s resignation. The context of failed fishing trips by the Liberals will be sadly neglected by the Press Gallery; the vicious mood among a number of scribes in this town is not that Cadman and Brodie were simply fish tales, but rather the ones that got away.

Today was a bad day for Conservatives, but it represents an opportunity for the government move forward on its agenda without this distraction.

UPDATE: Here is Maxime Bernier’s letter of resignation.

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister
Room 313-S, Centre Block
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Prime Minister,

This is to inform you that I am resigning my post as Minister of Foreign Affairs, effective immediately.

I informed you late this afternoon that last night I became aware that I had left behind classified government documents at a private residence.

Prime Minister, the security breach that occurred was my fault and my fault alone and I take full responsibility for my actions.

I have asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to conduct a thorough review of the situation.

Thank you for the trust you have shown in me. I will do everything I can to serve the government well in my capacity as Member of Parliament.

Yours truly,

Maxime Bernier

On naming and dealing with scandal

As some of the air has been taken out of the so-called “Cadscam”, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at which communications goals were achieved by how this “scandal” was named and then let’s investigate how other scandals get their names. Further, I want to take a look at how the Conservatives are dealing with these issues during their minority government.

It seems as though every scandal that emerges in the U.S. gets the -gate suffix after the famous burglary of the DNC headquarters at the hotel which came to provide inspiration for the name. Since Watergate, we’ve seen lexicographic laziness as subsequent scandals relied on the formula by which the subject of the scandal became the root of the scandal name followed by “gate”. Wikipedia has a list of scandals based on this modèle-de-mot.

In Canada, we famously have watched the progression of “Adscam” from start to finish. Andrew Coyne — then a columnist at the National Post and now a senior editor at Maclean’s — gave the moniker to the sponsorship scandal. The scandal coiner (sorry) originally cited that he wanted to avoid the familiar -gate standby and he came to rest on a derivation of Abscam, a decades-old American political scandal that netted the convictions of a number of elected officials. Adscam, however, still registers zero on political prosecutions.

NAFTA-gate is so unfortunately named because the scandal — although up in Canada, we desperately try to claim some outrage too — is rooted in U.S. politics. If the leak was anything beyond tangential, we may have had the right to name it NAFTAscam, or Obamaramascama, but we are only secondary characters in the drama at it now simmers south of our southern border. An enterprising tech entrepreneur should immediately go and register a number of possible iteration of -gate.com and -scam.ca to cash in on the mania. As the official opposition is awol in Canada, there’ll be a scandal every week as Dion and co. focus on character assassination rather than policy opposition. Bring on Harperscam, Senatescam, and Partisanscam! In the U.S., while it is surprising to see a scandal based upon policy rather than sex, we still may see -gates reminiscent of Lewinskygate as ex-lovers and past trysts are brought to the fore (we’ve already seen a McCain sex scandal resurface that was fresh 8 years ago during the 2000 campaign).

It is interesting to note that “Cadscam” originally emerged from the Ottawa press. With Adscam so recent, it’s not entirely surprising to see this name stick. However, it is a double-edged sword for those who would carelessly wield it to damage the Conservatives. The advantage of “Cadscam” for the Liberals is that it diminishes the branding of their own scandal by creating a “politicians are all the same” way of thinking among the general public. However, the very use of the name is a constant reminder of their own scandal which ultimately brought their 13-year reign to an end. Yet, on sum I would say that it is to the Liberals’ net advantage to use the “Cadscam” name for one of the main Conservative advantages has been that they have framed themselves as the team that was elected to ‘clean up Ottawa’ and they told the electorate that ‘a new era of accountability was upon us’.

If accountability represents one pillar of this Conservative administration, this scandal has Conservatives worried because it also strikes at the very base of the other pillar: leadership. As Dona Cadman has cleared Conservative leader Stephen Harper from involvement, we can understand that perception is everything in politics and as the Conservatives clean up this mess, we see that timing and credibility are the primary factors for damage control. Of course, another key element that we have seen is pushback. Harper’s pending lawsuit against Dion is evidence of this.

Some have questioned the Prime Minister’s lack of substantive enunciation on the topic and say that he should have come forward right away to clear the air and answer any questions. Since the allegations were based on old and second-hand information, what the Prime Minister’s strategy continues to be is one that doesn’t give the intense spotlight of his office to a scandal that he cannot begin to define in his own terms. In contrast, on “NAFTA-gate”, the Prime Minister has put the full resources of his government on determining the source of the leak which impaired Obama in the Ohio primary. Some say that the PM has changed the channel on “Cadscam”, and whether or not this was deliberate on the his part, this is indeed what has happened. NAFTA-gate, as far as a news story goes, has much more momentum, involves more players, and does not have any heavy legal consequences for the Prime Minister and his team. It’s an embarrassing scandal to be sure, however, it is not one that is likely to change voter intention in the next Canadian federal election. As Canadians, I think we’re just happy that we heard our names mentioned on American TV.

If we take a substantive look at both “scandals”, the so-called “Cadscam” smells bad, but in the end it hasn’t got any legs: the three people at the centre of the allegations all denied a deal (Cadman included) and anything else is completely speculative. Unless Dion has a smoking gun, the only factor that will continue to define the story is Harper’s libel suit against the oppo leader. The Liberals might continue their pressure in the House’s ethics committee, however, they should be mindful that there is a point to be made, backed up by an easily built narrative, that the Liberals are on a witch-hunt and that they have tried to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks. On “NAFTA-gate”, there are too many speculative details for this to continue beyond the continued policy-bereft warbling of Dion in the House.

If all else fails, the Conservatives should unveil what Dion would gladly term the “hidden agenda” and dare the opposition to debate on real policy rather than trumped-up scandal.