Liberals launch ads attacking 'Harper Government'
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday March 2, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 4, 2011 6:36PM EST
OTTAWA - Federal Liberals are moving swiftly to capitalize on public outrage over Conservative attempts to rebrand the government of Canada as "the Harper government."
They've produced a radio ad that will begin running Saturday in Quebec, expressing shock at the Tories' effrontery in equating the government with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Like you, I am profoundly shocked," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says in the ad.
"It's totally unacceptable. The government of Canada is not the government of Mr. Harper, it's the government of citizens, the government of all the citizens of Canada."
The Canadian Press revealed Thursday that a directive was sent late last year to public servants, advising them that "government of Canada" should be replaced in all federal communications with the words "the Harper government."
The story -- which included fierce criticism from some public administration experts, including former clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe -- spread like wildfire through social media. The reaction appeared to be predominantly negative.
In the Commons on Friday, Tory MP Andrew Saxton defended the branding exercise as "a longstanding practice across various governments." He said the former Liberal government of Jean Chretien used to do the same thing.
"This terminology is widely used by journalists and the public. In fact, Mel Cappe, who was quoted in these stories, approved many of the releases when he was clerk using the term 'Chretien government,"' said Saxton.
The Prime Minister's Office later supplied examples of such releases but only three -- involving the government of Paul Martin -- actually personalized the government in the same way the Tories are attempting to do.
The releases during Chretien's tenure are all headlined "government of Canada" and use those words throughout. The only reference to the "Chretien government" comes in quotations from ministers.
Indeed, most of the examples provided by PMO, which included texts of speeches given by former Liberal ministers, involve quotes from ministers.
But Cappe, who served as the top bureaucrat from 1999-2002 during the Chretien era, said it's legitimate for a minister, who is a political actor, to refer to the government in a more partisan manner.
"There's a significant difference between a minister referring to the Harper government or the Chretien government or the Martin government . . . as distinct from a department issuing a press release or a minister's office issuing a press release which refers to the government officially that way,"
"And as far as I know that has not happened in the past and this is a departure."
Peter Donolo, Chretien's former communications director, said he explicitly directed that all government communications refer to the government of Canada.
"It's the best brand in the world and there's no way we would have tried to supercede it or to replace it," said Donolo, who now serves as chief of staff to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
"Mr. Chretien . . . had way too much respect for our public institutions to cheapen them the way Harper has and he didn't have the political megalomania the way Harper has to ensure his likeness or name was stamped on everything the government does."
Ironically, while the term "Harper government" may now be ubiquitous on government missives, it won't be allowed in the House of Commons.
A Bloc Quebecois MP who asked Friday about the branding exercise was chided by the Speaker for using the prime minister's name in the Commons. MPs must refer to one another in the chamber by the ridings they represent.