Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tory Backbenchers Found Bound and Gagged

In Harper's ongoing attempt to keep his caucus bound and gagged, we learn how totalitarian he has become. All messages are scripted by his office and any MP daring to go off text, risks dismissal.

Rather ironic that our soldiers are supposedly fighting for our freedom, while the government is slowing taking away ours. We have a right to know what our elected officials are doing, not just what Harper tells us they're doing.

I guess their next campaign slogan should be 'Vote Conservative. We'll never bore you with the details'.

Backbenchers reluctant to express views
Only 2 of 41 Tory MPs agreed to talk to Star
May 27, 2008
Joanna Smith Richard Brennan
Ottawa Bureau
Toronto Star

OTTAWA–When former Liberal public safety minister Anne McLellan appeared before Parliament's public accounts committee looking into the RCMP pension scandal last year, she expected tough questions.

But she was taken aback by the harsh digs from one young Tory MP, "just a charming, quiet guy," who joined the others in grilling her. When the meeting – derailed by over-the-top partisanship from both the Tories and the Liberals – was over, the MP walked up to McLellan, she said, looking a little sheepish.

"I'm sorry," she said he told her. "This isn't how I like to do things."

McLellan was reluctant to share this private moment between two politicians. But she said it is an example of how individual MPs are getting swept up in an "overly partisan atmosphere" she attributes to four years of minority parliaments and the "tone from the top" coming from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his office. Along the way, she said MPs are losing the human voices they brought to Parliament Hill in the first place.

Conservative MPs are strongly discouraged from speaking their minds publicly – be it to the media, in committees, or the House of Commons – on any given issue without approval from the government's communications staff. As a result, the story of the muzzling of government backbenchers is inherently difficult to tell.

The Star requested telephone interviews on the topic with all 41 Conservative MPs in Ontario last week. Only two of them replied.

"I don't clear anything with the PMO," said MP Larry Miller (Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound), in his second term on the Hill, who returned a call 15 minutes after being contacted. "I'm known as a constituent person and if I can't take their issues I can't do my job."

MP Royal Galipeau (Ottawa-Orleans), a deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, said government secrecy is "mostly something that the chattering classes like to complain about."

Two former Tory MPs, however, said they were routinely prevented from talking to the media. Independent Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey (Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley) was kicked out of the Tory caucus in June 2007 for voting against a budget implementation bill he said broke a government promise to Atlantic provinces on resource revenue.

"Any time an issue would come up, we'd get an email to say `Here is the position and the identified spokesperson will be (blank) and nobody else is supposed to speak on the subject,'" Casey said.

Harper revealed a $1 billion spending cut to his MPs in September 2006, said former Conservative MP Garth Turner (Halton). Turner, who was dropped from the Tory caucus a month later for his maverick style and betraying caucus confidentiality, said Harper warned MPs not to talk about it publicly.

"We sat in caucus one Wednesday morning and the Prime Minister said `Later today, we will be announcing details of this program spending cut.' ... He said, `If you comment on this, you can count on having a very short political career,'" Turner recalled. "If that isn't PMO chill, I don't know what is."

Turner, who is now a Liberal MP, said Harper has rendered Commons committees powerless.

The PMO did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

MP paid big price for speaking out in Harper's Ottawa
Garth Turner recounts events that led to ouster from Tory caucus
May 27, 2008
Garth Turner Special to the Star

This is the Prime Minister's Office calling. I have the Prime Minister's chief of staff on the line. Please hold."

As I stood in my new, empty apartment in Ottawa a few weeks after the last election, phone in hand, it occurred to me I might want to remember this call. So, I made notes, scarcely believing the words I was recording.

Stephen Harper's right-hand man, Ian Brodie, head of the most powerful and secretive PMO in national history, was telling me what I would be doing in the next few hours. You will issue a media release, he said, praising the Prime Minister for appointing David Emerson to cabinet. And you will immediately stop writing your blog.

But Brodie, the former Reform party organizer and University of Western Ontario professor, did not stop there. "If you want to be a f---ing independent," he said, "then go ahead. We can arrange that." And he was gone.

Eight months later, of course, he did, after I refused to recant my comments about Mr. Harper's cabinet choices, or silence my writing.

One Wednesday morning in October of 2006, I walked into Ontario Conservative caucus in the ornate meeting room in Centre Block and noticed Doug Finley leaning against the back wall. As Stephen Harper's director of political operations, he runs the entire Conservative backroom – a shadowy and omnipotent party operative – who never attended such gatherings.

But 20 minutes later, the penny dropped. A surprise motion was made to expel me. Taking the microphone to immediately speak against me were Jim Flaherty, the finance minister I was pushing hard in public to bring in family income-splitting, and Doug Finley's wife and immigration minister, Diane. Moments later, in a show-of-hands vote most MPs did not participate in, or apparently understand, I was out. Shortly afterwards the full national caucus – with no vote – was told of my expulsion.

Within a few minutes, the computers in both my Hill office and riding office went dark, the result of an order, the House of Commons tech guys told me, that was issued by Tory whip Jay Hill even before the vote was taken to toss me from my own party.

Welcome to Mr. Harper's Ottawa.

This is a world in which a member of Parliament, sent by the people to represent them, is cowed and threatened by an unelected staffer. It's a place where a political party can silence internal debate and, in a hasty few moments, overthrow the results of an election.

It's where Harper MPs are told they need permission from the PMO to speak to reporters, and are expected to carry wallet cards reminding them how to avoid the media. It's a capital in which promised free votes don't take place, where a government elected on openness fights to restrict access to information and public servants fear for their careers if they dare speak in the public interest. Where regulators are fired for seeking to regulate and federal scientists muzzled for talking about science. Where MPs like myself and Bill Casey are expelled for speaking, and former cabinet minister Michael Chang demoted for having convictions.

Some may counter, cynically, that it has always been this way. When governments change, the new guys move in, suck up power and put a lie to the notion this is a responsive democracy. True enough, to a degree. But Stephen Harper's taken it all to a new level.

I've been an MP twice now, and with a dozen years between stints. I've served under four leaders and three prime ministers. I've run to be a leader, and sat at the cabinet table. I was a Progressive Conservative my entire life, and believed Mr. Harper when he told me, straight out, he'd run a moderate, mainstream, middle-of-the-road administration.

But never did I expect – nor bow to – a demand that MPs be stripped of free speech, prevented from standing in caucus without permission, denied the ability to lobby for constituents, to raise any issue not party policy or simply put principle ahead of a leader's vanity.

In contrast, the current Liberal caucus of which I now am a member functions like the Progressive Conservative ones of the past – free speech, unfettered debate, fierce lobbying for ideas and criticism of leadership when it is required. It is, doubtless, what voters expect MPs to do.

In Mr. Harper's Ottawa, though, his MPs work for him, not the people. At least those who curry favour, keep their heads down, and hope against hope no one notices.

More Posts on Harper's Muzzling:

1. Another Civil Servant Who Refuses to be Muzzled

2. They're Dropping Like Flies. Another Victim of Harper's Fascist Regime

3. Conservatives Try to Bury Secrets by Wiping Out Past

4. Harper Fires Whistle Blower in Fit of Rage

5. If the Dog Isn't Watching, Why Feed the Beast?

6. Harper's Hissy Fit Has Cost Taxpayers One Million Dollars Plus Change

7. I Love it When Young People Get Involved

8. Some Conservatives are Clearing Their Throats and Speaking Out

9. Why Was N.W.T. Labour Leader Barred From Harper's Labour Announcement?

10.Am I on a Conservative Do Not Call List?

11. They're Leaving on a Jet Plane ... OK. Maybe they're Just Taking the Bus, But They are Leaving

12. Harper Secrecy is a Threat to Our Democracy

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