Let me preface this by saying that some of my good friends are communications officers. Some of them even work in government. For the most part, they are good people trying to do a good job.
But, goodness gracious, there are way too many of them working at the federal level for the amount of actual communicating that is going on.
There are at least 1,500 communications staffers working in government offices and departments across the country, according to a recent estimate by The Hill Times newsweekly. That might be justifiable, given the enormous, sprawling nature of our federal bureaucracy. The government controls a lot of complex information, so it would be reasonable to employ a lot of people to disseminate that information to the public in an intelligible way.
Problem is, that’s not what’s going on.
Increasingly, the job of federal communications officers has shifted from informing the public to parroting the talking points handed down by the Prime Minister’s Office. I know all governments exercise a certain amount of message control, but Stephen Harper takes it to a new and disturbing level.
This paranoid approach to public relations has become so entrenched that National Post columnist Andrew Coyne recently coined a new term for it: “guerrilla governing.” Rather than explaining its policies and rallying public opinion to its side, this government tries to sneak changes through with speed and stealth.
These tactics may have served the Conservatives well when they were in a minority situation, but it’s hardly an appropriate way to deal with the people of Canada. It’s not only undemocratic, it’s unfair and often cruel.
The recent Parks Canada cuts are a perfect example. With little advance warning, 41 employees of Jasper National Park were tersely told on April 30 that their jobs will be affected.
Looking at the numbers (which took several days to be clarified), it seemed obvious to me that Jasper was hit harder than most national parks, being asked to trim a whopping 12 per cent of its budget. But when I inquired as to why this is, the first response from Parks Canada’s head office was a denial.
“No national parks or national historic sites were specifically targeted more than others,” media relations officer Natalie Fay told me in a polite, 250-word email that failed to answer the one question I had called to ask.
When pressed in a subsequent email, Fay went on to say “we are focusing services when and where the majority of visitors use them.” I then asked if this means Jasper was asked to cut more than Banff because Banff gets more visitors. She didn’t reply.
Frustrating for me, as a writer, for sure. But it also must be frustrating for you, as a reader, to not get the whole story when it comes to something that affects this community so directly.
I want to be careful, however, to draw a distinction between national government communications and those handled locally. Here in Jasper, I have been nothing but impressed by communications officer Alisson Ogle and her predecessor in the position, Suzy Whitty. Other JNP employees have also been brave enough to speak publicly on their areas of expertise while quietly noting to me that they could get in trouble with their bosses, as all interactions with the media are carefully monitored.
For his part, Supt. Greg Fenton has also been forthcoming with information, and did offer at least some explanation about the reasons for Jasper’s spending-reduction targets, although that really wasn’t up to him. He, rather, has the unpleasant task of administering the decisions of government.
It should be up to that government – and at least one of the 1,500 communications staffers it employs – to explain those decisions but, sadly, we still don’t have a clear picture of why so many jobs were affected here.
I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though. If it were up to me, I’d be trimming some of those communications positions in Ottawa before cutting any jobs in Jasper.
DISCLAIMER: The Last Word is an opinion column, it is meant to provoke thought and debate. As such, any opinions written here are the writer’s own.