The Toronto Star reported today that the federal Tories have officially rebranded “The Government of Canada” as the “Harper Government.” While the shift is not universal, with the Vancouver Sun saying that they have received a number of federal press releases that retain the “Government of Canada” branding, the new language has been seen on releases from the Treasury Board, one of the most powerful federal departments.
The move comes as rumblings of a spring election turn to a roar, and is being received with scorn by scholars, critics, and citizens alike. Political communications expert Jonothan Rose of Québec University says in an interview with the Star that the sudden reframing attempts to create “a natural affinity between one’s party leader and the act of governing.” The Star column concludes with strong words from Mel Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council, who tersely proclaims, “it is not the Harper Government…It is the Government of Canada…It’s my government and it’s your government.”
Online, the phrase “Harper Government” became a trending topic on Twitter almost instantly, with most opinions ranged squarely against the nomenclature. One user, under the handle of Canadian Cynic, quipped “If it’s the “Harper Government,” can we call it the “Harper deficit” as well?” Other’s weren’t quite so tongue-in-cheek. One Twitter-user who goes by the name nexstarr writes “A government that names itself after a single individual is usually a dictatorship. For example, “The Harper Government.”
While it’s commonplace for journalists and opposition parties to refer to the federal Conservatives by the Harper moniker, Dr. Kathleen Cross, professor of political communications at Simon Fraser University, urges us to recognize that the Tories adopting the name for themselves is hardly the same thing. “When the government itself adopts the ‘Harper Government’ branding itself, what we see is a politicizing of the bureaucracy.” For Cross, once the election ends, the job of the elected government becomes to work in the public interest. This means being accountable to and communicating with everyone, even those who didn’t vote for the elected party. This demands a neutral government bureaucracy that works in the public interest “regardless of what party is in power.”
This rebranding, however, is the latest in a long string of efforts to move away from precisely the kind of arms-length communications bureaucracy Cross benchmarks as a democratic necessity. In the 1980s, finding the civil service wholly too l(L)iberal, Brian Mulroney undertook massive cuts to the sector, turning once non-partisan communications positions into overtly political appointments under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council. When the Liberal sponsorship scandal erupted in the mid-2000s, the effects of this trajectory were made clear: federal communications initiatives had crossed the line separating government information and partisan promotion.
For Cross, the move is, in some measure, expected. “The Conservatives likely have some polling data that suggests that Harper has support from some part of the population, so they’re playing up the individual in advance of a spring election, because we all know elections are about leaders.” But regardless of how typical or mundane this strategy has become, the threat it poses to the Canadian democratic process remains urgent. It ultimately shifts federal communication efforts away from information provision and toward partisan promotion; away from nation building and toward political marketing (Kozolanka, 2006).
In recent months, the Tories have been at pains to convince us that Michael Ignatieff “didn’t come back for us,” and that voting Liberal means voting away our nationhood. But while Harper peddles this rhetoric with one hand, he guts the nation and rebuilds it in his own image with the other. In it for Canadians? Think again.