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Bureaucrats 'obligated' to use Harper Government in place of Governent of Canada

OTTAWA -- One of the ironies of the election that finally delivered Stephen Harper's Conservatives a majority government on May 2 is that it appears to have vanquished the "Harper Government.''

The controversial term has almost disappeared from official Government of Canada news releases after suddenly blanketing departmental communications in the months leading up to the fall of the Conservative minority March 25.

Now, internal government documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that civil servants were being ordered by minister's offices to use the term, and that they were "obligated to do so if asked.''

"Just curious when we changed from Government of Canada to Harper Government? Is this a new direction?'' a regional communications director in Fisheries and Oceans asked her director general in an email on Feb. 16.

"I've been asked by several folks internally and now am getting calls (from) Comms colleagues in other federal departments...''

The inquiry came more than two weeks before The Canadian Press publicly exposed the new nomenclature.

Her superior, Susan Garner-Barklay, director general of communications for DFO, responded: "Long story. Will fill you in over the phone,'' before adding, "This is not a change in practice.''

Subsequent handwritten notes, unattributed and undated, state that "Sue has had discussions with PCO,'' the Privy Council Office that serves the prime minister.

"We will use phrase when asked to by MO (minister's office) -- discussed at higher levels in DFO -- obligated to do so if asked,'' says the handwritten note.

Literally hundreds of usages of the term Harper Government in place of Government of Canada cropped up on departmental communications starting late last year.

Top former government officials and researchers in public administration called it an unprecedented, partisan abuse when the story went public.

But the Prime Minister's Office and the PCO maintained that "no directive'' went out to civil servants ordering the use of the term and, besides, there was nothing wrong with it anyway.

Dimitri Soudas, Harper's chief spokesman, called it a "longstanding practice'' and angrily denounced the story by The Canadian Press as the stuff of "black helicopters and conspiracy theories.''

The sudden explosion of the "Harper Government'' handle in the late fall of last year was never explained, nor has the PMO given a reason why it has all but vanished since the election.

"Harper government is a commonly used term across departments and government,'' PMO spokeswoman Sara McIntyre said in an email when asked about the shifting nomenclature.

"It is also frequently used by journalists and the public. There has been no PMO directive on its usage.''

But civil servants certainly noticed the sea change.

As far back as last August, an editor at Foreign Affairs was noting an approved press release had been altered by the office of then-trade minister Peter Van Loan to replace Government of Canada with "Harper Government.''

"This is a major shift in usage,'' the editor wrote his superior.

"Using it in unattributed text (where the department itself is 'speaking') is significantly different from using it in a quote, and the department might be seen as partisan.''

The response from his superior, copied to several others, was: "I share your concern.''

Last Oct. 26, the acting director of the Federal Identity Program also sought advice on the use of the term.

Remi Tremblay emailed his superior at Treasury Board after Industry Canada received a protest letter from a blanked-out individual who demanded corrections as soon as possible.

"It is inappropriate and outrageous to publicize any federal government initiative or announcement, funded by Canadian tax revenue, as an initiative from a particular political party or party leader,'' said the letter.

The letter, whoever wrote it, was handled like a hot potato by Industry Canada and Treasury Board, with a string of emails on how to respond.

Tremblay noted the usage "may be perceived as partisan by some'' but that Harper was "indeed the prime minister of the Government of Canada. So that leaves us in a grey zone between two different facts.''

The response from Philip Hurcomb, Treasury Board's assistant secretary of "strategic communications and ministerial affairs,'' was to inform the letter writer that "the policy is silent on issues such as using the prime minister's name as a descriptor for the government.''

It was an oblique response that remained remarkably consistent.

On March 7, 2011, following yet another internal government letter of concern about the "Harper Government'' terminology, Susan Gardner-Barclay at Fisheries and Oceans passed along the following written response for the complainant:

"The Privy Council Office and the Secretary of the Treasury Board, who has responsibility for the Government of Canada Communications Policy, have provided direction to departments on this issue,'' says the response.

"They have indicated that the Government has the latitude to decide how it wishes to refer to itself in communications, and while the use of the official signature and symbol of the government must be consistent with Communications Policy, nothing in the Policy prohibits the use of the term 'Harper Government.'''

So the mystery remains.

The Conservative government "has the latitude to decide how it wishes to refer to itself,'' but no one will acknowledge providing such direction.

Use of the "Harper Government'' ballooned exponentially last November and continued until the Conservative minority fell on March 25.

Since the May 2 election, a search turns up fewer than five distinct uses of "Harper Government'' in departmental communications.

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