Monday, August 02, 2010

Getting less for more with the PMO

"Prime Minister’s Office spending to jump more than $1-million." Actually, closer to $2 million more ($9.89 million, up from $8.15 million) but who's counting, right? Counting is not big lately with this government, as we're learning with the census issue.

It's the PMO's communications budget that has skyrocketed over the past year, leading by example as always, with no regard to the belt tightening most Canadians have undergone. Did your business slow down? Did you watch what you spent? Are you still watching? Did you watch the price of groceries climb and realize how much more you were spending every week? I mean, even the Queen has cut back, you'd think some of that thriftiness might have rubbed off on old high spending Harp during their royal tour.

So what's the justification for the big shiny ever-expanding communications budget? Take a ride on the spin machine, this is the quality stuff we're paying for after all:
There is more pressure in a 24-hour news cycle for ministers, MPs and the government to respond, said Andrew MacDougall, but the explosion in third-language media has also added to demand.

“We’ve made the conscious effort to really step up our efforts and frankly, in contrast with past communications shops, to be out there more and be more helpful,” he said.
What's comical about such a response is that this PMO is notorious for information control and being less forthcoming. For not being more helpful, as the spokesperson claims. Indeed, recently, the Parliamentary Press Gallery rang the alarm about the lack of information coming from this government and the PMO in particular:
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs' secret expenses. But the problem runs much deeper. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to Information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.

The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won't know about until it's too late.

It's been four years since Harper muzzled his ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask him a question. It's not uncommon for reporters to be barred from posing questions on behalf of Canadians.

More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by handout photos and footage shot by the PM's press office. It's getting tougher to find an independent eye recording history. But handouts are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.

In the end, that means Canadians only get a sanitized and staged version of history.

Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants ñ scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and those who draft public policy and can explain it best ñ cannot speak to the media. Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.

In addition, the Access to Information system has been "totally obliterated" by delays and denials, according to a scathing report by the country's information commissioner. Requests are met with months-long delays, needless censoring and petty political interference. (emphasis added)
Does any of that sound like a "more helpful" PMO? Or the PMO stepping up their efforts? It's more appropriately characterized as circumventing, evading, stifling. Oh sure, we get more slick photos of the day, videos and handouts. But that's not information, that's something else starting with the letter "p."

We're getting less information from this PMO but we're paying much more for it with our tax dollars.

P.S. When was the last time this Prime Minister had an unscripted public event where he took questions, uncensored, from Canadians? Think hard. And by the way, that's free.