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Controlling The Message

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Chris Wattie/Reuters

A guard asks members of the media to leave the area outside Harper's office late last month

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There's little evidence so far that the public shares the concerns of the press. "I don't think the average Canadian cares as long as they know their government is being well run," Buckler told a reporter. But Alasdair Roberts, a Syracuse University public-policy professor, asks, "How can the average Canadian make a judgment about whether their government is being well run if they don't have access to the information?"

The Conservatives, for their part, argue that they are more transparent than their recent predecessors, noting that Harper has been holding more press conferences than either Jean ChrÚtien or Paul Martin did. Harper "gives deep media interviews with much deeper content than Canadians have seen or heard from previous Prime Ministers over the last 12 years," Buckler says. And government ministers aren't complaining about being muzzled. "We've all been told to be prudent, because when you're in government your words carry different weight than in opposition," says Agricultural Minister Chuck Strahl, a 12-year M.P. "We've all been given the wise advice, Don't just flap off at the gills."

Yet if Harper is trying to control his government's message, he certainly isn't alone. U.S. President George W. Bush has tried to impose strict discipline within his Administration, and leaks have been rare. Canadian Prime Ministers have tried similar approaches for decades--at least at the beginning of their mandates. But Harper's style has lacked subtlety. When asked at a Feb. 21 press conference whether he would continue to make himself accessible to the media, he responded dismissively, "I will be available when I have something to announce." Other members of the government have similarly been less than media savvy. When Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro announced he was investigating the defection of Liberal David Emerson directly into the Conservative Cabinet after the federal election, Buckler said the Prime Minister would be "loath to cooperate."

Running a tight ship, stanching leaks and otherwise imposing message discipline are only part of the battle, says University of Western Ontario journalism professor Michael Nolan, a former parliamentary reporter. He says a rigorous approach to governing has to be tempered with a sense of responsiveness to the public. "A good politician is manipulative, but he doesn't appear to be manipulative," Nolan says. "There's almost a naivetÚ to Mr. Harper's group because they seem to be doing this so openly."

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