OTTAWA–In the 6th-floor office of a nondescript building sit the gatekeepers, the bureaucrats who decide what Canadians learn about the workings of their government.
Questions on the hot issues of the day all get funnelled through this office, the "communications and consultations" unit of the Privy Council Office, housed in the Blackburn building that fronts the Sparks St. pedestrian mall.
Throughout the government, it's known simply as "downtown," the place where decisions are made on who speaks on issues and what they say. In the Conservative government's clampdown on communications, this is Ground Zero.
Public appearances by cabinet ministers – whether it's a speech or an interview – are carefully staged, starting with a "message event proposal" vetted by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
And in a marked change from previous governments, now even basic demands for information from reporters, once easily fielded by department spokespersons, are sent to this office for review – and often heavy editing – before they are okayed for public release, government insiders say.
Working in close tandem with the PMO, they are the filter for information – and often the roadblock, veteran insiders say.
"Everything is being ultra-centralized. That's why there are delays. Nothing gets responded to on time and when there is a response, it's useless," said one insider familiar with the communications strategy.
"It's a very deliberate philosophy. They don't want to communicate through the media, they don't want to engage media, they don't want to answer questions," the official said.
"If you want to tell your story, you've got to let people talk. And right now, there's nobody talking," the official said.
Starting today, the Star launches a series titled "Secret Capital" looking at the communications style of the Harper government that sees cabinet ministers routinely muzzled, the Prime Minister remain aloof from the media during trips abroad and details about government initiatives hard to come by.
All that prompted Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion to charge recently that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was presiding over the "most secretive government in our history."
"It's a concern I've certainly heard," Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said in an interview.
"If you create a fog over ... good news, then you have a darker cloud over yourself about what you're not disclosing," he said.
Marleau stressed that it wasn't his position to criticize the government's communications policy. But he said he had a vested interest because the more secretive the government, the more Canadians are forced to turn to access to information legislation to obtain once freely public details about policies and programs.
"I'm for proactive disclosure, I'm for more communication, posting more on the websites, using informal communication methods rather than the Access to Information Act," he said.
"There could be a question of style here and perceived style which is making it worse. ... It's not helpful to appear to be deliberately not communicating," Marleau said.
Harper and his Conservatives came to power in February 2006 promising more transparency and accountability. But since then they've taken message control to new heights, observers say.
"It's all a matter of degrees. Obviously every prime minister and every premier tries to control the agenda, tries to set the agenda and control the spin and win the battle of news coverage," said David Taras, a professor in the department of communications and culture at the University of Calgary.
"What we're seeing here is a degree of control within the government, within the caucus ... that we haven't seen for a very long time," Taras said.
That control extends to every corner of government. At a recent news conference, senior military officers were under government orders to answer reporters' questions only on the condition that they were not identified.
"I have to live within that limitation," Lt.-Gen. Walter Natynczyk, vice-chief of defence staff, told reporters.
That kind of zeal for message control is taking a political toll on the minority Conservatives who have had a tough time boosting popular support to majority territory, Taras said.
"You can control events for so long, you can only manipulate for so long and ultimately I think this has harmed the Harper government to the extent that Harper's image has become `Mr. Partisan, Mr. Mean, Mr. Control Freak,'" he said.
"It's just got to a point where control is the image of what his government is. That's damaging. ... You wonder what they're running from and what they're afraid of," he said.
Privy Council Office spokesperson Shawn Salewski said the office's role in overseeing communications has not changed under the Tories. Party strategists and the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request to comment on the topic.
Two big policy pushes by the Tories in recent weeks – sweeping immigration reforms and a "Canada First" defence plan – have been badly hobbled by communications blunders. In both cases, the initiatives were unveiled with few details.
In the case of the Canada First strategy, an aide to Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the government has a "very detailed" – but secret – plan.
The Canadian Newspaper Association has complained to the Information Commissioner that bureaucrats are deliberately delaying access-to-information requests.
"Delay, we believe, is used obstructively to frustrate journalistic inquiry," said David Gollob, the association's senior vice-president.
Marleau agreed that bureaucrats have been seeking longer extensions to handle access requests.
"There seems to be a growing trend to buy more time. Why? I can't yet impugn a motive," said Marleau, whose annual report is expected to be released tomorrow.
In January, an independent panel struck to examine Canada's Afghan mission served up some stinging criticism, saying both Tories and Liberals "have failed to communicate with Canadians with balance and candour."
Panel members including Derek Burney, who headed Harper's transition to power, called for a "comprehensive and more balanced communications strategy."
The Prime Minister pledged to do better. Yet since that finding, bureaucrats remain largely muzzled. Arif Lalani, Canada's ambassador in Afghanistan, is not allowed to speak with reporters without having each individual request approved by Ottawa, sources say.
The Canadian International Development Agency has no one in Kandahar authorized to speak with reporters, even though development is ostensibly the focus of the extended mission.
According to the government's own communications policy, federal employees are to be encouraged "to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives.
"Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability," the Treasury Board policy states.
But long-time insiders interviewed by the Star say reality is far different, where journalists' requests for information are routinely denied or delayed until long past deadlines.
None of the bureaucrats would speak for attribution for fear of retribution. One said being publicly identified would be "career limiting."
The clampdown could get worse. Auditor-General Sheila Fraser recently revealed that the government is proposing a new policy that would require all communications "products" to be vetted by the Privy Council Office.
One government official said the new rules would formally enshrine in policy the unwritten rule that now exists.
"The screws are being tightened bit by bit. It's gotten very extreme in the
last six months. Just more and more delays, more and more control over things,
less and less things getting approved," the official said.
With files from Allan Woods