Andrew MacDougall and the PMO’s strange stability

Paul Wells on 7 communications directors in 7 years
Andrew MacDougall leaves the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on August 30, 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff personally footed the $90,000 bill for embattled Sen. Mike Duffy’s improper housing expenses.Harper spokesman MacDougall says Duffy was unable to make a timely repayment of the expenses.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

One of the first big surprises for me when I moved to Ottawa was that large operations overwhelmingly reflect the personality and work style of the one person at the top. There’s no obvious reason why this should be so: a minister has 10,000 bureaucrats working under him, and they all have processes to follow, and the staff around a minister is hired and motivated to keep the boss from expressing spontaneity or quirks. And yet wherever Allan Rock went, that department quickly became an Allan Rock department: earnest, activist, hectic, soon embroiled. Same with Brian Tobin and anyone else you care to name.

We can extend this auteur theory of politics to just about any scale. There was no important stylistic difference between Parliament Hill in the late 1980s and the lobby bar of the Montreal Ritz Carlton a decade earlier: the defining presence in both places was Brian Mulroney, gossippy, detail-obsessed and leaning well into your comfort zone.

Andrew MacDougall announced today he is leaving the Prime Minister’s Office. He will be the seventh Harper communications director to do so in seven years. Why, it seems like only yesterday the jovial MacDougall — no, wait. It was only yesterday. 

There have been significant stylistic differences — Kory Teneycke rang in a period of relative glasnost in 2008, and the eternal question, “What does he actually do?” was most pressing during Angelo Persichilli’s tenure — but by now there’s been so much change that it’s the continuity that’s most striking.

Each of Harper’s communications directors has been running Harper’s strategy, whose elements can be summed up as follows:

1. Say little.

2. Ensure that what does get said is pre-meditated and co-ordinated. The processes for doing this are many and their use is routine. The number of people in this government who are licensed to speak in public without rehearsal has always been counted on one hand. The prime minister himself is not on that list. Communications mis-steps cost this party the 2004 election; Harper has bet everything since then on avoiding the same mistake.

3. Communications strategy is internal before it’s external. This is hardest for reporters to believe, because we like to think our latest call into Langevin is the most important thing that’s happening there. But most of the PMO comms director’s job involves ensuring internal coordination among offices and departments. It’s ensuring that news releases and websites and ministers’ speeches reflect the government line. I’ve even heard grumbling from Conservatives that MacDougall spent too much time talking to reporters and not enough on that internal coordination stuff.

4. Take more information from reporters than you give them. The point of a highly formalized, ritualized system for extracting the maximum amount of detail from reporters when they call for information on a story is to know what they’re up to. The reason to have a press bus on a campaign is to sequester malcontents. Information-sharing is a two-way street, and if reporters don’t realize they’re giving the PMO information on what the gallery is up to, that’s their problem.

5. There is a world of difference between the most important news outlets and the ones that think they’re important. Talk radio (English, French and Punjabi), the Chinese-language Fairchild television network, Tout le monde en parle matter — the latter, too much for Harper’s taste; he has never gone on the show because the cost of a mistake would be too great. Newspapers whose readers have not lately been voting Conservative matter less. Reporters outside Ottawa are as handy an outlet as reporters in Ottawa, and usually less informed about Ottawa debates and way less grumpy.

I’m not saying Harper only hires people who think like him. Just about every person in MacDougall’s job has urged the PM to be more open and less combative. It’s just that they rarely win those arguments, and eventually they leave.

Of course the current environment in the PMO is tougher than it’s been for a while. Harper just had a chief of staff resign in disgrace. There are really substantial scandals rocking this government. The opposition seems to be getting its act together, although gratifyingly for Conservatives, it continues to do so in duplicate. This morning some Hill denizens were asking who would take the job of speaking for this PM, knowing the rocky road ahead. And yet someone will be along before you know it. And then gone in much the same way. The constant is Stephen Harper.