Sunday, November 08, 2009

Ottawa's become meaner: Ottawa magazine November piece

Here's the original version. Ottawa mag changed a few of the opening paragraphs:

Dena Gosewich knew something was wrong with Jerry Yanover when the veteran Parliamentary strategist’s Sunday New York Times was still on the doorstep, unread, at lunch time.
Yanover, 62, a pudgy, shy man with a passing resemblance to the actor Charles Laughton, lived with Opie, a Norwich terrier, had succumbed to heart disease.
“Yanover is to Liberalism what Yoda is to the Jedi Council: the most feared practitioner of an ancient craft,” MacLean’s magazine said four years ago. He was something more: a man whose expertise on the arcane rules of Parliament was respected by everyone on the Hill.
His death July 26 left a void, not just in the ranks of Liberal Party strategists, but in the city itself. Yanover was among the very last hold-outs of an endangered breed: a politico who really cared about representative government.
He did not hate his political opponents. He didn’t trash-talk them on the Internet or threaten them with lawsuits. He never worked as a lobbyist. He read books, got his news from real newspapers. People like Yanover were part of an old Ottawa that is quickly disappearing.
“There’s a lot of fracturing going on in Ottawa,” says Ned Franks, a retired Queen’s University professor who is one of the country’s leading experts on governance. He says the old rules that ensured collegiality and professionalism no longer apply to what he calls a “company town.”
Ottawa is a meaner place than it has ever been. Partly, Franks says, minority Parliaments are to blame, but changes to the media and the shift of political power from central to western Canada are contributing to cleavages in Ottawa’s social harmony.
“Since 2004, Parliament has been in a permanent election mode. There’s been no time to think quietly on the major issues of the day and on important legislation.”
As well, the political class is no longer attached to the city and many MPs feel no sense of comradeship with their peers, Franks said. Political parties expect them to be completely partisan in Ottawa and to leave the city to politic in their ridings every weekend. “They’re no longer settled in Ottawa. They’re not seeing MPs from other parties socially, their kids aren’t going to the same schools, and so it becomes easy for MPs to see each other as the enemy.”
Journalists, politicians and political strategists agree that Ottawa has evolved into a meaner place in the past generation. Fingers are pointed in all kinds of directions: at nasty bloggers on the Internet; at the political culture that arose in London and Washington under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; at the “war room” mentality sharpened in the States by Democrat political strategist James Carville; at the mongoose-cobra shows created by cable news networks.
The enmity does not end in the Commons chamber. Stephen Harper and his Tories are also suspicious of the public servants and journalists who make up the bulk of the city’s political class. In response, public servants have become defensive, while Hill reporters have either tried to ingratiate themselves with the Harper regime or have worked to undermine it.
“In the case of the public servants, there used to be the rose-tinted idea of the public service speaking truth to power. Now it’s reversed, with power speaking to truth. That’s left many people in the public service feeling quite miserable,” Franks said.
This used to be a town of clubs and cliques: senior politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, lawyers and businessmen in the Rideau Club; members of the political elite in exclusive fishing clubs in the Gatineau Hills; the city’s most important francophones in the Cercle Universitaire. Old money and the more successful members of the political-government elite lived in Rockcliffe, while everyone else found their appropriate place in New Edinburgh, Centretown and the Glebe.
Now, the Ottawa urban area, including the municipalities on the Quebec side of the river, is a multi-racial, multi-lingual community that is a government town, but is also a university town and a struggling technology center. All of the clubs except the Rideau Club are gone or are shells of their former selves.
Margo Roston, long-time Ottawa society writer, says people have made their social lives more private and have abandoned clubs for the city’s much-improved restaurant scene.
Hy’s, the Queen Street watering hole, is one of the places that has replaced the old clubs. On most nights when the House of Commons is sitting, Hy’s martini bar draws cabinet ministers, political commentators, pollsters and party strategists. The crowd tends to be young, stylish and much more concerned with the selling of politicians than with the minutia of governance.
They talk about polls, advertising, strategy and lobbying. They don’t talk about legislation or public administration.
Bright young people have always been attracted to Ottawa’s power. Politically-keen people just out of university develop connections with political party operatives and elected officials. If they are lucky, they land a political job on the Hill, then have a career in public relations, lobbying or in a non-government agency where they could use the skills they learned in the Centre Block. When they feel ready, they try their luck on the hustings. This was the career path of William Lyon Mackenzie and Stephen Harper.
Each MP has an office with a legislative aide and a constituency worker. Cabinet ministers have office chiefs of staffs, communications advisors and press secretaries. The Prime Minister’s Office has its own tribe of communications advisors, press secretaries and political strategists responsible for various regions of the country.
Each time a new Prime Minister or a minister is sworn in, most of these people lose their jobs and a new crop arrives. Some of the old staffers automatically qualify for a position in the public service, but the most politically-charged ones head downtown to join lobbying and public relations firms.
Tyler Meredith, a public policy consultant with KPMG, is part of the new breed of political strategists. He’s been an active Liberal since childhood, ran campaigns in his late teens, and was recruited by the multinational consulting firm partly because of his connections.
“Typically, people spend the first few years out of university working on the Hill for little pay. Then they make the natural career move to a firm. The Hill has become a training ground.”
Most of them cannot make a lifetime career in the high-stress, long-hours-and-low-pay environment of Parliament Hill. Political parties in Canada are too poor to keep the best ones. The world of public relations and lobbying offers much better money, a more professionally managed work environment, and longer-term career options. Some try to get into elected politics: the recent Liberal nomination brawls in Ottawa Centre opened a window into the world of uber-successful professional politicos. Most, however, become comfortable settlers in neighbourhoods like Hintonburg and New Edinburgh.
And, as the buildings south of Queen Street sprout more and more lobby and PR firms, the city itself has become more politicized. The mayoralty campaigns of Alex Munter, Bob Chiarelli and Larry O’Brien attracted Hill talent from the Liberals, Tories and New Democrats.
“Politics is a cottage industry in this city,” Meredith said. “The people in this industry are political animals who want to be involved in politics at all times. They do it because they want to build their political contacts, but they also do it because that’s just the kind of people they are.”
Geoff Norquay is a veteran Tory strategist who worked in Brian Mulroney’s Prime Minister’s Office and as press secretary to the-opposition leader Stephen Harper. He doesn’t believe the political culture of Ottawa has changed as much as the media that covers it.
“There’s no doubt the 24-hour news cycle has speeded up the political process’: said Norquay, who now works at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a downtown political advice and lobbying firm.
He says cable news networks, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other online media have given platforms to many more people who claim to speak on behalf of political parties. “At the same time,” he says, “it’s given each party’s partisans the opportunity to create self-inflicted wounds.”
Several firms, such as the Capital Hill Group in Ottawa and Navigator in Toronto, were created by political strategists to give advice to political campaigns, but these have morphed into lobbying and crisis management agencies. When Brian Mulroney was being scrutinized for taking cash payments from German arms dealer Karl-Heinz Schreiber, he turned to Navigator to help salvage his reputation. So did former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant after he struck and killed a bike courier last summer.
The political center of political power has moved off Parliament Hill. Two generations ago, when the country had about half the population of today, the House of Commons met six days a week, often with evening sittings that stretched far into the night. These often ended with boozy poker games in the lounge of the Press Gallery newsroom on the third floor of the Centre Block, or in late drinks at one of the clubs.
Reporters actually showed up to sit in their seats above the Speaker’s chair and take note of the debates. Prime Ministers and members of the cabinet crafted speeches on important legislation and engaged in real debate with their counterparts in opposition.
Now, the Press Gallery is nearly ten times larger than it was at the end of the Second World War, yet it’s rare to see a reporter in the House of Commons after Question Period. It’s also rare to see a newspaper or TV story based on coverage of debate of a law. MPs who “debate” in the House are actually dictating quotes into the record that will later show up in the fliers that are sent to constituents.
And, Ned Franks notes, only about half of the bills introduced since 2004 have actually become law.
These days, it’s common for the House to empty out at the end of Question Period and legislation to be “debated” by a handful of MPs. The MPs of each party crowd together to create a fiction for the TV cameras, which are not allowed to pan to the empty seats. In reality, most MPs spend just a token amount of time on “House duty.” Instead, they’re full-time partisans doing public relations work for the benefit of their party and to ensure their re-election.
A check with the Library of Parliament’s research branch shows Prime Minister Harper and Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff have never engaged in debate over a bill in the House of Commons. (Harper, in fact, has never spoken in the House about any legislation while he has been Prime Minister.) Instead, their clashes in Parliament are scripted affairs in Question period which, for the most part, consist of opposition MPs asking questions written by staffers and ministers responding with talking points crafted by their own spin people.
Parliamentary scholars like Ned Franks have argued that the House of Commons no longer acts as a real legislature where elected representatives give serious scrutiny to the laws of the country. Instead, most real legislative work happens in Parliamentary committees, which are rarely covered by journalists.
“The questions raised in the House of Commons aren’t really questions, they’re statements. The answers aren’t really answers. What we’ve seen is a dumbing down of the Parliamentary discussion to the point where it’s actually embarrassing to bring students into the House to watch Question period,” Franks said.
The debate, while over-scripted, is intense and filled with personal cheap shots.
“There’s a difference between politicians today and during my time in the House of Commons,” said former Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps. “We didn’t hate each other.”
Press coverage has gravitated to two types of stories: the “who’s up, who’s down” pieces based on polling, even when the polls are taken years before an election; and the “gotcha” stories that embarrass politicians.
“Gotcha” journalism has hobbled the professional relationship between press gallery reporters and the political class. In 1994, George Bain, a former Globe and Mail political columnist and journalism professor, wrote a book, aptly named “Gotcha,” in that examined the early variations of the form. In Bain’s book, “gotcha” journalism was directed at politicians, using snippets of information, usually taken out of context, to re-define a politician as stupid or venal.
Copps, a former reporter who sat in both the Ontario legislature and the House of Commons, rising to Deputy Prime Minister in the Chretien government, says technology drives modern politics and is partly to blame for the decline of civility among politicos.
‘“Gotcha’ journalism started with the 24-hour news services. The news used to come out in the morning and evening newspapers and on the 11 o’clock news. Now, with the all-news networks, there’s no time for fact-checking. Now there’s more innuendo, more gossip on TV as they try to fill that giant news hole,” Copps said.
“Fox News and CNN have created ‘panic politics.’ The whole political discourse is not as civil as it used to be.”
Recently, “gotcha” journalism has been turned against the bureaucracy and political staffers as Canadian journalists seek to replicate the expense scandals that have crippled Britain’s Labour government. Access to Information laws have given political reporters the ability to paw through the expense accounts of bureaucrats, allowing public servants to be crucified for the three-martini lunch, business-class travel, and the too-cozy sole-source contract.
Communications and ministerial staffers have been chucked into the dunking stool for, in the case of former Chretien communications director Francie Ducros, calling President George W. Bush a moron.
When Jasmine MacDonnell, press secretary to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt left some of her boss’s documents at a downtown TV studio last June, news of the gaffe crippled her career. A few days later, she was finished off by Halifax Herald Ottawa bureau chief Steve Maher, who, after trying several times to return a tape recorder MacDonnell had lost in the Centre Block, finally listened to the device. He reported how the press aide talked of the shortage of isotopes caused by the breakdown of a 50-year-old nuclear reactor as a sexy issue.
If MacDonnell had moved to Toronto or back to her home town of Halifax, she might have quietly found work in a mayor’s office. Instead, she stayed in Ottawa and went to work for mayor Larry O’Brien, a man in dire need of skilled public relations. In the supercharged political environment of Ottawa city hall, the mayor’s opponents used MacDonnell’s hiring as yet another cudgel to use on O’Brien.
In the weeks surrounding Jerry Yanover’s death, O’Brien was on trial for influence peddling. In the same city, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla sat in a witness chair at a House of Commons committee, tearfully denying she had mistreated her family’s domestic help. At the old Ottawa City Hall, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was tearfully denying taking bribes from an arms dealer.
All of them had spin doctors and media manipulators making sure the show was done right.
It was, indeed, a very changed city.


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