OTTAWA - The "harperization" of government of Canada announcements and backgrounders was acknowledged Wednesday by the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"The communications speak for themselves," Dean Del Mastro told CBC Radio's The Current.
"We have in fact, in communications, in press releases by departments, referred to the 'Harper Government.' Those facts stand for themselves."
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press reveal widespread incomprehension and unease among public service professionals who have been ordered to change "Government of Canada" to "Harper Government" in non-partisan communications materials.
The unanswered question, asked by bureaucrats and journalists alike, is why.
It's an issue that the public service and Canadians at large need to fully understand, said Ralph Heintzman, a former senior bureaucrat who oversaw both government communications policy and public service ethics.
"One of the characteristics of a professional public service is that it will behave in a way that will make it trustworthy and trusted by whatever government of whatever political stripe is in office at the time," Heintzman said in an interview.
"The Harper administration are merely the temporary stewards for the government of Canada. They don't own the government of Canada."
Tim Powers, an Ottawa political consultant with Summa Communications and longtime Conservative strategist, says it's all about branding.
"An essential component of branding is to establish an identity, and often in politics the identity falls around the leader — for good or for bad," Powers said, noting Canada's television networks do exactly the same thing.
The strategy carries dangers, he said. Individuals can elicit strong reactions and public perceptions may change over time.
But, he said, "any good marketeer will tell you: better to brand with strong identifying characteristics as opposed to amorphous, generic characteristics that people have no attachment to."
Powers said the notion that identity is a central tenet of branding was outlined in Naomi Klein's book "No Logo."
"If people identify with something, they're more likely to relate to it in a more active way than a less active way," Powers observed.
Yet this marketing reality is something governments of all partisan stripes appear uniformly loathe to acknowledge.
Provincial governments in Ontario and Newfoundland have both used their premiers' names for branding purposes, although they won't say as much.
"The terms are used interchangeably on government releases," Jane Almeida, a spokeswoman for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, said in an email.
As examples, she listed "Government of Ontario, Ontario Government, Province of Ontario, Ontario, McGuinty Government."
There's "no underlying reason" for using McGuinty Government, Almeida maintained, notwithstanding its recent profusion on provincial web sites.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, where references to the "Williams Government" have given way to the "Provincial Government" in news releases since Kathy Dunderdale took power last December, the premier's office was equally blase.
"Frankly I haven't been keeping track of the usage of the phrase," said spokeswoman Glenda Power.
Power said "Dunderdale Government" might have appeared on some releases; "there is no reason it couldn't be and there has been no direction not to use it."
Journalists, pundits and politicians routinely refer to governments by the name of the leader, so the reluctance of public servants to engage in the practice can be difficult for some to understand.
Powers, the communications strategist, says it's just human nature.
"Every Canadian government since (John A.) Macdonald has been described by, in historic terms, the leader who has led that government," he said, and people continue to identify the government with the leader of the day.
"Have the (name-branding) efforts intensified? Perhaps. But they have in other arenas. Everything now is about integrated communication."
And that, according to Heinztman, is where the problem lies.
"Where it becomes really problematic is when, institutionally, it starts to appear on institution web sites and other documents, replacing the Government of Canada with the Harper Government," said Heintzman, now a professor at the University of Ottawa's graduate school of public and international affairs.
"Every public servant — you're seeing it in those emails — they know that they're doing wrong. They recognize right away that they're being cast into performing in a partisan manner and they quite rightly don't want to do it."
For his work in public service ethics and citizen-centred service delivery, Heinztman was awarded the Vanier Medal in 2006, Canada's top public administration award.
He believes Canadians should pay attention to what he calls the current "slippage."
"I think we should be concerned about it because it perverts our understanding of how parliamentary government does and should work, and how the longterm public interest is served," said Heintzman.
"Over time, it would lead public servants and Canadians to think that public servants and the public service are there to serve the partisan interests of the government of the day."
That's simply not the case.
"Public servants don't work for the Harper government. They work for the government of Canada."
By Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press