OTTAWA — The Harper government has spent more than $23 million over the last two years on media monitoring — including more than $2.4 million tracking some of its own backbench MPs in television interviews, radio and print, according to documents tabled in the House of Commons earlier this week.
The names of 65 Conservative backbench MPs — or just about 64 per cent of all Tory MPs who have no ministerial or any parliamentary secretary duties — are included in a list of search terms the federal government paid third-party contractors to monitor in news media from April, 2011 to December, 2012, although some of the terms were also monitored in early 2013.
MPs and staff in every office The Huffington Post Canada contacted Wednesday were bewildered to learn who was named on a list of politicians the Privy Council Office (PCO) tracks. (The PCO is the prime minister’s department).
“I honestly don’t know anything about this at all,” said Ontario Conservative MP Patrick Brown, whose name was on the list.
Brown said he had no idea why the government would be monitoring him. “Governments have done media monitoring for years to track what issues are relevant but I am not sure why I would be followed or tracked,” he told HuffPost.
“You know I have worked here for 29 years and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of this,” said Mary Ann Tink, parliamentary assistant to Ontario Conservative MP Daryl Kramp.
“How? … Is it because of the Indian Act possibly?” asked Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke. Clarke tabled a controversial private member’s bill calling on the federal government to work with First Nations to replace what he views as an outdated Indian Act. “That is what I would guess is their rationale,” he said of the monitoring.
Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth said he was unaware of the reasons why the government would monitor him but added that he wasn’t concerned. Woodworth garnered national headlines last year when he introduced a motion to establish a House of Commons committee to study the question of when life begins — a move many saw as the first step toward restrictive abortion laws.
Several Tory backbenchers who spoke out last month against their government’s decision to ban British Columbia MP Mark Warawa from speaking freely in the House of Commons — MPs such as Kyle Seeback, Michael Chong, Leon Benoit, Brent Rathgeber and John Williamson — do not figure on the PCO’s 2011-2012 list of people targeted for monitoring.
Conservative MP Brian Jean, who is on the list, said he’s not sure why he was flagged, but also said he isn’t troubled by it.
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“They must be interested in what their colleagues are doing, right? I mean the government must be. It seems to make sense from a party position that you would be interested in what your members are saying,” he said.
“It seems abundantly reasonable, and obviously legal so I would say it is not a big deal.”
Liberal MP John McCallum, who requested the media monitoring contracts and the search terms from the Conservative government, said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the Conservatives to babysit their own MPs.
“Is this Big Brother looking over them?” McCallum asked.
PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet insisted the federal government was not monitoring MPs.
“We are not monitoring MPs per se, we are just trying to make sure that they (the media monitoring services) capture (everything) if there is something that is of interest to us,” Rivet told HuffPost.
The PCO uses a wide range of key words, including MPs’ and ministers’ names as well as specific subjects and government programs to help suppliers identify relevant reporting on talk radio and news programs, he said.
“Part of it is monitoring for the effectiveness of government comm(unication)s but also part of it is to identify issues. If we see something coming out of wherever, that is a flag for us.”
All Conservative MPs were meant to be included, Rivet added. “Things may have been missed. It was our intention to include everyone,” he said. (Most opposition MPs are not being tracked according to the documents tabled Monday).
McCallum doesn’t buy the department’s answers.
“Finding out what the MPs are saying in their local papers (and) presumably finding out whether the MPs are saying things they should not be saying — that means monitoring to me, whether you like that word or not,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s Office came down harshly on Conservative David Wilks last year after the B.C. MP was caught telling his local paper he was prepared to vote against his government’s budget as long as some of his other colleagues stood beside him.
Wilks wasn’t on the PCO’s monitoring list, but Rivet suggested the PMO might have their own list.
“I know there is other monitoring that goes on out there that might focus more on the political but that is not our focus,” Rivet said.
Many of the individuals tracked were ministers and parliamentary secretaries as well as opposition critics. Justin Trudeau, who was not Liberal leader at the time of the request, was not only being monitored by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada for his critic role, but also by the Privy Council Office. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and then-Liberal leader Bob Rae were also on the list.
Last November, The Canadian Press revealed that the department of Citizenship and Immigration spent almost $750,000 monitoring ethnic media over the past three years, including assessments of election campaign events and "perceptions" of minister Jason Kenney.
The documents tabled this week reveal some interesting search terms requested by departments.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was not only monitoring media stories involving their ministers “John Baird” and “Ed Fast,” but it was also keeping an eye on all stories involving “Maher Arar,” six years after a commission of inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing and found the RCMP passed misleading information to U.S. authorities labelling him a terrorist. In 2002, the Americans sent Arar, who was transiting through the States after a holiday in Tunisia, to his birth country of Syria, where he reported being tortured. An Ontario judge who led the commission recommended Arar be awarded $12.5 million in compensation.
DFAIT was also keeping track of stories dealing with “Omar Khadr” and retired Supreme Court judge Frank “Iacobucci,” who served as commissioner of an internal inquiry into the alleged torture of three Arab-Canadians. They did not monitor any stories involving Deepak Obhrai, Baird’s parliamentary secretary.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously suggested the federal government was monitoring spiritual author Deepak Chopra. The reference has been removed.
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets behind the bar at the Victoria pub in Montreal Friday, March 16, 2012 where he stopped in to meet some supporters and have a drink for St. Patricks Day.
Stephen Harper and wife Laureen in 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8472663517/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
You Eat Half, And I'll Eat Half
Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper stand next to a tray of hot cross buns at a bakery in Mississauga, on April 23, 2011.
Stephen Harper with wife Laureen and their chinchilla Charlie. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8425819048/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves after going for an ATV ride as he visits a farm for a campaign event in Wainfleet Ont., on Monday, April 4, 2011.
Nom Nom Nom
Prime Minister Stephen Harper eats maple taffy as he visits a sugar shack in Norbertville, Quebec on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives his wife Laureen a kiss following a day of G-20 meetings in Toronto. June 27, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=938&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Can I Keep Them?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays with foster kittens at 24 Sussex. May 1, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper throws a small snowball at photographers after talking with reporters at a campaign stop in Guelph, Ontario Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006.
Thank God You're Not Wearing Overalls
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives Taylor Swift the book "Maple Leaf Forever" before her concert at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. May 20, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Stephen Harper <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/10/23/harper-wedding-photos-ottawa_n_2006374.html" target="_blank">surprises an Ottawa couple on their wedding day</a> in 2012.
Yep, Definitely A Cat Person
Laureen Harper laughs as she holds a husky dog with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as they tour Caribou Crossing, Yukon, south of Whitehorse Monday August 20, 2012.
Stephen Harper, his children Ben and Rachel, and wife Laureen cross Abbey Road in 2009. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OfGXN" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hams it up with Bonhomme Carnaval in the Prime Minister's Centre Block Office. November 25, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1238&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, far left, watches a third round match between Agnieszka Radwanska, of Poland, and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic with his children Rachel, center, and Benjamin, right, at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, in New York.
Psst! I Like Your Hat
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2011.
Whoops, How Did This Get In Here...
Part of a painting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper fully nude, by Kingston artist Maggie Sutherland, is shown at the Central Kingston public library in Kingston, Ont. on May 18, 2012.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his son Ben watch a bloopers show while attending the Calgary Flames NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Calgary, Saturday, April 11, 2009.
In The Key Of C Major
Prime Minister Stephen Harper practices a few chords after arriving at home from work. February 19, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1457&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Love You, Mom
Conservative leader Stephen Harper gets a hug from his mother Margaret during a visit to his campaign office in Calgary, Saturday May 29, 2004.
We Can't All Grow A Pirate 'Stache Like Trudeau
Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds up a moustache scarf to kick off the start of ‘Movember’, November 1, 2012 Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8146161138/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
The Sweet Side Of Politics
Senior Legislative Assistant, Katherine Locke, left, and Government House Leader Special Assistant, Zoe Lawson, show off their House of Commons gingerbread house to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his office on Dec. 16, 2010. The gingerbread house was filled with rows of gummi bears as members of Parliament. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1355&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to tourists as he walks on the beach after the closing of the VI Summit of the Americas on April 15, 2012 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays a game of table tennis with Team Canada's Mo Zhang at Canada House in London on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.
Whaddya Mean It Doesn't Fit?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tries on an old hockey helmet at he tours the Yukon's Hockey History exhibit at the McBride Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon on Thursday, August 25, 2011.
Stephen Harper, his son Ben, and Wayne Gretzky watch the men's ice hockey team's gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8457917081/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Who Said Politics Can't Be Fun?
Stephen Harper and his son Ben hit balloons into the crowd after his speech at the party's three-day policy convention in Montreal on Friday March 18, 2005.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Jamie Robinson (guitar) play along with Blue Rodeo's front man Jim Cuddy, and recording artist Jimmy Rankin as they belt out a tune during a Juno Awards reception at 24, Sussex March 31, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=2099&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, looks up from dishing out pancakes at Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, July 10, 2011.
I Spy Something Cute
Stephen Harper welcomes two Chinese pandas at Toronto's Pearson Airport on March 25, 2013. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8588948719/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
A young Stephen Harper.
Just Smile And Back Away Slowly
Clowns ham it up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick. July 19, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1037&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, throws Senator Gerry St. Germain's cowboy hat into the crowd after presenting him with a new one as his wife Margaret St. Germain, right, laughs during a barbecue at St. Germain's ranch in Surrey, B.C., on Monday August 6, 2012.
Thumbs Up, Up And Away
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up from the cockpit of his campaign plane as he arrives in Ottawa,Tuesday May 3, 2011.
He's A Belieber
Stephen Harper presents Justin Bieber with a Diamond Jubilee Medal on Nov. 23, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8212520594/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I'm With Him
Stephen Harper and Wayne Gretzky, joined by students on an outdoor ice rink in Saskatoon on Feb. 5, 2010. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/ZTlKy6" target="_blank"> Facebook</a>
Shhh... This Is The Best Part
Stephen Harper, wife Laureen and Suraksha, Grade 10, visit an IMAX theatre in Bangalore, India on Nov. 8, 2012.
Umm... This Is My Costume
Prime Minister Stephen Harper poses for a photograph with Halloween trick-or-treaters at his official residence in Ottawa, Wednesday, October 31, 2012.
Is It Cold, Or Is It Just Me?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper bundles up in a parka as he tours Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, February 23, 2012.
One Of Harper's Many Hats
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his hat prior to the arrival of Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, for the official start of the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Alberta, July 8, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen play with some furry friends at the official opening of the new Ottawa Humane Society facility on July 6, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1724&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Omigod, So Cute
Met Batisse X, official mascot of the Royal 22nd Regiment, prior to welcoming French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault to Ottawa. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8554783327/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I Can Totally Take You
Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives a cricket lesson from Ankur Biswas, cricket team captain, at the Bishop Cotton Boys School. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OffwT" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper drives a dog sled after meeting mushing teams at the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife, N.W.T., Monday, March 10, 2008.
A Very Harper Holiday
Hanging With The Golden Girls
Stephen Harper meets Canada's women's hockey team, gold medal winners at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/17v6qKa" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen, left, make cookies with 10-year-old brain cancer survivor Baxton Wacholtz, right, and his mom Michelle, of Telkwa, B.C., during a photo opportunity at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 7, 2012.
Does This Mean I'm In The Band?
Canadian musician Jens Lindemann visits Stephen Harper before a concert. "His blue trumpet reminded me of Sgt. Pepper," according to Harper. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8519328992/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Stanley's Not Going To Be Happy About This
Met with Constable Dan Allen of the Child at Risk Response Team (and Cagney the dog) while in Calgary. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8640427193/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Say, 'Happy Halloween!'
Prime Minister Stephen Harper points out the camera to baby Grayson, dressed up as a giraffe, during his first time trick-or-treating at 24 Sussex. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/10ppG5w" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Stephen Harper hugs his daughter Rachel Hugging Rachel as results come in after the 2011 election. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/15WI2TY" target="_blank">Facebook</a>