Secrets in the highest places

Carol Goar December 3 1984

Secrets in the highest places

Carol Goar December 3 1984

Secrets in the highest places


Carol Goar

The first signals were seemingly trivial. After taking office on Sept. 17, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did not hold a press conference for three weeks. Then, when he left for an October vacation in Florida, his office adamantly refused to say where exactly he was staying. But by last week mounting evidence of the Mulroney government’s obsessive concern for secrecy had escalated into a major issue. Opposition parties accused Mulroney of gagging public servants, while reporters pressed for details on everything from the salary of Mulroney’s nanny to his government’s economic projections. Recognizing belatedly that his political honeymoon might be ending, Mulroney released guidelines—with new limitations—for federal bureaucrats in their dealings with journalists. But the episode left disturbing questions about the character and basic beliefs of the government that Canadians elected with unprecedented support and which Mulroney pledged last summer would end “stonewalling and secrecy.”

In an attempt to quell the growing

debate over secrecy, Mulroney urged his nervous ministers to meet with journalists and even lectured his Conservative caucus members about improving their relations with the press. The thaw extended from the Prime Minister’s Office, which relaxed its practice of checking all ministerial statements before allowing them to be released, to the Government Lobby off the floor of the House of Commons, which was reopened to journalists after a three-week ban. Even the habitually tight-lipped deputy prime minister, Erik Nielsen, invited a handful of reporters into his office for a rare progress report on the government’s drive to cut costs and improve efficiency. To formalize the new climate of openness, Mulroney assured Parliament in ringing tones, “There can be no doubt of the right of the press to know and that the press constitutes an indispensable cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy.”

Although Mulroney’s guidelines suggested that his government is willing to encourage a reasonably free flow of information, they raised nearly as many questions as they answered. On the one

hand, Mulroney told public servants it was “part of their duties and responsibilities” to talk to journalists. But against that, Mulroney stressed that their job is to explain—not criticize— government policy. He also insisted that bureaucrats take personal responsibility for their on-the-record statements. That means that any civil servant talking to a journalist could expect his name to be used in the media—and that his superiors could take action if they were displeased. Off-the-record background briefings, indispensable tools for journalists seeking to understand the nuances and consequences of government policy, would no longer be permitted, unless a special exception was made by a cabinet minister. Complained New Democratic Party justice critic Svend Robinson: “These guidelines effectively make a mockery of this government’s commitment to openness and accountability.”

Even as Mulroney sought to create a new impression of openness on the part of his government, the question of secrecy and a hostile press was causing friction within the cabinet. Last week External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who

had already created problems for Mulroney by issuing strict guidelines for civil servants in his department, told the Chamber of Commerce in Spruce Grove, Alta., that “a very powerful elite of journalists, academics and public servants is trying to thwart the efforts of the new federal government.” Apparently fearing that Clark’s remarks would only inflame relations with an already angry press, Mulroney met with Clark in Ottawa and—according to one account of the meeting—gave him a rebuke. When reports of that meeting appeared in the press, Mulroney was said to be even more furious, and Clark angrily denied the authenticity of the report. But Mulroney’s actions still seemed like an obvious effort to offset the poor impression created by Clark’s “gag order.”

The Mulroney government’s problems with the press developed gradually. It

took two months for the press to lose patience with Mulroney—exactly the length of time that elapsed in 1968 before journalists began complaining that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s new regime was restricting information. The current showdown reached a climax early in November when Marcel Masse, the senior bureaucrat in the external affairs department, sent all 3,000 staff members a three-page memo warning that “no member of the department is to discuss any aspect of policy formulation or implementation or any departmental activity or operation with any member of the media” without special permission. Within hours angry public servants had leaked the memo to the press. Suddenly, the unanswered phone calls and uncommunicative cabinet ministers that journalists had been complaining about began to assume a ominous significance.

For his part, Mulroney told Parliament last week that there was no grand design in his government’s behavior and no intent at any time to curtail the legitimate flow of information. “We, as a new government, came in with much to try to accomplish in a brief period of time,” he explained. “It was an attempt by me to bring a modest degree of order to a new situation.” To Liberal Leader John Turner, the Prime Minister’s protestations came across as “seductive,” but a far cry from the Tory leader’s election pledge of open and accountable government. And even to less partisan observers the difference between the Mulroney of the election trail and the Mulroney of the Prime Minister’s Office was grimly obvious. Critics pointed to an alarming number of instances in which the Conservatives, after demanding information while in opposition, are now withholding it. Examples:

• During last summer’s federal election campaign, the Conservatives wholeheartedly supported Auditor General Kenneth Dye in his attempts to force Turner’s Liberal government to provide him with cabinet documents used to justify the government’s 1981 purchase of Belgian-owned Petrofina. Now the Mulroney cabinet has decided not to let Dye have those documents;

• Before the election Mulroney denounced the Liberals for refusing to provide the nation with an up-to-date economic forecast. Now his government is refusing to release its projection of the number of jobs that will be lost as a result of Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s Nov. 8 economic statement, which chopped $3.6 billion from planned government programs;

• During a pre-election visit to Hamilton, Ont., Mulroney told a local television audience that Canadian taxpayers

would not be expected to pay for a nanny to look after the Mulroneys’ three young children. Now, Elizabeth MacDonald, who has looked after Caroline, Benedict and Mark Mulroney for the past two years, is listed as a member of the Prime Minister’s publicly paid household staff, but Fred Doucet, an adviser to Mulroney, said last week that MacDonald is just one of several staffers at 24 Sussex Drive who “interface with the children in a habitual way.”

The incidents contributed to a sense of betrayal and mistrust among the Ottawa press corps—and in much of the Canadian media as a whole. The government’s efforts to control the flow of information were “foolish, ill-conceived and, in the long run, will work against the government,” warned Clark Davey, publisher of the Montreal Gazette. For its part, the Toronto Globe and Mail complained in an editorial that the pub-

lie has “received a dose of secrecy and stonewalling from the new Conservative government.” Even CTV’s Bruce Phillips—last week the government appointed him to the choice job of minister-counsellor for information at the Canadian Embassy in Washington— was moved to observe that Mulroney’s secretive posture represented “a major retreat” from the open government he once espoused. But when Patrick O’Callaghan, publisher of the Calgary Herald and an unabashed Mulroney admirer, took the government to task over its penchant for secrecy, he assigned the role of villain not to the Prime Minister but to Erik Nielsen.

The view of Nielsen as a prince of darkness within the Mulroney government is widely shared in Ottawa, where ministerial aides—and some ministers themselves—admit that they speak carefully for fear of crossing the power-

ful deputy prime minister. Said one frustrated press aide: “This whole secrecy thing is nuts. I’ve never been told not to speak to the media. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s overzealous ministers like Erik Nielsen who are giving us this reputation.” Even in the Prime Minister’s Office, there are fierce Nielsen critics. “Erik’s always been obsessed with secrecy,” observed a senior Mulroney staffer. “But that’s just his own personal style. It doesn’t reflect Mulroney’s approach.”

Nielsen himself contends that he never asked any minister “to develop Velcro lips” and insists that the “whole secrecy issue was invented by the press.” In an interview last week he told Maclean's: “I think you should examine yourselves. The media are leaving the clear impression—as is the opposition, having picked up on the reports —that there is a shroud of secrecy surrounding the government. I don’t know how it happened.” Nielsen admitted that he had been reticent in the early days of the new government, simply because he felt he could not intelligently ' discuss his own work. From now on, Nielsen promised, his door will be open.

But longtime Nielsen watchers were skeptical.

In his 27 years in the House of Commons, the hard-nosed Whitehorse lawyer has developed an almost mythical reputation as a rugged, toughminded loner. While his friends tend to refer to the minister as Yukon Erik in honor of his northern riding, his foes prefer to use a tropical metaphor: they call him “the barracuda.” Born in Regina 60 years ago, Nielsen joined the Conservative party at the age of 19 and by the time he was 33—when he was first elected to Parliament—he had won a Distinguished Flying Cross for his wartime service as a bomber pilot over Europe and established a successful law practice in Whitehorse. His parliamentary colleagues were stunned last year when Nielsen—whom they believed to have no social life—revealed that he had been secretly married for two months to Shelley Coxford, an effervescent former House of Commons security guard who is in her thirties.

Fellow politicians and aides treat Nielsen with a mixture of respect and fear. Those with long memories recall the chilly November day, 19 years ago, when he rose in the Commons to expose a web of bribery and bungling in the case of Montreal drug dealer Lucien Rivard. His revelations shook the country and destroyed the career of Liberal Justice Minister Guy Favreau. And MPs recall how Nielsen kept the division bells ringing in the House for more than a week in 1982 while he and his colleagues refused to vote on a Liberal

energy bill. But Nielsen has never been an powerful as he is now. Not only does he have Mulroney’s ear—he talks to him daily—but he heads the key task force that is deciding which government programs will be chopped. Mulroney has also called on Nielsen to review the government’s conflict-of-interest guidelines for cabinet ministers and to advise the government on what to do about Ottawa’s profusion of regulatory agencies. Noted Nielsen with characteristic brevity of the the formidable array of jobs before him: “It’s a real challenge.” As the deputy prime minister opened his door to journalists last week, the government moved on other fronts to placate the restive media. Bill Fox, the

Prime Minister’s press secretary, announced that Mulroney would give at least two 40-minute press conferences a month. Cabinet ministers who had been unavailable for weeks agreed to interviews. Mulroney himself acknowledged in the Commons that the mounting chorus of complaints about government secrecy represented “a very legitimate concern” and promised to enhance, not impede, the work of the press.

But skeptics clung to their suspicion that Mulroney’s Tories had decided to take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s White House book and make news management a basic tenet of their government. Others brooded that after years in opposition the Conservatives had acquired the mentality of permanent outsiders who might always be reluctant to take the press —and Canadians as a whole—into their confidence. Critics of the government saw evidence of that kind of sinister tendency in the House of Commons, where the Tories were using their majorities on several parliamentary committees to pass new rules allowing them to hear evidence without a single Opposition member being present.

Liberal whip Jean-Robert Gauthier was convinced that Tory secrez cy— the “great coverup,” £ as he called it—was Û merely a tactical ploy on I the part of the Conservais tives to give Canadians 1 the impression that Ï there is more to the Tory master plan than meets the eye. “They haven’t found the key to the door yet and they’re trying to make people think there are all kinds of secret agendas,” said Gauthier. Ultimately, the electorate that put the Conservatives in office must decide, on the basis of the government’s overall record, whether the early signs of secrecy in the Tory government were portents of Mulroney’s basic style or the normal growing pains of a party arriving from the political wilderness and adjusting hurriedly to the harsh realities of office.

With Dan Burke in Montreal, Gordon Legge in Calgary, Hilary Mackenzie in Ottawa and Heather Stockstill in Whitehorse.

Dan Burke

Gordon Legge

Hilary Mackenzie

Heather Stockstill