Can a political street fighter with a short fuse rebuild the PM’s image?,STEVE MAICHNovember72005
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
Can a political street fighter with a short fuse rebuild the PM’s image?
WHEN PEOPLE on Parliament Hill talk about Scott Reid, Prime Minister Paul Martin’s close adviser and spokesman, the conversation invariably turns to a remarkable piece of television that aired on CBC shortly after the 2004 election. Near the end of the documentary detailing the ups and downs of the campaign, Reid is talking about the qualities that make Martin a great leader when his voice cracks, his eyes well up and suddenly he’s struggling to hold back tears. “He closes none of himself off to you,” Reid says of his boss. “You get all of him, so you become personally invested in it.”
In the world of politics, where everything is manufactured and packaged for maximum effect, here was an unexpected glimpse of something real, a man—a spin doctor no less—expressing genuine commitment to someone he believes in. Suddenly it all made sense. In that moment, it was clear why Reid has failed so often to protect and burnish the PM’s image, and why he has survived his mistakes anyway. It all comes down to loyalty—perhaps too much of it, on both sides.
In the two years since Paul Martin inherited the reins of the Liberal party from Jean Chrétien, his reputation has gone from that of a seasoned veteran who righted the country’s fiscal ship to Mr. Dithers—an indecisive, evasive plodder, more adept at avoiding confrontation than forming a clear vision for government. Fair or not, much of the responsibility for that slide falls on the shoulders of Scott Reid.
The problem, many observers say, is that Martin needs someone who can build bridges, and smooth over the rough spots when crisis hits. Instead he’s got Reid, a brilliant political mind and confidant, whose response to hostile coverage has always been to fight back hard. “They’re very good pit bulls, but when they need someone capable of doing outreach, they’re not very good at that,” says one Hill reporter of Reid and his team.
This was rarely a problem before Martin became PM. “They used the press very effectively for years, and the press used them
because Martin was always an effective foil for Chrétien,” says one veteran political operative.
“But there’s a shift that happens when you’re the one in power, and I think they found that very difficult to deal with. The expectations for Martin were so high, his honeymoon was over before he was even sworn in.”
That shift was immediately apparent at the November 2003 Liberal party convention where Martin officially took over. On the day before Martin’s big speech to the party faithful, he opted to practise his delivery in the main convention hall in front of a live microphone. In the crowd, a Canadian Press reporter wrote up the main points of the speech—a small scoop that would allow regional papers to publish the contents of the address before it was made. When Martin’s team realized that their finely choreographed coronation was slipping off the rails, they blew a gasket. Sources say Reid, Brian Guest and other staffers scrambled to kill the story. Finally, Guest threatened the reporter, in front of stunned onlookers, that if the story ran he’d be frozen out by Martin’s people. “It’s gonna to be a long, three f—ing years for CP,” Guest said. CP ran it anyway, the angry exchange made the papers, and a
new tone had been set for Martin’s relationship with the media. The PMO was not going to play nice, and the press gallery was not going to play along.
The convention outburst was a sign of things to come. Reporters uniformly describe Reid as intelligent, with a razor wit and an impressive ability to think on his feet. But even those friendly with him say he’s a hothead who struggles to control his temper when trouble hits. And over the past two years, trouble has hit often. One reporter saved a recording of a particularly irate voice mail message from Reid after an article that he considered hostile to Martin. “I’m so ticked off I can barely speak,” Reid said in the message. “If this is the way it’s going to be ... if you’re going to treat us unfairly at every turn, I’ve got to tell you, we’re not going to be able to deal with you. I want to be fair, but if you’re not going to be fair to us then we’re simply not going to speak to you,” he seethed.
After the disastrous 2004 campaign that saw the Liberal majority reduced to a thin minority, reporters say the Martin team came back more sensitive than ever. Reporters started grumbling about “thuggish” behaviour from the PMO—subtle threats,
insulting phone calls—and the stories of Reid’s tirades, and his tendency to “micromanage” the communications of other departments, quickly became the stuff of Ottawa legend. “Their devotion to Martin ends up being manifested in extreme defensiveness when questioned,” says one scribe. “They’re all about winning, using guerrilla warfare if necessary,” says another. “It just ends up making them seem insecure.”
But seeming insecure to reporters is one thing. Stepping into the middle of ugly public policy disputes is something else entirely. Reid learned that lesson late last year when he led the PMO to war against Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams over the allocation of offshore energy revenues.
During the election campaign, Martin had promised a new deal to allow the province to take greater advantage of energy royalties. But after the election, he seemed to backslide, and Williams lambasted the PM, walking out of a first minister’s meeting and pulling down Canadian flags from his province’s public buildings in protest. In a fit of pique, Reid warned that Newfoundlanders “would pay for” their premier’s intemperance, and implied Williams was being less than honest. With that, Reid poured a gallon of gasoline on Newfoundland’s slowburning fire. A livid Williams refused to deal with Martin’s trusted aide, telling reporters “another Scott Reid fiasco” had sabotaged chances for an amicable deal.
The PMO was forced into an embarrassing climbdown, Williams got the deal he was looking for, and Reid had to offer an apology. “Williams had Martin by the short ones from the beginning because Martin had made that election promise,” says one parliamentary reporter. “It was in Martin’s interest to resolve that quietly, and here’s Scott Reid making that harder. That was the most significant misstep I’ve seen from him.”
Most significant, perhaps, but certainly not the only misstep. There was also Reid’s questionable handling of a whistle-blower’s complaint of wrongdoing in immigration minister Judy Sgro’s office in late 2004. Sgro was accused of allowing favouritism in the awarding of work visas to people associated with her campaign, and ended up stepping down from cabinet over the allegations. But when Reid was first alerted to the brewing controversy, he dismissed it as “gossip.” The minister was eventually cleared of personal wrongdoing, but Sgro still hasn’t
returned to cabinet, and Reid’s failure to see the seriousness of the allegations left the PMO exposed to yet another round of criticism.
Reid also failed to see the potential pitfalls that surrounded the appointment of Michaëlle Jean as governor general earlier this year. The day after her introduction, some Ottawa reporters began raising questions about Jean’s views on federalism, and whether her husband was a closet separatist. Reid just scoffed, calling such questions “bizarre” and poindess. Over the next few days, the Jean story blew up into a full-blown crisis, with revelations that Jean’s husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, is friendly with former FLQ members, and that he made a documentary that seemed to endorse Quebec separatism.
Reid, meanwhile, said the PM would not “disgrace” the new GG by asking her to affirm her commitment to Canada, and an anonymous person in the PMO—widely believed to be Reid—said such demands were “Stalinist.” Again, the rhetoric bore little relation to reality, and the PMO was forced to back down. Jean did affirm her support of a united Canada—even going so far as to give up her French citizenship—and the controversy finally blew over. But not until after the PMO spent a week flirting with disaster be-
hind the cover of Reid’s bluster.
In some political offices, just one of these missteps would be enough to cost a spin doctor his job. Take, for example, the purge of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s office this year, in response to his own series of image problems and public gaffes. But things work differently on Martin’s team. Martin is a tough boss whose trust is hard-won but not easily shaken, observers say, and he remains fiercely loyal to the circle of aides and advisers who have been with him for years. And, as Reid’s tears can attest, the team’s fealty to him is just as powerful.
That loyalty may hold the PMO together, but it also often leads it astray. A good communications staff must be able to anticipate lines of attack, and have responses ready for the opposition and skeptical journalists. But Reid and his team have been repeatedly caught flat-footed by opposition attacks. “They love Paul Martin so much they can’t figure out for the life of them why everybody else doesn’t,” says one veteran Ottawa reporter. “When things happen, they’re stunned. These criticisms just never would have occurred to them.”
Lately, however, some have detected another shift, and an attempt to mend fences with the media as the Liberals prepare for an election early in the new year. Reid didn’t return calls for this story, so perhaps he’s already taking a lower profile. But many on the Hill still wonder: can he reach out to all those he’s alienated through two years of guerrilla warfare? Can he avoid the land mines rather than always plowing through them and scrambling to repair the damage afterwards?
Don Martin, Ottawa columnist for the Calgary Herald and National Post, and one of the only reporters willing to speak on the record about Reid, sums up the challenge ahead. “The thing is, you can be a brilliant political strategist and still be a lousy communicator,” he says. “And I think we’ve seen he has a lot of work to do on the communication side.” IH
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