How (not) to make friends and influence people

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The Prime Minister’s Office, we are told by the more liberal factions of the mainstream media, is a dark and gloomy place where political officers rule with the zealous certitude of their convictions.

In this dramatic pastiche of a Franz Kafka set piece, they are ever relentless, incorruptible and never wrong. They demand absolute loyalty to the nation’s dear leader  from both lesser staff and elected representatives.

And so, it is utterly unsurprising that many of these media critics now decry the apparent  existence of so-called “enemies lists” prepared, at the PMO’s insistence, for new members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

But then, given their suspicions about this government, what were they expecting?

An email from the PMO on which the CBC and a variety if other media have laid their paws stipulated “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” as well as “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

Reported the CBC, “The request for a list of problematic bureaucrats was subsequently dropped, according to another email sent a few hours later on July 4. The person who leaked the emails said that when some staff balked at the idea of coming up with the blacklists, they were cut off from further communications about the matter.

“The person also said staff were given examples of stakeholders that could go on the ‘enemies list’ and they included environmental groups, non-profit organizations, and civic and industry associations with views different than the government’s.”

Those who remain decidedly unflustered by the revelations are all who, quite reasonably, expect to find their names on the lists. “I wasn’t surprised but I continue to be disappointed that stakeholders like environmentalists are considered enemies rather than stakeholders who are trying to pursue important issues,” The Sierra Club of Canada’s John Bennett told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Indeed, according to the public broadcaster, “He said if some ministers were more ‘mature’ they would understand how democracy really works and that all perspectives should be considered when making decisions.”

Said Bennett: “They don’t believe in democracy the way we do, which is an exchange of ideas and debate and try to come up with reasonable solutions. They believe in forcing ideology and if you’re forcing ideology on the Canadian public then you see people like me as an enemy and that’s unfortunate.”

Still, even this observation seems broadly naive, and not a little reflexive.

Whether or not they publicly admit it, all governments maintain some version of an enemies list. They’d be astonishingly dense, even irresponsible, if they didn’t. The tool is a useful instrument in the mix of plans and priorities that guide public decision making. Imagine a civil administration without credible intelligence about who is for and against it: feckless, at worst; chaotic, at best.

Having a list, and checking it twice, does not automatically render a government undemocratic. What does is abuse of power.

If authorities savagely curtail press freedoms, round up their “enemies” and throw them in jail without due process of law, vastly expand the definition of sedition, and lock the doors of Parliament. . .well, then we have something about which to truly fret.

What’s different about this government – specifically, the PMO – is its historically bloated size, its abnormally youthful composition, and its fondness for deploying inflammatory language in its internal communications.

Reliable media sources have told me that the average age at the PMO is something like 33. Contrastingly, the average age among political news staff at the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star is closer to 50 – old enough to remember the Pentagon papers and Watergate era, when the term “enemies list” was first coined in the wreckage of the terminal Nixon Administration.

Had the character of the PMO not borrowed so heavily from the X-Box, flaming-at-will, unfiltered social networking generation, this utterly meaningless contretemps would not have developed the muscular legs it now has.

Politics is nothing if not about friends and enemies. Sometimes, your friends become your enemies. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Keeping track of them all is the job description of every political staffer, regardless of his or her age.

So is exercising circumspection when the occasion to flap his or her gums arrives. Perhaps, that should be the subject of the next memo the PMO writes, under the subject field: note to self!

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