Andrew MacDougall and the PMO’s strange stability

Paul Wells on 7 communications directors in 7 years


Sean Kilpatrick/CP

One of the first big surprises for me when I moved to Ottawa was that large operations overwhelmingly reflect the personality and work style of the one person at the top. There’s no obvious reason why this should be so: a minister has 10,000 bureaucrats working under him, and they all have processes to follow, and the staff around a minister is hired and motivated to keep the boss from expressing spontaneity or quirks. And yet wherever Allan Rock went, that department quickly became an Allan Rock department: earnest, activist, hectic, soon embroiled. Same with Brian Tobin and anyone else you care to name.

We can extend this auteur theory of politics to just about any scale. There was no important stylistic difference between Parliament Hill in the late 1980s and the lobby bar of the Montreal Ritz Carlton a decade earlier: the defining presence in both places was Brian Mulroney, gossippy, detail-obsessed and leaning well into your comfort zone.

Andrew MacDougall announced today he is leaving the Prime Minister’s Office. He will be the seventh Harper communications director to do so in seven years. Why, it seems like only yesterday the jovial MacDougall — no, wait. It was only yesterday. 

There have been significant stylistic differences — Kory Teneycke rang in a period of relative glasnost in 2008, and the eternal question, “What does he actually do?” was most pressing during Angelo Persichilli’s tenure — but by now there’s been so much change that it’s the continuity that’s most striking.

Each of Harper’s communications directors has been running Harper’s strategy, whose elements can be summed up as follows:

1. Say little.

2. Ensure that what does get said is pre-meditated and co-ordinated. The processes for doing this are many and their use is routine. The number of people in this government who are licensed to speak in public without rehearsal has always been counted on one hand. The prime minister himself is not on that list. Communications mis-steps cost this party the 2004 election; Harper has bet everything since then on avoiding the same mistake.

3. Communications strategy is internal before it’s external. This is hardest for reporters to believe, because we like to think our latest call into Langevin is the most important thing that’s happening there. But most of the PMO comms director’s job involves ensuring internal coordination among offices and departments. It’s ensuring that news releases and websites and ministers’ speeches reflect the government line. I’ve even heard grumbling from Conservatives that MacDougall spent too much time talking to reporters and not enough on that internal coordination stuff.

4. Take more information from reporters than you give them. The point of a highly formalized, ritualized system for extracting the maximum amount of detail from reporters when they call for information on a story is to know what they’re up to. The reason to have a press bus on a campaign is to sequester malcontents. Information-sharing is a two-way street, and if reporters don’t realize they’re giving the PMO information on what the gallery is up to, that’s their problem.

5. There is a world of difference between the most important news outlets and the ones that think they’re important. Talk radio (English, French and Punjabi), the Chinese-language Fairchild television network, Tout le monde en parle matter — the latter, too much for Harper’s taste; he has never gone on the show because the cost of a mistake would be too great. Newspapers whose readers have not lately been voting Conservative matter less. Reporters outside Ottawa are as handy an outlet as reporters in Ottawa, and usually less informed about Ottawa debates and way less grumpy.

I’m not saying Harper only hires people who think like him. Just about every person in MacDougall’s job has urged the PM to be more open and less combative. It’s just that they rarely win those arguments, and eventually they leave.

Of course the current environment in the PMO is tougher than it’s been for a while. Harper just had a chief of staff resign in disgrace. There are really substantial scandals rocking this government. The opposition seems to be getting its act together, although gratifyingly for Conservatives, it continues to do so in duplicate. This morning some Hill denizens were asking who would take the job of speaking for this PM, knowing the rocky road ahead. And yet someone will be along before you know it. And then gone in much the same way. The constant is Stephen Harper.


Andrew MacDougall and the PMO’s strange stability

  1. One of the first big surprises for me when I moved to Ottawa was that large operations overwhelmingly reflect the personality and work style of the one person at the top.

    Looks to me like, under this PM, the PPG has fallen lockstep into line as well. Thank god twitter came along.

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        • No, no. As was observed by the internet commentariat during the 2011 campaign after the leaders’ interviews on the CBC, that honour is reserved for Peter Mansbridge.

          • That’s probably true and perhaps indicative of why modern liberals have done so much losing in recent years – they don’t hate hard enough or consistently enough; something you could never accuse the Harper crowd of. Maybe I’m doing PM an injustice, but I’d guess he’d be thrilled to be tapped for the senate( or would have been) I’m not entirely serious but a good bit of old fashioned and principled political dislike isn’t entirely a bad thing at all.

          • It’s useful to be clear on who and what you’re against — just as long as all the ill-will you bear your political adversaries is a desire that they should enjoy a long and healthy retirement, AND SOON. :)

          • “why modern liberals have done so much losing in recent years – they don’t hate hard enough or consistently enough”
            Jesus, apparently you haven’t been reading Canadian political comment boards (including this one) very carefully. I see lots and lots of Liberals spewing hate constantly. Or let me guess, calling Harper a Nazi and all conservatives knuckle-dragging morons is an act of love?

          • Every party has its partisan fringers who hate everything about the other guys. I wasn’t trying to make a case for liberals being better than cons, just less committed.It’s also a pretty big assumption on your part that they’re all liberals. Besides it’s all in the eye of the beholder. I see lots and lots of cons spewing hate consistently. We should all Try looking in the mirror occasionally. You might also want to avoid the cbc boards like the plague…i know i do.

          • I think the Liberals under JT are (and will be come 2015) plenty committed. I agree that the Chretien-Martin split hurt the party greatly in the recent past, and Dion’s leadership in particular was hobbled by that. IMO he shouldn’t have been elected leader in the first place, and his election as leader was a classic reflection of what happens when parties are split like that — Joe Clark’s election as leader of the PCs in 1976 was a result of the same dynamic. I don’t think Ignatieff was actually as bad as Dion, but the damage was done by then and Layton was at the very top of his game against Ignatieff, and thus creamed him last election. And I think it’s hard for a party to ignite enthusiastic support among its estwhile supporters when it’s peddling the kind of half-assed, not-so-coherent narrative that it was peddling under Ignatieff. Ignatieff also didn’t have the political skills needed to unite red and blue Liberals. I think JT does, if nothing else by the sheer force of his charisma, public popularity and lineage.

          • What hurts the Liberals is far too many middle and older people don’t trust Liberals one bit. Liberals need young, naive and dysfunctional groups seeking other peoples money for support.

            Liberals never did represent the main stream productive middle class. They still do not to this day as Justin is a golden spoon fed type. Never has had to work a real productive job in his life.

          • Grits made right choice in Trudeau.

            If anyone can re-unite old voting coalition of blue and red Grits, it’s him.

            The corollary is: if he can’t do it, suspect no-one can, and they’ll have to get best terms for merger from NDP possible for a unified opposition “Liberal Democratic Party of Canada”.

          • New Liberal Democratic Party … NDP will insist on that much surely:)

          • Depends on who’s ahead in the polls…

          • Fair assessment. I’m split on Ignatieff. Party insiders went and got him thinking some of pet’s magic had rubbed off on him – it hadn’t. That’s was the parties fault. But Ignatieff made it worse by thinking just maybe a guy with zero political experience could just waltz in and cream Harper …what on earth was he and the party thinking? I guess they weren’t.
            JT is a different animal. Common sense says he can’t beat Harper or Mulcair first time up. But those guys gotta be worried he isn’t fading. Much will depend on how much fire Harper has left in the belly. Personally I wouldn’t be shocked if he folds rather than really risk losing to the scion of his arch nemesis . I imagine he has pride like any other man.

          • “JT is a different animal. Common sense says he can’t beat Harper or Mulcair first time up. But those guys gotta be worried he isn’t fading.”
            Personally I think JT can pull it off, because like a lot of people I don’t think NDP support in Quebec is all that deep or committed. Plus the place in Canada where there are more congenital Trudeau Liberals than anywhere else is (I shudder to use the adjectival) “vote-rich” Ontario. It’s my personal bias coming out, but the one thing JT has to watch out for is going too far left — personally I don’t think he has to. I think the Trudeau name alone and his appearance of progressiveness is enough to attract left-leaning Liberals and the like. One thing that could screw him though would be if he went left and alienated blue Liberals to the extent that they voted Tory out of fear of PET version 2.0 on the economic front. I think Canadians at large are a bit different from they way they were in PET’s time on economic and fiscal matters. The Mulroney-Chretien-Martin experience with debt and deficits means that for most voters now, if you start to look like a “deficits don’t matter” lefty on the economic front, you’re in trouble. For example, if JT proposed some massive new spending program, that could give the CPC a punching bag from heaven.

          • Concur. Whether it was JTs idea or his teams, the decision to flank Harper left and right( particularly right) and NOT tack left to accommodate the NDP has been brilliant so far.
            That’s an astute assessment that the value of his name is not just a matter of freeloading charisma as his critics keep stressing, but rather that he has an almost automatic lock on the hearts of the left courtesy of his dad; which very helpfully allows him to try and craft business friendly policy that Mulcair must be very wary of touching.
            His quick feel for the game had surprised many including me. A lot of pundits said the name would be a curse only. But JT has played off it very effectively up till now. I’m almost beginning to think he does know where he wants to go – which gives him a major leg up on Ignatieff if nothing else.

          • I am really impressed with who I think is Trudeau’s main guy – Gerald Butts. He’s Newfoundland coal miners stock – about as far away from the Toronto elite meme as you can get.. He’s interesting to follow o n twitter – it’s a good window on where Trudeau is going.

          • He’s Is or was the world wildlife guy too right? And also one of McGuinties boys. Although we should maybe less vocal bout that right now. Altogether an impressive guy. Good advise to follow his twitter feed.

          • This is the same Trudeau who did a brilliant job of alienating western voters by saying:

            “we have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from British Columbia. That’s to our advantage.”

            The fact that at least some western provinces are under-represented in the senate is irrelevant (*). The current situation is to *his* province’s advantage, thus it is good.

            (*) E.g., BC has six times the population of NB, but NB has more senators.

          • Ouch…that word, advantage eh! He could have made his point better, no doubt about that…much better. But he was obviously talking/pandering to a home audience, trying to make them see they already have huge advantages within the present Canada.
            He’s got a track record of this kind of clumsy[ stupid if you like] communication. If he hopes to do well in 15, clearly he’s going to have to work on it.
            OTOH he could be doing it intentionally, which isn’t a very nice thought at all. It wasn’t right when Harper’s did it, it isn’t right now either.

          • For better or for worse, the impression I got is that the political pundits thought it was deliberate. The idea being that regaining the Quebec base was considered to be of paramount importance.

          • Well, as i said i hope not. But it is becoming evident Trudeau has a head for this game…i don’t happen to like it any more than you if it’s true. At the moment i prefer to believe it was one of his classic gaffes. If only he hadn’t used that word.

          • Funny how Macleans censored the original posts. I have no way of knowing to agree or disagree.

          • It was a commenter trolling the author. Suspect he didn’t kill them, but some forum mod did.

            No big deal.

          • Yeah Wells prefers snarky to the boot, which is fine by me…although I’ve heard his twitter leash is rather short and sudden.

  3. I remember Buckler (yikes), Teneyke (mainly for Sun Meida), Persilli (mainly because he was still a working journo when appointed), but cannot for the life of me conjure up the others (wait, I remember Soudas too, running down backstairs to get away from media). I am curious how they stack up as good or bad with the press — and how that rating would be made (based on openness with press, or loyalty to pm).

    And how would MacDougall’s assertion to the press that he had seen the letter (or email) about NIgel Wright’s payment for Duffy come out in the wash — good communications, or bad communications (or one of the reason’s he’s outtahere now)?

    • The first guy was Ian Brodie.

      • I think Brodie was a Chief of Staff — Tonda MacCharles provided this helpful listing on her article today (and I still don’t remember William Stairs — and Williamson is the former Taxpayer Association guy, now an MP).

        Past PMO directors of communications under Stephen Harper

        Andrew MacDougall, April 2012 to Aug. 2013

        Angelo Persichilli, Aug. 2011 to April 2012

        Dimitri Soudas, April 2010 to Aug. 2011

        John Williamson, Sept. 2009 to April 2010

        Kory Teneycke, July 2008 to Sept. 2009

        Sandra Buckler, Feb. 2006 to July 2008

        William Stairs, Feb. 2006 (only in position for a few weeks, following Jan. 23, 2006 election)

        • quite right. I type corrected.

          • Buckler, the only woman, lasted longest. She was tough as nails (but less likeable than nails, as I recall).

          • A regular Nurse Ratchet – she really set the tone for Harper’s relationship with the PPG. She is still employed up there – just kept from the public.

          • More like a gang nail eh.

    • Harper wants to own his own tv station

      The bombast that has greeted the planned arrival of the
      network — which needs a lot of regulatory help if it is to sit beside CBC News
      Network as a “must-air” channel on cable and satellite services —
      has seen Sun News’s frontman, new Quebecor executive Kory Teneycke, appearing
      before the media to explain the network’s mission to Canadians.

      Mr. Teneycke was recently the director of communications for
      Prime Minister Steve Harper’s Office.
      Isn’t that interesting?


  4. The Bay Street “Wonder Boy” Nigel Wright DOES NOT
    GIVE AWAY HIS OWN MONEY! Not a single
    dime came out of Wright’s pocket!

    It would be a simple matter of Nigel Wright INVOICING the “Conservative
    Fund of Canada” account (the Conservative Party’s –> taxpayer-subsidized
    war chest <—-) multiple times for some phoney "Financial Consultant
    Fees" to accrue back the $90K. CPC
    treates that Fund's coffer as their private "Honey Pot."

    Are there any conversations between Conservative Senator
    Irving Gerstein (Harper’s bagman) and the PMO about Nigel getting paid back
    from the “Conservative Fund of Canada” — the federal party’s war chest Gerstein



    • Why are you still posting this? There are new horses to beat.

  5. AH, the forth coming number of witness
    extraditions the next Government will have to make. Just one last
    financial screwing of the poor tax payers of Canada. Make them pay their
    own fares back or have the accused in any case pay all costs.

  6. Interesting to compare BM and Harper stylistically, particularly since i think i’m now over my two decades + [gulp] aversion to Brian – in part, i’m sure, due to the comparison to Harper. I’ve decided i can better tolerate an aversion/dislike for the slimy, narcissistic, obsequious and manipulative, rather than outright revulsion for the better strategic liar. The principle question is of course whose style lent/lends itself to getting more of real value done? On balance i really think it was Brian, notwithstanding Meech/Charlottetown. Harper is more of a survivor – but to what purpose? I no longer worry he’s moving the so-con dial in this country, and every strategic move he makes he seems to later undo due to gross incompetence, negligence or poor planning[ never his of course] and his charming propensity for seeking consensus among his detractors.[ the list is a long one, gateway, keystone, the need for resource development and environmental good stewardship and FNs. ]
    Brian was far from perfect but he seemed to spend less time pushing on the end of a piece of string than Harper[ this simply isn’t a small c country] The odd thing is i’ve always had the feeling that Well’s sympathies such as they are go the other way for some reason – perhaps he likes the Sisyphus in Harper?

      • Really! I know his little gang is trying hard – but no one really cares other than them. I doubt most of it will survive him. Just my feeling, i could be very wrong i suppose.

        • I agree that they’ve gotten very little traction, especially in relation to what the base expected/expects of them.

      • What would you say are the major things the Harper government has done to move towards a more socially conservative country? He hasn’t really touched on the big social issues since coming to office.

        I don’t think he really has the ability to either, there are a lot of libertarian voters with right-wing economic beliefs that would stop voting for him if he did.

        • I don’t think Harper really cares much about social conservatives. They are a captive audience for him: they have nowhere else to go. He has shot down any who peak their heads over the wall. I think he knows social conservatism doesn’t fly with the mainstream voter.

    • You’ll always dislike the one that’s in office at the time more.

      Human nature.

      • That sounds entirely plausible. I just wouldn’t have believed anyone was capable of shifting my opinion of Mulroney this much. Kudos to Harper then.

        • Well, Harper may yet have a significant place.

          Provided that he serves out his term, and provided that the next election is when the legislation says it should be, Harper will have been the sixth-longest serving PM (ahead of Mulroney, Borden, and St-Laurent), even if he never wins an election ever again.

          If he wins in 2015, he passes Chretien for time in office on the 16th of March, 2016 and gets into the top five.

          After that, it’s tougher — Trudeau and Laurier both served for fifteen-and-change, Macdonald for a shade under nineteen, and King served just under twenty-two years.

          Longevity isn’t everything, as you point out, but it’s a big part of the Harper grand strategy.

          For insight on which, we continue to read Paul Wells’s stuff.

          • I don’t honestly seem him being anymore significant than Chretien, who was also managerial and cautious and mostly competent overall But no one is ever going to put Chretien down as a great PM – a good one ok. I liked him but much of the present rot in our Parliament gathered real momentum under him and voila we got Harper to finish the job…it’s almost poetic justice.
            Agree PW has as good a handle as any on Harper. But lately even he seems to be wavering on whether just being incremental amounts to much if you aren’t actually doing any thing important. I think Coyne might yet get the last laugh…if you aren’t being what you should be ie., conservative in this case you wind up standing for nothing and nobody, getting little or nothing of real consequence accomplished. To be fair it isn’t as if Harper hasn’t sorta tried. But the guy couldn’t sell coal to Newcastle. In that way he’s a far inferior PM than either Mulroney or Trudeau.

          • Definitely not flashy like they were. Trudeau and Mulroney were larger than life figures.

            But the criticism of Harper sounds, if anything, like the criticisms of Mackenzie King…

          • Before my time :) maybe wells knows?
            Seriously MK was said to be something of a political genius. Harper isn’t even close really. But he has looked good against a procession of liberal amateurs. Which isn’t his fault of course. I’d have loved to see him square off against Chretien in his prime. Now that would been fun to have witnessed.

    • Well, we’ll see, Mr.k …. if and/or when a different government
      might attempt to improve environmental standards, revert the
      GST changes,improve national programs, I think the scale of
      shitstorm will be astounding. There is no drumbeat from our
      “opinion leaders” for any of those things so I’m assuming that
      the criticism of governmental actions is more of style than of
      substance. Any so-con kerfuffle is just a distraction.

      • Isn’t Mulcair supposed to right all those wrongs o faithless one? But judging by his timidity on taxes you may be right. Of course I’m hoping JT will turn back the clock – at least an hour or two – fool that I am.

        • So has either the Liberal or New Democratic Party proposed or even mooted the idea of raising the GST?

          • I think that was his point. I thought the liberals under JT might come around, given their new found enthusiasm for evidence based policy. But it seems everyone is playing it safe these days – more’s the pity.

          • I told you Harper has poisened the well on the GST and a carbon tax. Now you’ll blame the progressives for not adopting them?

          • Harper didn’t poison the well on the GST. The Liberal Party of Canada did back when Mulroney first proposed it and brought it in. The Liberal Party of Canada did nothing but demonize and crap all over the GST back then (remember “gouge and screw tax”? That was a LPC mantra at the time). Then the Liberals spent the 1993 federal election campaign lying to all of us and telling us all how they were going to get rid of the GST because it was so awful. Remember Jan? Harper just took advantage of a well that had been pre-poisoned by the oh-so-progressive, oh-so-principled Liberal Party of Canada. Harper merely reaped what the Liberals sowed.

          • Wow – if there was any doubt you were a Harper apologist you have just extinguished that notion.. You should just get the pompons you suggested a progressive get. Blue and white, just so you`re not confused.

          • Jan, I disagreed with Harper lowering the GST and I have made that point repeatedly on these comment boards. So it’s utterly ridiculous for you to call me a a Harper apologist on that basis. The Liberals were scummy for demonizing the GST in the first place, they were uber-scummy for lying and claiming they’d get rid of it, and Harper was dead wrong from a policy perspective and cravenly opportunistic in lowering the rate. I have been extremely consistent in being an advocate of consumption/VAT taxes, and I have been utterly consistent in expressing my total disagreement with what Harper did on the GST. So you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your assertion is false.
            What’s clear to me is that you don’t like being reminded of how utterly scummy and unprincipled the Liberals were about the GST. That’s your problem, not mine.

          • As I’ve said multiple times, I think it was irresponsible of Harper to have reduced the GST by 2 points and thus blow a hole in the budget. I also think that if you’re going to do something about climate change, then a carbon tax is by far the best mechanism to use. I have been totally consistent on these 2 points.

            Having said that, use of the phrase “poisoned well” sounds like sour grapes – you’re trying to somehow blame your opponent for making arguments that the public finds persuasive (the fact that you or I may not find them persuasive is irrelevant).

            If CPC opponents can’t make persuasive arguments on these 2 issues then just move on – just don’t try to make this failure seem like it’s somehow the fault of someone else. Surely to FSM you don’t don’t want to sound like the CPC, always whining about the “liberal media’s bias” against poor little them?

    • Mulroney will be treated well by history. He had real accomplishments and tried sincerely on those issues that didn’t make it, like Meech. I say this not being a fan of BM.
      What has Harper actually accomplished that has made life better for Canadians in a tangible way? All tactics, no strategy and all for either preserving power or settling scores.

      • That about nails it. All hat and no cattle. All our good to great PMs have had faults – some big ones – but the better ones got things done that the majority of us were either pretty happy with or at least not too put out about. This guy is only interested in serving his constituency. Which is ironic given his constant bleating about being totally marginalized while in opposition.

  7. As much as I dislike Harper, I have to give him credit for always being able to hold on in each storm, despite all the resignations and departures. As Wells says, there has been a stability that has been maintained, despite the chaos. It shows Harper does have some political skills, like him or not.

    • We can also say this much – Stephen Harper is undoubtedly Stephen Harper.

      As to yourself, Rosanna Lopez? How’s the weather in Los Angeles?


    • This identity question is distracting from what you’re posting. Why don’t you straighten it out so we can just deal with what you’re saying.

  8. Yep, the spin doctors are in control.

    Fact is none of these parties represent the main stream middle class non-government workers and productive. To the politicians we are just tax slaves as they pander to dysfunctional groups, bailout buddies, lobby for bailout and the like. Middle class is dying from income and hidden taxes at record levels, from the dysfunctional bottom to the top level greed.

    And while we have three credible “party” votes on the ballot, there is only one result. More dysfunctional and costly governemtn bloat, and more taxes and debt for the productive.

    Not really an effective democracy when the people who pay for it have so little influence, as whiners for free money and no accountability, and bailout corruption lobby money has more influences.

    Democracy in Canada is a ruse. They all just bicker how to waste our money.

    Its all about PR to BS the people into thinking otherwise.

    • I hear its very nice in Greece or Spain right about now.

  9. Barack Obama’s big budget deal initiative in the States is going to be lowering US corporate taxes via tax reform. The faux progressive gift to Harper that keeps on giving.

    So in the next election:

    1) Justin Trudeau’s headline initiative is pot. Even though it may be a good idea, every time he talks about it is going to be one less minute he is talking about the economy and the middle class.
    2) Tom Mulcair’s headline initiative is raising corporate taxes (while Obama will be trumpeting why American corporate taxes have to be lower, to get the US economy moving)
    3) And “Steve” will be running on an island of economic stability surrounded by a scary economic world out there again.

    Does it really matter who the press secretary is?

    • I thought that was that was Paul’s point?

  10. So far the most congenial liar of them all. He has made some misspeaks in regard to the senate scandal though. I can imagine he’s taken heat for those. I could never do a job I hated no matter how much I got paid to do it.

  11. See how they run! Like wharf rats fleeing a sinking garbage scow.

  12. The constant is PM Harper……..thankfully…..remember back to Alan Rock, Judy Sabo, Alphonso Gagliano et all and the constant stream of bad actors, crooks, syncofants and brown bags……the senate scandal touches every party with a senator sitting….meanwhile, Junior is out stumping on the pot theme…….now there’s an example of a leader for you.

  13. Craig Oliver came to UWO last year for a lunch time lecture and I asked him why Canadians accept less press availability from the Harper government than Americans accept from the Obama administration. He rejected the premise of the question. Apparently those daily on the record press briefings with Jay Carney are equivalent to Oliver getting off the record responses to his emails from junior officials. And Obama’s lengthy (sometimes up to an hour long) press conferences? Apparently a figment of my imagination. My griping aside, it would seem that senior members of the Ottawa press are satisfied with this government’s approach to communication.

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