Tag Archives: stephen harper

YouTube Interviews: Strengths and Weaknesses

I’m pretty much expecting to wake up today and read a number of stories about how the YouTube interview of the Prime Minister didn’t work, about how we should leave interviews to journalists, and that all this internet, audience driven stuff is a big waste of time.

I’m not sure I agree.

Was the interview good? It wasn’t amazing. But was it terrible? Definitely not. And not nearly as bad as some interviews with the Prime Minister that I’ve seen… So what worked and what didn’t work and what lessons can we draw from all this whether you live in Canada, the United States or wherever else in the world. What makes for a good crowdsourced interview?


Be careful of refocusing questions: Many of the Prime Minister’s responses were great. However, during some of the questions the Prime Minister reverted to some very well trodden talking points – or didn’t even answer the specific question asked. For example the question on mandatory minimum sentences he spoke of the Canadians say they want, not what, as the question stipulated, the research shows and the question of Marijuana become about drugs writ large – not about cannabis specifically. This is, of course, standard practice among politicians when answering reporters questions. The challenge is, that if these types of forums become popular and are watched by a number of people, it is unclear how favourable people will view a politician who avoids – however delicately or lightly – a question posed by a citizen. Maybe this medium changes nothing – but I again agree with Ivor Tossell and many others have to say:

Succeeding with social media comes down to being honest, having a frank, unfiltered voice and letting personality go along with policy.

Re-directing questions does not qualify. The public recognizes that journalists are not politicians friends and so give politicians more license when dealing with them – not so when dealing with a smart clear question from a fellow citizen.

Follow Up Questions: This of course raises the formats main weakness. There are no follow up questions allowed. So when someone evades or redirects a question there is no way to hold them to account. This doesn’t mean accountability and credibility disappear. Again, as I noted on Monday, its simply shifts onto the shoulders of the interviewee. You must now genuinely engage the question as the question asker intended. If not, I suspect you come out looking worse.

Pick your interviewer carefully. Here in Canada, Google elected to use their CFO Patrick Pichette (and ex-expatriate Canadian). I’ve only met him once at a small lunch in Montreal but I have a lot of time for him. He immediately struck meas insightful, quick and deeply intelligent. I’m also not sure he was the right choice for interviewer. Throughout the interview he is heard making sounds of agreement with the Prime Minister (such as saying “that’s terrific” after an answer) as though affirming the answer. This felt outside his role and prevented the questions from being as pointed as I believe the authors wished they would have been. All in all, the feel was less of an interview than of a friendly conversation.


Ask the most voted questions: Sadly, the couldn’t find a way to see the questions or how many votes they had received (#fail on google’s part there – accountability denied), but I did recognize many of the questions asked and am doubly impressed that a question on marijuana. In short, if you make a contract with the audience – eg you are going to ask the questions with the most votes… you’d better do it. I also thought many of the questions asked were quite good. Focus on the budget, Afghanistan, Foreign Aid (two foreign policy questions! two more than the last election debate in this country!), pensions, the carbon emissions policy… a good mix. Wish I knew if they were actually the questions with the most votes though…

Broadly people ask good question/but could do with some advice: Many of the questions were reasonable tough and well put. Some were a little long, and others had too many caveats that allow the interviewee to latch on to and avoid the main thrust of the inquiry. Might be good to model a good question to viewers in terms of focus and length as well as provide some written advice. I actually enjoyed seeing people ask questions and think the process could be stronger still.

Video Questions are better than read questions: Lesson for the audience. Submit your question via video. Better still, if you live in a bilingual country, try to subtitle it (Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to be able to do). The video questions really allowed the medium to show itself off, far more interesting to see a young women asking a question from her kitchen than to have an interview read it…

(Advice) Share each answer as a small video: If you really want citizens talking about issues, Google should share the entire interview, but also each individual question and answer. That way there can be questions specific comments on the YouTube site, people can blog about a specific question that concerned them and show only that question in the post, or people can simply zero in on the issue they care about most. The whole point of the internet is that information can be moved around easily – so if you are doing an interview… make it easy for your audience to share the part they cared about by making it digestable.

Be Real: The Prime Minister shone best when he was at his most conversational and relaxed. Indeed, this in part came through during the Marijuana question – his response was emotionally fantastic, he seemed genuinely concerned and possibly even off his speaking points a bit (or maybe just smooth enough to fool me, but I suspect not). Even though I found he answer infuriating – he seemed to completely forget all the lessons of prohibition (and, in effect, label every beer brewer in the country a scumbag) – he was at least human. And that’s when social media works best, when we get to see people being human. Otherwise, you just look wooden and, frankly, uninteresting.

Torturing Afghan Prisoners: Blind and Dangerous

As most (Canadian) readers are probably aware by now (American readers will probably still be interested), yesterday, a senior Canadian diplomat, Richard Colvin, testified to Members of Parliament that Canadian soldiers regularly detained innocent Afghan citizens and then handed them over to Afghan authorities who they knew would torture them. In short, the Canadian government has become knowingly complicit in torturing and violating the human rights of Afghan citizens.

These allegations are serious. They present numerous problems, but I’d like to highlight two: first, that our government has evolved to become willfully blind to torture; and second, that as a result, we jeopardize the Afghan mission and increase the risks to the lives of our own soldiers.

Willfully Blind:

Only slightly less distressing than learning (again) that the Canadian military was allegedly handing civilians over to local authorities who then tortured them is how the Conservatives – once so proud of the public service whistle blower legislation they helped pass – now seem intent on ignoring the issue and tarring the whistle-blower.

It is eerie to read Tory MP Jim Abbott get quoted in the Globe as saying “Out of 5,000 Canadians who have travelled through there, at least in that period of time, you were the one single person who is coming forward with this information. So you will forgive me if I am skeptical.” Of course, the fact that Richard Colvin testified that senior public servants were instructing him and others to not share or record this information is perhaps one of the reason why Mr. Abbott never heard of the problem. But then, Mr. Colvin has not been alone in raising this issue; the Red Cross and Amnesty International both tried to inform the government about this problem, to no avail.

Indeed as Paul Wells has aptly written, the Conservative machine has now embraced what he terms “the bucket defence” and is doing everything it can to sow confusion and claim this is not an issue. (Rather than trying to figure out how it is that Canadians were handing Afghan citizens over to Afghan authorities with full knowledge that they would get tortured). This is not only irresponsible, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, and accountable government. It is also downright dangerous.

Dangerous to the mission and our soldiers:

The Globe article also included this still more frightening quote from Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant. She worries: “The fanning of the fames of outrage over allegations [of torture], however unproven, are really having the desired effect on the Canadian people of wanting our troops to return even quicker.” Note here, the truth is irrelevant, it matters not whether we are complicit in the torture of Afghans, what matters are polling numbers and support for the mission.

It was a very similar response to these allegations by the Prime Minister back in March of 2007 that prompted me to write this blog post on why torturing one’s enemies increases the dangers to your own soldiers. The post was subsequently republished as a opinion piece in the Toronto Star, and since, sadly, it still relevant today, two years later, I’ve reposted it below:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments regarding the Liberal’s “passion” for the Taliban was more than just a new low point in Canadian political debate – it also reveals the government’s disturbingly shallow grasp of the strategy and tactics necessary to win in Afghanistan.

For the sake of both our military and the mission, the Prime Minister would be wise to read lieutenant David Grossman’s landmark book, On Killing. In the book, Grossman, a U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel and professor at West Point, describes the psychological implications of killing, both legally and illegally, in battle.

Of specific interest to the Prime Minister would be the psychological argument and historical evidence that explain why adhering to the Geneva Conventions and treating PoWs humanely is of supreme strategic and tactical importance to any organized army. In short, enemy forces are much more willing to surrender when secure in the knowledge that in doing so they will be treated fairly and humanely. Enemies that believe otherwise are likely to fight to the death and inflict greater casualities even in a losing effort.

During World War II, the Allies’ adherence to the Geneva Convention resulted in German soldiers surrendering to U.S. forces in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the experience of the Soviets, who cared little for PoWs.

But one need not go back 60 years for evidence. Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, who fought in Iraq and then founded and became executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, makes a similar argument regarding today’s conflicts.

Prior to the Abu Ghraib debacle, he noted how “(O)n the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets. It saved innumerable lives …”

When MPs and ordinary Canadians ask questions about the treatment of Afghan prisoners they don’t do so out of contempt, but out of a deep respect and concern for Canadian soldiers. Canadians know we can ill afford to treat enemy combatants inhumanely. They know this because it is in opposition to our values and our very purpose in Afghanistan.

However, they also know there is a compelling military reason: It would rob our soldiers of possibly their single most important tactical and strategic tool – moral integrity. Without this, who knows how many Canadian lives will be needlessly lost in battles where an insurgent, believing that surrender is tantamount to execution, instead opts to fight to the death.

The Prime Minister may believe that talking like a cowboy about the Taliban and human rights make the government appear tough. But in reality, it only makes it dangerous, both to the mission, and our soldier’s lives.

Insite – Incremental Death?

Yesterday the federal government announced it would extend the legal exemption that allows Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site, to stay open until June 2008. (to understand why the Injection site is important click here, here and/or here)

So the good news is brief and temporary: Insite, gets to stay open an additional 6 months.

And here’s the bad news. Tom Flanagan, Harper’s chief strategist has recently published his tell all book: Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power. One of the books key messages? Conservatives must adopt an “incrementalist” strategy. In other words, they must slowly when advancing the conservative agenda – move too quickly and the electorate will turn against them.Insite Logo

This begs the question. Is the reprieve for Insite genuinely designed to give the Federal Government more time to assess whether it is having a sufficiently positive impact? This is very much my hope. Those in the know tell me that the Federal Government only got around to appointing the team to assess Insite a few weeks ago. Given that this team’s report was never going to be ready in time for Christmas deadline another temporary extension was widely expected.

Part of me desperately wants to believe in the Harper as “policy wonk” narrative. If this is the case, then the overwhelming evidence in favour of Insite may be persuasive to a person focused on outcomes. On the evidence it would be hard to justify pulling the plug on Insite.

Flanagan’s incrementalism thesis however, plays on Insite supporters’ worst fears. If Flanagan is to be believed (and there are good reasons to believe him) then the reprieve is simply a way to hold off a decision until after an election (and a hoped for majority government) at which point it will be politically “safe” to kill Insite. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is very hard to imagine the Conservatives picking up a seat in Vancouver if they kill Insite. If however, they appear to be moderate and are considering saving it, they boost their chances of capture a seat like Vancouver-Quadra. This is certainly the fear of Keith Martin and other local federal Liberals.

So am I excited that Insite got a 6 month extension? Not really. Insite works. Moreover it is operating at capacity. We shouldn’t be debating whether or not it stays open. This is akin to arguing if we should keep open a single public hospital in a country where there is no public healthcare insurance. It’s the wrong debate. The question should be – how do we scale this policy up nationally?

But that’s not the debate we are having, and likely won’t be having for a few years. So in the interim let’s save Insite.

As far as I can tell our fate in this capacity rests on whether Harper is an incrementalist, or a policy wonk.

Africa is not a liberal idea

Taylor and I published this piece in Embassy Magazine today. They’d asked for our reaction to PM Harper’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations…

Embassy, October 3rd, 2007
Africa is not a Liberal Idea
Taylor Owen and David Eaves

“It was clear that he had a particular feeling about the continent (Africa) and particularly that underdog feeling of Mulroney’s where you want to come to the defence of the beleaguered. It was a fascinating dimension of the man which is not widely appreciated by Canadians.” – Stephen Lewis on Brian Mulroney

Of all of Prime Minister Harper’s remarks at the Council of Relations last week, what was most important, and revealing, was what he didn’t say. Amid the platitudes over US-Canada co-dependence and shared values was a noticeable omission.

Not once was Africa mentioned.

For an hour and a half discussion that covered the breadth of Canada’s Foreign Policy agenda, this is remarkable. For just over 20 years, Canada has progressively increased its presence in Africa. Largely driven by CIDA funding, but also through the support of peacebuilding missions and humanitarian relief operations, we have developed tremendous experience and expertise in African development.

And for good reason.

For a country that balances its foreign policy between the promotion of values and national interests, and that defines these values in notably humanitarian terms, there is no better place to project our resources and influence than Africa.

However, it is no secret that the current government sees Africa as a Liberal idea. Canada’s “New” Government has sought to distinguish itself from the past whenever and wherever possible, and Foreign Policy is no exception. This has manifested as a major regional shift in policy towards Latin America and a corresponding thematic shift to democracy promotion and trade liberalization.

This is of course the Prime Minister’s prerogative. There are, however, real costs to this regional and thematic shift. Moving to Latin America means both rebuilding our in-house regional expertise, and devoting resources to developing a new skills, networks and institutions focused on democracy promotion and trade liberalization rather than on local development and humanitarian relief. It also shifts our limited resources from a continent struggling with extreme poverty, communicable disease and war, to one much further along the path of development.

The sad irony of course, is that Africa was never a Liberal idea. If anything it was a Conservative one.

Both Chretien and Martin were certainly strong supporters of Canada’s role in Africa. But Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was there first. Prompted by a public outcry to the devastation they saw on their televisions, he led the world in responding to the Ethiopian famine in 1984. More importantly, this leadership wasn’t just financial. Canada acted diplomatically, breaking ranks with its Western Allies and becoming one of the first countries to talk to Ethiopia’s then-Marxist government. In addition, it is widely accepted that Mulroney took special interest in tackling apartheid and again broke ranks with our allies by pushing for tougher sanctions.

More ironic still was how Prime Minister Harper’s partisan-influenced remarks stand in contrast to much of the American Foreign policy discourse, driven in no small part by the Council on Foreign Relations. The Council has been critical in enabling America to discuss its role in the world within a bipartisan community. In the US, the promotion of national interests and values are seen as largely non-partisan issues, with many foreign policy issues discussed with a degree of centrist objectivity.

The Prime Minister however, did the very opposite. He went to great pains to point out that whereas he wants to lead by example, previous (read Liberal) governments, were content to lecture the world. Ignored in this twice repeated sweeping generalization was: the Land Mine Treaty, Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court. Together these foreign policy successes have become symbols of our role in the world and of our national identity. They are representative of multilateral tradition and our capacity to mobilize the international community.

More than a partisan oversight, this slight by the Prime Minister is emblematic of an underlying insecurity among many conservatives towards foreign policy. By viewing past initiatives like our focus on Africa, through a partisans lens they risk implementing reactionary and counterproductive policies that will marginalize past successes and impede future accomplishments.

More importantly, however, this insecurity is unnecessary. Many of our great foreign policy initiatives, such as the response to the Ethiopian famine, the Acid Rain Treaty, and the fight against Apartheid, were led by conservative governments. Like the Mine Ban Treaty, the ICC and R2P these were not partisan, but national accomplishments..

Rather than lead Canada out of Africa, the Prime Minister could use the network, infrastructure and expertise Canada has developed to – by his own words – lead by example. His successes would be celebrated by Canadians as national, rather than partisan, achievements for which we can all be proud.

Taylor Owen is Doctoral Student and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford and a 2007/2008 Action Canada Fellow. David Eaves is a frequent speaker, consultant and writer on public policy and negotiation.

Our New/Old Drug Policy: Welcome to the 1980s

The Tories are beginning to lay down the ground work for a new (or should we say old) drug strategy.

The ‘new’ strategy? A TV campaign informing kids that drugs are bad, an increased presence at the border and a slight increase in funding for drug rehabilitation. If it sounds like the 1980s all over again, it is.

Ironically, it is being billed under the new tagline: “Enforcement is harm reduction.”

This is bad news for all of us. The tentative progress of the last decade is about to be lost in one fall swoop, including of course, Vancouver’s Insite injection site.

Let’s be clear, enforcement is not harm reduction.

There is no evidence to suggest that an increased police presence will have any impact on the drug problem in Vancouver, or anywhere else in the country for that matter. Indeed, American’s 36 year old war on drugs demonstrates otherwise. My question to Tony Clement is: what are doing that Nixon (who coined the term “war on drugs“), Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and previous Canadian governments, didn’t try? With only a fraction of the resources America dedicated to similar campaigns, explain to us why this policy will be success?

In short, Clement’s strategy is analogous to yelling at a non-english speaker when they don’t understand you. It’s a strategy – and for some people it feels good – but it accomplishes nothing. This is because the problem isn’t that they can’t hear you – it’s that they don’t understand you. Similarly, it’s not that many drug users don’t know drugs are bad – or haven’t seen warning messages – it is that they have come to a place where they are truly dependent. Screaming at them, arresting them, and legally marginalizing them isn’t going bring them into the fold and increase the likelihood they’ll seek treatment – if anything it will accomplish the opposite. I would love to see Clement in the downtown eastside, yelling at users to seek treatment. It would be about as alienating and as effective as it sounds. Contrast that to the injection site’s strategy of developing a relationship with users over time, and keeping the door open for when they are ready. Is it ideal? No, nothing about the world of drugs is ideal. But at least it works.

The simple fact is, Clement wants to overturn a program that enjoys the support and cooperation of the Vancouver Police Department, local community leaders, local business leaders, and Vancouver Costal Health. Still more problematically, Clement wants to replace a program supported by evidence and science with one based on ideology and fear.

The benefits of the injection site and harm reduction strategies are clear. They include:

  • Saving lives by:
    • Reducing overdose fatalities
    • Reducing injection-related infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C
    • Increasing access to addiction treatment programs
  • Improving public order by:
    • Reducing public injections
    • Reducing drug-use related public disorder
    • Reducing drug related waste (such as needles) in public spaces
  • Reducing healthcare and policing costs associated with drug-use by:
    • Reducing emergency room visits
    • Reducing use of ambulatory and emergency response services
    • Reducing police resources dedicated to drug-use related public disorder

If the Conservatives aren’t interested good public policy, policy that saves lives, improves public order and reduces healthcare costs… so be it. But I am certain they are interested in electoral outcomes. Given the injection site’s support in Vancouver (the last polls show it receives a 70% support rate) it will be difficult to secure a seat in the city if the Insite injection site is perceived to be on the chopping block. With Emerson stepping down, the Conservatives won’t have a single MP from one of the country’s three largest cities. If evidence and science can’t persuade them, maybe, just maybe, electoral math can.

For myself, the Insite injection site is what re-invigorated my interest in municipal politics. I hope it survives the December 31st exemption renewal deadline. Otherwise, I’d hate to be the politician who saw Insite go down on their watch – I know I’ll be volunteering for who evers campaign is opposing theirs.

cut and run from cut and run

So it turns out that if you use Bush-like rhetoric people start to believe that you also share in his goals, aims and methods. And, given the president’s popularity is somewhere in the 20’s or 30’s in America, he’s almost certainly the most unpopular person in the world for Canadians.

Little wonder that Canadian support for the Afghan conflict has waned.

This is a serious problem, because contrary to what the NDP would have you believe, this is an important mission, one that benefits from the skills and experience a country like Canada brings to the table. Changing the rhetoric will be a good start, but the real question remains, are we prepared to tell the Americans how the mission should be run? Will we imprint a Canadian approach on the mission?

Conservatives, Facebook and the Culture of Paranoia

So the Ontario and Federal Public service banned facebook because it thought it was eating into work time. Fair enough.

The Canadian Conservative Party however, has taken it a step further. Not only are they banning their staffers from accessing facebook from work, they are prohibiting them from possessing a facebook profile (even on their own time, accessed through their own computer). As this Calgary Herald editorial points out – this sort of restriction and censorship is reasonable:

“There seems to be a palpable fear that something which might embarrass a cabinet minister might find its way into a staff member’s profile and thus fall into the hands of some gleeful journalist. Just for the optics, it’s probably a good idea to try to prevent that from happening.”

I love that the Conservatives have so little trust in their staff they feel it necessary to prevent them from showing their faces or sharing their interests in a public space – even a virtual one.

Just ‘for optics’ maybe ministers and the party should control every aspect of their staffers lives? One wonders what other public spaces the Conservative party should ban their staffers from being seen in? Online dating must be no-no (too much like facebook). What about job searches – posting one’s resume and profile sounds pretty risky. But why stop online? What about parties and bars? Staffer could engage in some activity that might embarrass their minister in these public spaces too. Following this logic, maybe Harper should ban staffer from attending parties?

I love the paranoia of this Prime Minister’s Office.

Also, a H/T to Taylor Owen for drawing my attention to the Calgary Herald editorial.