Monday, February 19, 2007

Conservatives desperate to sell Afghan war to Canadians; $76,000 spent for internal report

To sell Canada on war, try `hope' but not `liberty'
Focus groups advised Harper not to echo Bush
February 17, 2007
Toronto Star

Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA–The Conservative government has been "too American" in its attempts to justify the Afghan war to a skeptical Canadian public, according to an internal report commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The extensive critique of the Tory communications strategy on the war comes from a series of cross-country focus groups conducted in November 2006 at a cost of almost $76,000.

The study, obtained by the Toronto Star, found that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was "echoing" U.S. President George W. Bush in his attempt to explain why Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in the country's southern province.

Harper has drawn a link between the NATO-led mission and the 24 Canadians who were killed in the collapse of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor recently described the fight as "retribution" for the terrorist attacks.

"Participants associated this message with public relations positioning – it was seen as echoing the kind of messaging American officials have made regarding Iraq," wrote the report's authors, the Strategic Counsel public opinion firm.

The report lists "vocabulary/terms/phrases/concepts to reinforce" the message that the government is right about its commitment to the war in Afghanistan. They include "rebuilding," "restoring," "reconstruction," "hope," "opportunity" and "enhancing the lives of women and children."

Words and phrases to avoid include: "freedom, democracy, liberty – in combination this phrase comes across as sounding too American."

Strategic Counsel also advised that the government "avoid developing a line of argumentation too strongly based on values. While the value of human rights is strongly supported, there is a risk of appearing to be imposing Canadian values. Again, this is not seen to be the `Canadian way.'"

The report also found the Tory government's tight-lipped approach to the war has raised problems in the battle for public support. Part of the problem is the "absence of official government communication" about the mission.

That gap has been filled by "persistent negative media coverage" both in Canada and from reporters who are embedded with soldiers in southern Afghanistan.

Most of the 2,600 Canadian soldiers now serving in Afghanistan are based in the volatile Kandahar region.

Participants in the study said the government silence was interpreted as "a sign that things are not going well and that the government is trying to hide the grim reality from the Canadian public."

Negative media coverage coupled with government silence is "diminishing the intensity of support for the mission because advocates do not get the information they need to justify their support beyond a general sense that it is `the right thing to do,'" the study said.

Public support for the mission in Afghanistan stood at 35 per cent in late December, the report said. It had been as high as 55 per cent in March 2006, before a deadly summer for Canadian soldiers.

Since sending troops to Afghanistan in 2002 as part of the U.S.-led war on terror, Canada has lost 44 soldiers and a diplomat – most of them killed last year.

Ambra Dickie, a spokesperson with Foreign Affairs, said the focus groups were conducted to help the government understand "Canadian attitudes and feelings" toward the mission.

"We tested a number of key themes and messages about the mission, derived from media coverage of the issue. This is standard practice ... on any public policy issue."

The report will provide ammunition to opposition parties, who have been critical of the mission.

It appears the taxpayer-funded study sought feedback from the focus groups on the sway of arguments made over the past few months by the NDP and the Liberals.

The NDP, for example, frequently points out the mission is unbalanced because the government spends $9 on combat efforts for every $1 on development.

"This statement gave many participants concerns, but was typically not seen as a rationale against Canada's involvement in Afghanistan," said the report.

NDP Leader Jack Layton's call last fall to engage in peace talks with the Taliban was written off as "simplistic, unrealistic and unworkable" in the 91-page report, entitled "Public Perceptions of Canada's Role in Afghanistan."

"The fact that they would spend $76,000 to try and get arguments to sell the war in Afghanistan to the Canadian public ... really indicates that the war is not saleable," said NDP defence critic Dawn Black (New Westminster-Coquitlam).

"To spend that kind of money just to counter the kinds of arguments that the opposition ... are putting forward is bizarre."

In November 2003, Auditor General Sheila Fraser called the previous Liberal government to account for buying polls – in contravention of government policy – that monitored party image, voting intentions and approval ratings of political leaders.

The Tory communications problems are compounded by "a general perception that this government is already closely aligned with the U.S. on other fronts," the report states.

To counter this, the Tories should seek opportunities to "underscore Canadian sovereignty" and quash the view there is an "overly-close, dominant-subservient" relationship between the two countries.

Liberal MP Keith Martin (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) said the existence of the report was "quite shocking," though he didn't take issue with its findings.

"The Taliban of 2007 is not the Taliban of 2001," said Martin, his party's foreign affairs critic.
It seems the government has heeded some of the tough-talking advice.

A section of the focus group examined words and pictures that were to be placed on the federal government's main website explaining Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

Instead of references to threats or terrorism, which the study found only underscored the Harper-Bush link, there are pictures of children in schools, references to progress and development, and the explanation that Canada is in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected government.


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