National News

PM's wife snags limelight in government videos

By Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Laureen Harper is snagging some of the limelight in taxpayer-funded government videos, only months after a leaked Conservative Party memo said operatives wanted to exploit the popularity of the prime minister's wife.

The 24/Seven videos produced out of the Prime Minister's Office, and posted online by public servants, are billed as a week in the life of Stephen Harper "and more."

The most recent video features Laureen Harper cutting the ribbon on a new tourism site in Jasper National Park. The official Parks Canada press release on the event does not mention her.

"And Mrs. Harper attended the grand opening of the dramatic new Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park," the video narrator says.

Another two-and-a-half-minute video, dated May 1, included 15 shots of her at different official and personal events alongside the prime minister, including wheeling out his birthday cake and watching a Raptors basketball game on TV.

Half of the April 24 instalment of 24/Seven features Laureen Harper's activities, including leading a school group on a "behind-the-scenes" tour of Parliament Hill.

A Conservative party presentation on election strategy, leaked to The Toronto Star in February, included a section on how the party planned to "leverage Mrs. Harper" and launch a "With Mrs. Harper" video series. The state of that party strategy is unclear — former national director Dimitri Soudas resigned amid controversy this spring.

A friendly and gregarious figure, Laureen Harper is involved in numerous charities and sometimes convenes discussions or roundtables on public policy issues. The role of the spouse of the prime minister is not defined in Canada, unlike that of the American First Lady which carries with it a separate office with numerous staff.

"I’m the wife of the prime minister — there’s no First Lady in Canada...[The prime minister’s wife] can have a big role, a small role, whatever," she told The Globe and Mail last year.

The PMO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Opposition parties and other observers say they do not begrudge Laureen Harper's participation in public life, but complain that the videos smack of political propaganda for the Conservatives.

The Privy Council Office recently said that up to three public servants are involved in the "weekly publishing" of the video, as part of their regular duties. The filming, production and editing is left to political staff inside the PMO, the cost of which has not been divulged.

"In democratic nations, the government leadership does not employ camera operators, sound editors, video editors to produce regular updates on what the leader is doing — that's a Kim Jong-un kind of operation," said Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"If the Conservative party wants to produce it, that's completely within Canadian traditions. Headquarters have produced fluff videos for party leaders for decades."

Jonathan Rose, an expert in political communications at Queen's University, said a highlight reel of Harper's photo ops provides "meaningless nuggets of infotainment" to citizens.

"Government communication is warranted if it provides the voter information with which to make an assessment of the government," said Rose, a political science professor.

"By virtue of this being a pure feel-good video, it doesn't provide any assessment, it's just propaganda. In that sense it doesn't have a place unless it is paid for by the party."

The May 1 24/Seven video had 1,251 views on YouTube by Friday afternoon.

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