â€œHey, brother, wassup?â€ Habitually perched on the edge of a couch in the government lobby during QP, she flipped her blond hair and looked indifferent. It was an act. Sandra Buckler, the media animal, was anything but.
As Stephen Harperâ€™s communications director for 28 months, it was Buckler who was responsible for scrubbing impromptu press conferences following cabinet meetings. Where cameras and reporters once camped out at the stop of the stairs on the third floor of Centre Block, thereâ€™s now only a small phalanx of armed House of Commons security forces standing outside the PM’s door.
It was Buckler who told both MPs and ministers when they could, and could not, speak. It was her initiative to give caucus members plasticized wallet cards with weird rules to follow should a dreaded reporter call. It was she who decided who did Duffy, Newman or CPAC each night in the foyer of the House of Commons.
And it was Buckler who walked into national caucus each Wednesday morning, took the podium and told MPs how not to communicate. The rules, she said, are simple. When you leave this room, donâ€™t speak. If you donâ€™t talk, they donâ€™t get a story. And remember, the media is the enemy.
Three feet away, on the stage overlooking the caucus, nodding, was Harper. Bucklerâ€™s words were taken as the leaderâ€™s and the message was clear â€“ this government has but one voice. It is his.
As you might imagine, Sandra Buckler said no to me a lot. I was warned about speaking out on a weak environment plan, on my campaign for income-splitting, or gay marriage. I was told to shut down this blog. I was ordered not to do radio and television interviews. I played along as much as I was able, but drew the line when I could no longer do my job. An MP is an advocate for the people, not an adjunct of a political party. Communicating with constituents and Canadians is a key part of fighting for change and mobilizing opinion. Without that, the wrong people â€“ unelected ones â€“ get to make the decisions.
You might think I disliked this woman, but far from it. In fact, Buckler â€“ who announced her resignation Thursday evening â€“ was extremely effective and competent in her role. She was able to water down a caucus with far too many former small-town municipal councilors and far too little legislative experience. She kept hidden a social conservative agenda brought to Ottawa by a caucus heavily populated with evangelicals. She managed on most days to manipulate, massage and deliver a message right out of the PMO.
In Bucklerâ€™s Ottawa, Conservative MPs represented ridings where every voter supported their member and the memberâ€™s government; where caucus was of one mind; where debate equaled division; and where team trumped all. Quite the feat. The purposeful suppression of both democracy, and a free press.
Ms. Buckler leaves her job after a recent brush with cancer. She leaves as her boss brings in a tough new guy to take over the prime ministerâ€™s office. Her departure comes just months before the next election, in which a pent-up media may exact revenge for her past actions. This moment may signal a change in communications strategy by a PM acutely aware he will soon need what heâ€™s been unable to buy.
Ms. Buckler would not let me speak. So when I did, the consequences were terrible.
I cannot thank her enough.