The ability to speak off the cuff is perhaps the most indispensable skill for a politician. You can smooth-talk your way through almost anything. Stumble, and you could wear it forever.
Take Tom Rideout, former PC cabinet minister and, briefly, premier. He will always be known as the man who coined the adjective “backuppable,” and once blurted, “You’ve buttered your bread, now lie in it.”
A lack of spontaneous eloquence helped topple the current premier. Kathy Dunderdale, who steps down today, also had a difficult time communicating the right message when the camera lights were on.
“Oh, please,” she told reporters last winter, when asked about proof that her caucus and staff were shamelessly stacking online opinion polls. “There’s no story here. Do we participate in polls? You betcha.”
Telling a reporter something is a non-story is like waving a red flag at a bull. Bryan Adams’ agent could have used that advice this week when he said as much to one reporter asking about the rock star’s controversial gig in Zimbabwe.
The last straw for Dunderdale was the post-New Year’s power failure. After laying low for almost two days, the premier finally made an appearance and dismissed the continuing blackouts as a non-crisis. Not what people wanted to hear.
On the other hand, scripted remarks can be equally galling. People can tell when your message is too finely tailored.
And that brings us to Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.
Post Media unveiled briefing notes this week that include scripted statements to be used in the event of tragedies ranging from the death of an RCMP officer to a terrorist strike.
The notes were prepared for Blaney when he took over from his predecessor Vic Toews last summer. Remember Vic Toews? He’s the man who defended intrusive computer surveillance legislation by telling critics they “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”
Toews was not very good on his feet. But it’s amazing to think a cabinet minister would need to be spoon fed something as generic as “I would like to extend my most heartfelt condolences … to the family.”
Has an evil hacker shut down our computers? Don’t forget to mention the government “has plans in place to prevent, minimize and address the impacts of cyber threats.”
U.S. border closed? Remind the public of the “long history of close collaboration” between the two countries.
It goes to show how message control has consumed almost every facet of public service.
When tragedy strikes, you’d like to think those in charge are speaking from the heart as well as from the page. And you don’t want to think someone is simply pulling their strings.
We need to believe that the person at the microphone is made of flesh and blood. That he or she is a minister — not a marionette.
That’s the real secret of political success.