The Over-Zealous Caretakers of the 2019 Election

The Caretaker Array in Star Trek: Voyager

Caretaker Convention

During the writ in 2015, Parks Canada infamously agonised over issuing a routine public advisory about the threat that bears and mountain lions posed to hikers in Rocky Mountain national parks that fall, falsely believing that the Caretaker Convention in general and the Privy Council Office’s Guidelines in particular prohibited such communication. Parks opted not to warn the public of the feline and ursine dangers prowling and lurking in the forests. I had hoped that the civil service had worked this sort of over-zealous hypercorrection (which invariably indicates something incorrect) out of its system in 2015, but the quadrennial madness has only worsened in 2019.

For instance, the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments has temporarily removed the portion from its website that presumptuously allowed applicants to submit their names for consideration: “To respect the Caretaker Convention, Senate Appointment Opportunities have been taken down from this website during the writ period.” Applying to become a Senator does not require any immediate action on the part of the Government of Canada but instead relies on the initiative of the individuals who put their names forward. This process does not touch upon the Caretaker Convention at all.

In addition, the Canada Energy Regulator has decided to stop publishing its routine and wholly uncontroversial weekly newsletter Market Snapshot during the writ:

Note that publication of Market Snapshots will be temporarily suspended during the period leading up to the fall federal election. Announcements are curtailed during an election period pursuant to the caretaker convention. Market Snapshots will be published weekly as normal immediately following the federal election.

This rectitude over the Caretaker Convention almost seems cute in its earnestness, as if anyone would object to the things like “Annual Export Volumes” from 1959 to present.

In this routine news release “All Eyes on the Patent Treaty” from September 2019, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, under Industry Canada, demonstrated similar misplaced punctiliousness, as well as a curious combination of an undue deference toward and a contradictory interpretation of the Caretaker Convention:

Implementation of the amended Patent Act and the new Patent Rules

Amendments to the Patent Act and the new Patent Rules will come into force (CIF) on October 30, 2019, shortly after the federal election on October 21. Once the federal election period begins upon dissolution of the House of Commons, which is anticipated to take place in early September 2019, the government will implement the caretaker convention. As a result, most governmental communications will be paused until after the election.

This means that while we will still be able to post new information on the implementation of the amended patent legislation on our website, we will be unable to use social media or email alerts (Canadian Patent News) to announce updates about our services or web pages.

This newsletter provides all known information at this time. We encourage you to consult our website frequently leading up to the CIF date.

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office claims that it can continue carrying on with this routine newsletter, Canadian Patent News, during the election and shortly after the election. It further emphasises that subsequent editions will contain important updates on the Patent Act and the Patent Law Treaty. But the communications staff at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office then exhorts its readers to check this website proactively themselves because the Caretaker Convention prevents them from announcing that they have released a routine newsletter on social media but not from releasing the newsletter itself.

This is utter nonsense. The Treasury Board’s Directive on the Management of Communications contains no such prohibition against using social media accounts to make routine announcements at all during the writ, and neither does the Privy Council Office’s Guidelines, for which the Canadian Intellectual Property Office even provided a link. PCO’s Guidelines concern themselves mainly with the inappropriate, partisan use of social media accounts and clearly allow departments and agencies to continue using their official social media platforms during the writ to “provide factual information.” And surely announcing that an act of parliament or Order-in-Council has entered into force falls under the category of “supporting routine program administration,” especially if the routine newsletter would contain that information anyway.

Department-supported websites and social media channels (and any information derived from them) should continue to be used only for official government communications, and government resources should not be used to support personal or partisan social media accounts. Departmental social media accounts should only be used to provide factual information and an abundance of caution should be exercised so as to avoid any potential perception that a department is advocating for a particular policy position. As a general rule, social media should be used only as required to support routine program administration.

Finally, the President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research released a message in June 2019:

First and foremost, we have an election coming. While it might seem odd to mention this as the first item, there are two immediate implications. The first is that, during the election period, the Government of Canada is guided by the Caretaker Convention, which calls for a period of quiescence on the public front.  As such, CIHR’s public engagements – and my ongoing travels across the country – will be limited during this period. The second implication relates to our current efforts to shape the CIHR of tomorrow. This will involve a delicate balance between being “on the road” and “in the shop.” Given the breadth of the task and the clear messages over the last few years, I have opted for the latter until we have a clearly articulated set of next steps for the organization.

Most of all in this case, I’m impressed by the use of “quiescence” and the sesquipedalian loquacity to which it alludes.

These examples show an inverse relationship between the public visibility and potential for controversy and zealotry in misapplying the Caretaker Convention. The Privy Council Office has sent some departments and agencies into a needless panic. Ironically, these entities have failed to apply the Caretaker Convention properly because they intend to stop communicating routine and uncontroversial matters to the public.

The CBC’s Solipsism and Bastardised Caretaker Convention

The CBC has also over-zealously and foolishly applied its own arbitrary version of the Caretaker Convention to its news coverage of the federal election under the guise of maintaining a neutrality that few believe ever existed.

The mere fact that the CBC has received, by its own admission, many iterations of this question “Why Isn’t CBC News Calling Justin Trudeau ‘Prime Minister’?” means that the CBC’s methodology has succeeded only in confusing its own readers, listeners, and watchers.

We’ve been fielding many questions about all aspects of the election, from parliamentary procedure to voting restrictions.

Each week until election day, we’ll be rounding up your questions and answering the most common in articles like this. Here are some we got during Week 1.

Why aren’t you calling Justin Trudeau the prime minister?

You may have noticed CBC News referring to Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader. Yes, he’s still prime minister. However, now that the election has been called, incumbents who are running for re-election are referred to by their party affiliation only. According to the CBC Language Guide, this is done to “avoid even the perception of giving incumbents an advantage.”

There are exceptions, though. The political titles are allowed if it is a non-election story, where they are acting in their official role. Right here, though, it’s Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.   

For practical purposes, there is no such thing as a “non-election story” about the Prime Minister during an election. This incoherent and arbitrary policy serves only either to confuse voters or to insult their intelligence. Does the CBC seriously believe that voters do not already know that Justin Trudeau is Prime Minister? This outlet imposes its solipsism on us all, as if refusing to acknowledge the fact that Justin Trudeau remains Prime Minister during the writ somehow changes that fact.  Despite the CBC’s insistence to the contrary, referring to Justin Trudeau has “Liberal Leader” instead of as Prime Minister does lend the impression that the ministry dissolves along with parliament during the writ and that there is no government in place. Worse still, the CBC only recently made this conscious decision to adhere to pedantic and mendacious viewpoint. You can clearly hear in this interview of Prime Minister Kim Campbell during the election of 1993 that Peter Gzowski addresses Campbell as “Prime Minister,” not as “Progressive Conservative Party Leader Campbell.”

And, of course, suing the Conservative Party of Canada for copyright infringement because it used 17 seconds of CBC’s footage in context most certainly does not signify “even the perception of giving incumbents and advantage,” as any educated Canadian certainly must already know, despite what any rival new outlet contends.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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