Prime Minister Stephen Harper has replaced his communications chief just two weeks after taking office, in what will be seen as a blunt acknowledgement of the bad public-relations tone set by his first days in power.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a terse statement late last night, announcing that the new communications director was Sandra Buckler, who was the lead person in the Conservatives' "war room" during the election campaign.
Buckler abruptly displaces William Stairs, who had been confirmed in the communications post less than two weeks ago.
Ouch. Nothing says complete failure like an early dismissal. Strangely, Harper's decision to replace Stairs due to poor press, has the effect of generating poor press and highlighting the government's initial failures. Shuffling staff at this early stage has no precedent:
Around Ottawa last night, there was shock and surprise that Harper had tried to dispatch his communications problems so bloodlessly and quickly. It is almost unheard-of for a Prime Minister to send a top official packing so soon into a new regime.
Sources said Stairs was called into Brodie's office yesterday afternoon where he was summarily dismissed, a move that clearly caught many staffers — including Stairs — by surprise.
So is Stairs to blame for the public relations mess, or is Harper the problem? The good news for progressives is that the new P.M. takes control. I say good news because these early blunders suggest complete incompetence and a political tin ear:
The sources said Mr. Stairs departed after arguing 10 days ago that the PMO and the Prime Minister needed to deal more forcefully with the Emerson problem. The Prime Minister had kept mostly silent on the difficulties surrounding Mr. Emerson despite the urgings of Mr. Stairs and a number of other individuals within the government.
Harper believes he knows best:
Mr. Reid says Mr. Stairs’s biggest challenge is Mr. Harper’s attitude toward the media.
"This is a prime minister who is seen to be his own most senior adviser, his own communications director, his own chief of staff," he says. "So that will have implications for how William can do his job. On the positive side of the ledger, people may be less willing to hold William up to criticism personally, because they may tend to discount his role necessarily in things that occur."
Mr. Powers agrees that Mr. Harper may want to run things himself.
"That’s true," he says. "The prime minister has a tendency to want to manage many things, and that’s true whether it’s Harper or anybody else. Leaders want to get their hands on everything, so Stairs’s challenge is to manage that."
Harper's decision to ignore Stair's warnings on Emerson, remain silent and let the story fester, illustrate his lack of political instincts. Leaving Stair's out of the loop to prepare the ground for Emerson, telling him the night before, is a shocking failure. Harper doesn't much care for the press, but he has already set a standard of aloof detachment that will inevitably hobble his government.
Stair's argued that Harper needed to be out front on Emerson, with greater press availability. Harper chose to ignore a basic tenet of good politics, which should make for interesting decisions as we move forward. Harper looks to be his own worst enemy.