“Uh…Uh….Mmmm-mmm… (Silence)… Uh… Um…” Rob Batherson’s monosyllabic musing had gone on for at least 15 seconds before I thought to look at my watch, and lasted another 33 before he finally didn’t answer my question.
It wasn’t a complicated question, and it was one for which Batherson obviously knew the correct answer.
I just wanted to know who’d told him not to talk to me.
Let me rewind.
When the Tories announced last week that the party’s national headquarters was going to anoint candidates in four of 11 federal constituencies in Nova Scotia instead of going through the messy, unpredictable and possibly embarrassing—What if they held a nominating convention and nobody ran?—process of democratically choosing them, I was curious.
Who decides whether a riding gets to hold its own local nominating convention or is simply instructed to accept a national headquarters handpicked and packaged candidate? How do they—whoever they are—make that decision? How do these choosers actually choose who will make a good local candidate? How do they vet the candidates to make sure the person they pick is acceptable to the locals (who will have to campaign on their behalf), and that she or he hasn’t got a criminal record or an anti-Stephen Harper blogging spouse or some other albatross around their neck?
Who better to call than Batherson, a veteran Tory operative whose day job is a managing partner of Colour, a prominent local PR and advertising firm? Press reports last week had described Batherson as the national party’s “spokesman” in Nova Scotia and, in fact, he’d been quoted on numerous occasions talking about the issue of the party’s anointed candidates.
When I called him on Tuesday, Sept. 9, Batherson cheerfully said he’d be pleased to answer my questions, but not at that exact moment. He was busy. (He was, though I didn’t know how busy at the time. Rosamond Luke, the party’s chosen candidate for Halifax, had just resigned after word leaked out that she had a criminal record… Ooops!) Could it wait? Could I call back the next day at noon?
Sure, I said.
At 11:30 on Wednesday, Batherson called me. He’d been talking to the “national campaign office,” he said and it had been agreed that the national folks should be the one to answer my questions.
Did the national campaign office tell you not to talk to me?
No, Batherson said. It had just been decided—beware of passive construction—that it would be best if the answers came from party headquarters.
Who in headquarters had told him that, I wondered? It seemed like a simple question to me, but it was the question that led to Batherson’s interminable humming and hawing, followed by the answer that he wouldn’t answer.
So who should I talk to at headquarters then? Well, he really couldn’t say. He couldn’t! Eventually, he did give me the names of three different party flacks at headquarters, each of whom had already been quoted not answering reporters questions about the anointed candidates.
What’s your official job in the national campaign, I asked? I figured I should at least describe him correctly in my post. That’s just Journalism 101. For some reason, however, he seemed taken aback by the question. It took another minute and a half for him to tell me that he had no official role. He was just, uh, you know, helping out. As a volunteer.
Batherson is no fool. He’s got a reputation for being easygoing and generally helpful to reporters. He was press secretary to former Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm and he’s a senior PR guy with one of the biggest and most respected public relations firms in the region. He knows his way around politics and PR. So why has he turned into a fumble-mouth on this one?
Given that he is a PR professional, I ask, what advice would he have given a client about how to handle a situation like the anointed candidate mess.
“That’s a very good question,” Rob said quickly. But of course he didn’t answer it either.
***PS— If you want to know what really happened in the Rosamond Luke case, allnovascotia.com, the business web site, has an excellent backgrounder on the subject today written by its political reporter Brian Flinn. Unfortunately, allnovacotia.com is a subscription website so it’s not easily available to readers.
But the Cliff Notes version of Flinn’s story is simply that the national headquarters—panicked that the local party didn’t have a candidate in place—hastily decided to appoint Luke without even asking local party members about her. It didn’t take locals long to unearth their new candidate’s criminal record (which, in fairness, stems from nothing more than a messy divorce). Rather than admit they’d screwed up, the national party brass “insisted on secrecy” and concocted the b-s story that Luke was resigning because she couldn’t take time off from work to campaign.
And so it goes.
PPS—If you followed the national media, you’d know that Harper’s Tory re-election campaign got off to a “seamless” start this week.
Which is why you shouldn't bother to follow the national media.