Bill C-51, Jenni Byrne, and the “reality-based community”

Reading the Globe’s best attempt at a profile of Jenni Byrne today, I was struck by how resolutely on-message the woman is.

Byrne, for those who don’t know – and she’s done her best to make sure that most people don’t – is the Karl Rove to Stephen Harper’s George “Dubya” Bush, the secret strategist behind the throne, the master of messaging and spinning and damage controlling.

In stark contrast to Rove, however, Byrne’s name is unfamiliar to all but the most die-hard politicos. She declined repeated requests for an interview with the Globe (although she did dispatch people loyal to her to provide quotes for the story and to rebut specific criticisms on her behalf). Her Twitter feed is a mix of anodyne hockey-related posts and retweets of government propaganda.

Rove, by contrast, was quite public about his influence, and become a fixture on Fox News. On Election Night in 2012, he very publicly (and somewhat suspiciously, given the history) tried to cast doubt on Fox’s projection that Obama had won Ohio and the presidency. He even went on Colbert.

Karl Ham Rove and Stephen Colbert talking some serious policy

But their methods are strikingly similar.

Any discussion of Karl Rove would be incomplete without reference to perhaps his most famous quote, one initially made without attribution in an interview with Ron Suskind, which perfectly encapsulates his image-is-everything approach to politics (my bold throughout this article):

The aide [later identified as Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

When I compare Byrne to Rove, it’s this quote that I have in mind above all else.

That and the ill-tempered-ness. (It’s telling that a majority of people who spoke to the Globe about Byrne were only willing to do so on condition of anonymity.)

Let’s peruse a few key quotes from the Globe’s profile-from-a-distance together, shall we?

There is a photo that Ms. Byrne has been known to pull out during high-level meetings and pass around. It shows a little girl proudly standing alongside her father, over a dead deer he has just shot. Her point is that these are the sorts of people who tend not to be seen or heard within the Ottawa bubble, but who need to be top-of-mind for Conservatives. And that, as the girl in the photo, she speaks for them…

It has been about two decades since Ms. Byrne, now 38, left Fenelon Falls, where she grew up. But the Eastern Ontario town of about 1,800 people – the kind of conservative bedrock where guns are good, soldiers are revered, government is viewed with suspicion, and criminals are seen as in need of severe punishment – still very much defines her…

She is not, by any stretch, a wonk. Her specialty is operations – making things run properly, and holding people to account – and she has little interest in long policy debates. But during stints in the Prime Minister’s Office, as issues-management director and a deputy chief of staff, she has helped to shape daily messaging. In recent years, even when working for the Conservative Party rather than the government, she has usually gone to the morning meeting between Mr. Harper and his senior staff. The PM sometimes turns to her for a gut check, and even when he doesn’t, she often inserts herself into the debate.

“Part of her thing is a constant sobriety check,” says Yaroslav Baran, a former communications officer for Mr. Harper, who worked with Ms. Byrne. “What are they talking about at the Tim Hortons in Fenelon Falls?”

What indeed are they talking about in Fenelon Falls?

Never mind the question of how people are doing in Fenelon Falls (where nearly 13% of the adult population doesn’t have a high-school diploma and employment is concentrated in low-wage trades and service jobs). Never mind the reality. What’s the perception?

And this is the woman who has the ear of the Prime Minister – who, in large measure, helped to orchestrate his rise to power. Claiming to speak for Joe Six-Pack, she pushes Harper to take the course of action she thinks will sell best to the common folk – and never mind what will actually help them.

Which, on both counts, perfectly explains this:

The Conservative government’s bill to make some convicted killers spend life in prison with no parole – introduced with great fanfare in early March – is now unlikely to pass before the coming federal election…

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the new legislation at a public event in Toronto, inviting family members of murder victims, including Sharon Rosenfeldt, whose son Daryn was killed by Clifford Olson in 1981, and Ed and Sylvie Teague, whose daughter Jennifer (Ms. Teague’s stepdaughter) was killed in 2005 in Ottawa.

On March 11, the government introduced the bill in the Commons. Since then, it has shown little interest in the proposed legislation.

I bet that got ’em talkin’ down at the Timmy’s in Fenelon Falls, eh? Movin’, innit? Appearing with murder victims’ families like that, talking all tough on crime?

And then no follow-through.

And I say, thank the gods, because it was a terrible idea, and, as the article points out, it likely would have been found unconstitutional anyway.

But the thing is, the optics of advocating for the rights of murderers is just lousy. Never mind that the purpose of a modern criminal justice system is supposed to be rehabilitation, and never mind that when one examines the factors informing crime it quickly becomes nonsensical to take an overly punitive approach to criminals (there’s that pesky “reality-based community” sticking its nose into the picture again). It’s all too easy to smear any opponent of this bill as being pro-murderer, as being “soft on crime”.

So easy, in fact, that passing the bill turns out to be entirely unnecessary. Merely making the ritualistic announcement of its introduction is enough to get ’em talkin’ down at Timmy’s.

(And, Byrne hopes, voting accordingly.)

Or we could consider the example of the RCMP and its INSET (Integrated National Security Enforcement Team) program. As I’ve documented in this space, INSET is a hybrid Mountie-CSIS-CBSA-unspecified-other-agencies team which creates and then neutralizes national security threats. Their most celebrated example, the entrapment of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, is reaching its culmination, as the trial of the hapless pair goes to the jury this week. (See my earlier article for a summary of their case.)

The defence insisted, in its closing address, that the former heroin addicts were groomed by undercover Mounties, were manipulated into agreeing to the plot, and were wholly incapable of achieving or carrying out any act of terrorism on their own.

Nuttall and his wife, Amanda Korody, were damaged by poverty and stricken with drug addiction, said [defence lawyer Marilyn] Sandford. The arrival of a key undercover officer feigning friendship injected meaning into their otherwise isolated lives, as well as money, nice clothes, spiritual guidance and attention, which all contributed to the pair feeling important and validated, she added.

She went on to remind the jury how Nuttall had said in covert video recordings that he feared for his and Korody’s lives at the hands of their supposed new friends.

“Controlling relationships have as their hallmark strategic manipulations of love and fear,” Sandford told attentive jury members.

“It’s not inconsistent that John Nuttall loved and feared these people.”

By contrast, the Crown’s final presentation was so hyperbolically hysterical that the judge considered declaring a mistrial over it:

With the jury out of earshot and before members began deliberating on the fate of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody on terror charges, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bruce said she would have called a mistrial had the proceedings not been so protracted and difficult…

In his closing submissions, Crown lawyer Peter Eccles played a 45-minute highlight reel for the jury of what the Crown considered the most important video and audio evidence shown throughout the four-month trial.

The compilation closed with footage of an actual pressure-cooker explosion demolishing a surrounding ring of plywood boards in a controlled detonation staged and filmed by police.

“That dramatic video production … took my breath away with its impropriety,” Bruce told Eccles.

“I don’t know how I can bring the jury from a state of inflammatory to a state of neutral after you have created this American-television view of this trial.”

It’s no surprise that the Crown is going all-out to secure a conviction – after all, the RCMP, which has been “forced” to transfer over 600 staff away from investigating things like financial crime in order to adequately cover national security issues, devoted 240 officers to the sting which led to Nuttall and Korody’s arrests. The plot they in large part created went a long way to justifying INSET’s existence.

But it still wasn’t enough for the Mounties, who felt their funding levels were inadequate.

Perhaps that’s why they ran their raid at Montreal’s Pierre-Elliot-Trudeau Airport last week:

Harper was in Montreal on Thursday to announce additional resources for the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency in the fight against terrorism…

The RCMP will receive $150.4 million in new money over five years, beginning in 2015-16, and $46.8 million a year after, with the money going to help the Mounties conduct terrorism-related criminal investigations.

The border-services agency will get $5.4 million over five years and $1.1 million annually in subsequent years, with some of the funds earmarked for identifying high-risk travellers.

Harper was speaking at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, where 10 youths were arrested last weekend after being suspected of wanting to leave Canada to join jihadist groups.

Given INSET’s history of exaggeration in the service of securing recognition and funding, the public has every reason to be skeptical of the RCMP’s assertions about the intentions of these ten young people.

This is not to say that the RCMP is obeying orders from the Prime Minister’s office. Not in any direct way. But senior Mounties know who’s buttering their bread, and they also know that time may be running out to cash in on the Conservatives. A major funding announcement immediately prior to an election campaign, along with a sneaky bill to provide the RCMP with retroactive immunity for illegal records destruction, suggest a serious mutual-back-scratching-type relationship here.

And again, we see the triumph of perception over reality, the privileging of immediate-impressions-based conversations at the local Timmy’s over the actual impact on actual people’s lives, a callous disregard for the effects of policy in favour of the policy’s political impact. Again, we see Jenni Byrne’s influence.

As a final thought, I’ll leave this statement from our Orwellian “Minister of Public Safety” Steven Blaney on the Montreal arrests:

While I cannot comment on specific operational matters, I commend the RCMP and the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team for their continued vigilance in keeping our streets and communities safe from the ongoing global terror threat.

The international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada. We will not sit on the sidelines but instead join our allies to degrade and defeat ISIS. That is why our Government introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 [that’d be C-51, if yer keepin’ score at home] to give our police forces, including the RCMP, SQ and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal the tools they need to better protect Canadians against the ever-evolving jihadi terrorist threats.

So given the HarperCons’ proclivity, spurred on by Jenni Byrne’s constant regard for the way that perception creates reality, to enact policies for solely political reasons, does it seem at all likely that the odious, unconstitutional, rights-destroying Bill C-51 was introduced and passed in large measure to win votes?

If so, let’s hope it backfires spectacularly and puts the lot of them out of a job.

In fact, given Byrne’s position as campaign chief for the Conservative Party this fall, the “reality-based community” will have a golden opportunity to weigh in on this whole reality-creating enterprise, and to prove that corporate-coffee-shop chatter is irrelevant when compared to the real importance of real issues.

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