Carolyn Stewart-Olsen leaves the PMO . . . for the Senate

The exit of communications staff from the Prime Minister’s Office continues, as word went out yesterday of the departure of most significant figure yet in the ongoing attrition.

Carolyn Stewart-Olsen has been at Stephen Harper’s side since the outset of his candidacy for leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. Most recently, she held the most powerful communications post in the PMO: senior adviser and director of strategic communication. A good photo of her is here, alongside the National Post’s short item.

“Strategic” is, in fact, the word that probably best describes her. While I was editor of The London Free Press (2000-2006), I dealt with her numerous times as I covered Harper’s ascent to the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party and his quest to become Prime Minister. In the early days, at least, every request for access to Harper, whether by phone or in person, took a path straight through Stewart-Olsen. She monitored all interviews, her voice recorder running right alongside those of journalists. In editorial board meetings, she hovered protectively like a mother bear over her cub. And when a cost-benefit analysis showed no significant return in exchange for Harper’s time and effort, especially at mid-sized news outlets, the interview or meeting or phone conversation just didn’t happen. Other priorities intervened.

This is not to diminish Stewart-Olsen’s role or skill. In fact, she was very good at doing exactly what she was supposed to do: guard media access to Harper and ensure that every investment in time and energy got maximum returns and adhered to strategy. There was, however, a certain Cold War tone in her approach to news media. Skepticism and suspicion were the common currencies of the relationship. That fact of life is not unusual in situations where news media and their sources are positioned to serve different functions. What made dealing with Stewart-Olsen so different was that the calculation and utility were so raw and bald.

When the Prime Minister’s Office tried to take a more commanding approach two years ago to the way news media on Parliament Hill could ask questions (see the video excerpt, below), it wasn’t difficult to guess which forces inside the PMO were magnifying and strategically acting on Harper’s already ingrained distrust of news media and their function.

Today’s Globe and Mail editorial, however, probably has it right: Outside the narrow cordons of Ottawa’s press corps, the departures of communications staff from Harper’s office are of little public interest. And the turnover there is likely a function of the Prime Minister’s unwavering demand for flawless execution of a tightly scripted communications strategy, combined with the instability of minority government and a looming election. But the departure of the top communicator is worth noticing. Journalists may not always have been pleased by Stewart-Olsen’s style or tactics, but they must, even if grudgingly, acknowledge her clear determination and commitment.

Update (Aug. 27): It turns out Stewart-Olsen’s timing was, shall we say, perfect. She is among those that Harper will appoint to the Senate today. It’s an odd slice of patronage for someone who spent part of her career defending and explaining the Prime Minister’s earlier vow to abolish it.

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