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The Right to Authentic Political Communication

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
Increasingly, governments communicate strategically with the public for political advantage, seeking as Christopher Hood describes it to “avoid blame” and “claim credit” for the actions and decisions of governance. In particular, Strategic Political Communication (SPC) is becoming the dominant form of political communication between Canada’s executive branch of government and the public, both during elections and as part of a “permanent campaign” to gain and maintain public support as means to political power. This dissertation argues that SPC techniques interfere with the public’s ability to know how they are governed, and therefore undermines the central right of citizens in a democracy to legitimate elected representation by scrutinizing government and holding it to account. Realization of that right depends on an authentic political communication process that provides citizens with an understanding of government. By seeking to hide or downplay blameworthy actions, SPC undermines the legitimation role public discourse plays in a democracy. The central questions that shaped this dissertation are first, why citizens in a democracy have a right to understand government and second, what role does communication play in realizing that right? The arguments rely on national and international rights jurisprudence; communication rights theory, in particular concerning communicative action (Habermas); authentic deliberation (Dryzek); arguments for and against critical citizenship (Tully, Norris and Schumpeter); and political studies, including deliberative democracy and legitimization of government (Dewey). Methodologies include multi-disciplinary literature reviews; primary records obtained through the Access to Information Act (ATIA); media monitoring; database analysis and process tracking through elite interviews with scholars, government actors and political journalists. Chapter two considers rights history, philosophy, and jurisprudence in arguing that access to authentic information is both a right and is essential to the informed, reasonable public deliberations (Young) central to democratic legitimation (Dunn). Chapter three considers SPC, including the positivity bias of partisan SPC actors, and the countering “negativity bias” (Hood) of political journalists. Chapters four and five examine SPC practices of politically-appointed partisan staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) of Stephen Harper. Chapter six concerns secrecy, and resistance to Canada’s ATIA. The conclusion makes recommendations for greater transparency and accountability.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Anderson, Peter
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