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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to journalists after a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Aug. 6, 2010 (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to journalists after a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Aug. 6, 2010 (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Media Availability

Why Harper wasn't asked about census Add to ...

So here's how things unfolded at the Rideau Hall press availability with Stephen Harper after his mini cabinet shuffle Friday. Readers can judge for themselves what they think of the process.

It was Mr. Harper's first time taking questions from journalists in more than 30 days. Assembled reporters were informed the Prime Minister would answer only two questions from English-speaking media and two from French-speaking media.

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Faced with limited opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister, journalists talked amongst themselves to see who would ask Mr. Harper questions. This is common Press Gallery practice in these circumstances. Reporters do not always agree to participate in these pooled questions and are free to ask for their own chance to pose a different query.

A group of reporters from CBC, Postmedia (formerly Canwest), The Globe and Mail and other outlets discussed how they would divvy up the two English questions. They also consulted with French-speaking colleagues to ensure there wasn't overlap in what was being asked.

It was agreed journalists from CBC and Postmedia would ask the English questions. Roughly speaking, these were as follows:

1) Regarding Mr. Harper's repeated statements about avoiding an "unnecessary election," where is the evidence that opposition parties are champing at the bit to trigger one?

2) On the controversial decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census, does Mr. Harper in hindsight feel it was a mistake?

Postmedia reporter Norma Greenaway approached Prime Minister's Office deputy director of communications Mike White and said she wanted to ask a question. She was the first name to be placed on the list Mr. White was preparing. She also told him that CBC reporter Terry Milewski wanted to ask a question.

Mr. White told The Globe that while he wrote down Ms. Greenaway's name first, he can't recall whose name he put down second. It may have been a reporter from the Hill Times, an independent Parliament Hill newspaper.

While this was taking place, Sun Media bureau chief David Akin also requested his own question. As did veteran CTV journalist Craig Oliver. This is customary when not all reporters agree on what should be in the pooled questions.

The French-speaking media submitted names to ask French language questions. These were Joël-Denis Bellavance, bureau chief for Montreal's La Presse, and Stéphane Leclerc of Radio-Canada.

During the Rideau Hall question-and-answer session, Mr. White signalled to reporters to tell them who was going to be allowed to ask questions.

CTV's Mr. Oliver was picked to go first. He asked the Prime Minister if he was worried about the Conservative Party's apparent decline in the polls and whether the government was planning a second economic stimulus package.

Two French-language questions followed: on John Baird's appointment as Government House leader and Ottawa's plans for future health care spending.

Finally, Sun Media's Mr. Akin was selected by Mr. White to ask the second English question.

Mr. Akin asked the Prime Minister about the fact that federal money is being used to support a Canadian theatre festival that features the play Homegrown . The production focuses on Shareef Abdelhaleem, who was convicted for his role in the "Toronto 18" terror plot.

That was it for questions.

Neither Ms. Greenaway nor Mr. Milewski got to quiz the Prime Minister. This meant, among other things, that Mr. Harper has still not answered a media question about the census controversy that's blown up in recent weeks.

Queried later about how the PMO decides which outlets will ask questions, Mr. White said his office doesn't merely follow the chronological order on the list of requests it gathers

"We do not do first come first serve. We never have," Mr. White told The Globe.

Mr. White said if the PMO awarded questions based on who asked first, it could lead to favouritism towards one medium - print, TV or radio - or one language.

He said the Tories try to balance the questions awarded to ensure there's a just distribution by medium and language.

The PMO official also noted he didn't know that some English-speaking reporters had collectively submitted two of the questions.

"No one ever told me that," Mr. White said, suggesting had he known that, it would be "a different story."

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

 

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