Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked the return of Parliament with a speech to his caucus, highlighting his government’s accomplishments and saying a trade deal with the European Union is close, but declining to let reporters in to cover the remarks.
The speech to MPs and senators on Parliament Hill on Wednesday morning had been expected to preview the Throne Speech, set for 4:30 p.m. ET, in laying out the government’s direction for the second half of its mandate.
Cameras were to be allowed inside, but the networks largely refused to film the speech without reporters present. The only signal that it had begun came from Twitter, where an account of the speech was then released through Mr. Harper’s account.
That version said Canada will “soon complete negotiations’ on a trade pact with the European Union, but offered no other details and said Mr. Harper wouldn’t reveal what’s in the Speech from the Throne. It outlined the government’s accomplishments, and took shots at the NDP and Liberals, saying the government has no plans for “legalizing drugs” or a “$20-billion-dollar carbon tax.”
It did not specify his plans for the coming session of Parliament, saying on Twitter only that “despite our accomplishments, we will not rest here. We must go further and we must go faster.”
The Prime Minister’s Office – the powerful nerve centre for the Conservative government – announced on Tuesday that it would let cameras into the speech, but no reporters. In the past, it has allowed both.
In turn, TV networks agreed to send cameras into the speech unless reporters were allowed in, too. The PMO didn’t agree. That meant most cameras refused to go inside on Wednesday morning. Sun News abstained, agreeing to send a camera without a reporter.
When Mr. Harper opened his caucus meeting before the summer break, both reporters and cameras were allowed inside. But the speech came as the Senate spending scandal was brewing. The Prime Minister gave a speech that barely addressed it – steering clear of commenting on Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff who wrote a cheque to Senator Mike Duffy. Reporters, including one from Sun News, at that time shouted questions after the Prime Minister’s speech ended.
The PMO directive issued Tuesday, barring reporters from the Wednesday speech, appears to have been an effort to avoid that happening once again, but is the latest in a line of clashes between the media and the PMO, which allows very limited access to the Prime Minister, who typically takes two questions during his press conferences, which are rare.
Beyond the shouted questions during the last caucus meeting, other recent cases have seen journalists spar with the PMO for the chance to ask a question. In one case earlier this month, CTV said one of its camera operators had been barred from accompanying the Prime Minister on a trip after the camera operator shouted an impromptu question at Mr. Harper during another event. The camera operator had already been accredited to cover the trip, and the PMO appeared set to revoke that. But when the news broke, the PMO said no accredited media would be banned from the trip.
In another incident, during an August trip through Canada’s North, a reporter from the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper, tried to grab a microphone to ask Mr. Harper a question about foreign investment rules. It triggered a tussle involving a PMO staffer that ended with the journalist being hauled away by the RCMP. He wasn’t detained or charged.
According to the PMO version of Wednesday’s speech – essentially, a written statement released by his office one tweet at a time – Mr. Harper outlined the laws passed so far by government, “a record to be very proud of,” his office wrote on Twitter.
The Twitter account was heavy on Conservative themes, and reminded the Conservative caucus of scrapping the Wheat Board and the long-gun registry and “standing up for our men and women in uniform, by giving them the equipment they need and the respect they deserve.”
The Twitter account of the speech released by Mr. Harper’s office also said the government is on track to balance the budget by 2015.
“Debt is low and deficits are falling. Businesses are creating opportunities. More Canadians are working now than ever before,” Mr. Harper’s office wrote online. “...We lead the G-7 in job creation. We lead the G-7 on the strength of our balance sheet. We lead the G-7 in political stability. But, for Canada to prosper through the challenges of this uncertain world, we must do more. We must keep our eye on the long term.”
The PMO later sent the text of Mr. Harper’s prepared remarks to the press gallery.
The Speech from the Throne is set for 4:30 p.m. ET Wednesday in the Senate chamber. The Conservatives have signalled the speech will put a new emphasis on consumers, setting new rules on cable TV packages and airline reservations, but the speech isn’t expected to address the ongoing Senate spending controversy, which has led to an RCMP investigation of three Senators appointed by Mr. Harper as well as a wide-spread Auditor-General review of all senators’ spending.