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To an outside observer, it must have seemed terribly insensitive: When Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a press conference in Calgary to comment on a train derailment in Quebec where many lives were lost, reporters chose to question him about a spending scandal in the Senate.
A similar spectacle occurred a few weeks earlier when Mr. Harper addressed the media following international meetings in Europe. That prompted a venting of outrage from Majory LeBreton who had yet to announce her decision to step down as Leader of the Government in the Senate.
"The Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland at the wrap-up of the G8, and our public broadcaster (the CBC), so concerned about their new little star, asks a question – not about the trade talks; not about the serious situation in Syria; not about the dynamics of the G8, which ended up with a positive communiqué on Syria – oh no; Terry Milewski had to ask the Prime Minister about someone insulting their shiny little pony, Justin Trudeau," Ms. LeBreton told the Senate during the daily Question Period in that chamber.
"To make matters worse, Daniele Hamamdjian from CTV had the same opportunity to ask a meaningful question about the G8, the situation in Syria or the status of the trade talks – oh no; she had to ask the Prime Minister about Senator (Mike) Duffy and Nigel Wright (Mr. Harper's former chief of staff who wrote a cheque for $90,000 so Mr. Duffy could pay back improperly claiming living expenses). She said to the Prime Minister that he said he had been clear on this but that she, Daniele Hamamdjian, thought that he has been unclear," Ms. LeBreton told her Senate colleagues. "These are the kinds of questions we get from our so-called national media travelling to a world event where world leaders are present."
But Ms. LeBreton knows, as every Parliamentary reporter knows, that the Prime Minister has not scheduled a news conference in Ottawa to address these issues.
For years, the only access that Parliamentary reporters have been given to Mr. Harper is when he is on an out-of-town trip or when a foreign dignitary pays a visit to the Centre Block. And even in those cases, the media are often allowed a combined total of two questions, one in English and one in French.
What that means is that reporters from all the various outlets must get together in advance of the availability with Mr. Harper and come to a consensus about what two issues on their collective agendas must be broached. The decision is usually made to go with whatever national story has been dominating headlines – even if than means forcing a president or prime minister of a foreign country to stand by while the Prime Minister wades through embarrassing domestic matters.
It was not always like that. Under the previous governments, Press Gallery members were invited to the third floor of the Centre Block after cabinet meetings which meant there were weekly opportunities to grill the prime minister or any of his ministers.
That ended when the Conservatives took power.
Today, a minister will speak to a reporter only when it is in the minister's interests to do so. There is little or no opportunity to challenge members of cabinet who have found themselves in hot water.
Requests to speak with a cabinet minister are almost always denied, even on mundane issues. Questions that reporters want to put to them receive responses from communications staff – usually sent by e-mail so they can be vetted by the Privy Council and the Prime Minister's Office.
And it's not just political questions that get that treatment. Even the most routine query of a government department takes hours – and sometimes days – to garner a response and the answers are often less than satisfactory.
But reporters have themselves, in part, to blame.
Reporters have become complacent in accepting e-mailed and late non-responses from both departments and ministerial staff.
Reporters relinquished their ability to talk to ministers and the Prime Minister after cabinet meetings after only the briefest of fights.
Some outlets, including The Globe and Mail, refused to ask questions of the Prime Minister when he insisted the names of questioners be put on a list that could be vetted to exclude those who might be inclined to raise a topic that was problematic for the government. But reporters gave up after a couple of years. There aren't many opportunities to ask questions of Mr. Harper in any event.
The good news for the Prime Minister is this is not a major concern for large numbers of Canadians. After an election campaign in 2011 in which reporters complained repeatedly about their limited access to Mr. Harper, the Conservatives won their first majority government.
But the consequence of this type of communications strategy is that the Prime Minister must occasionally wade into domestic muck during foreign visits. He may – to Ms. LeBreton's dismay – have to answer questions of a political nature while abroad. And, when he wants to offer comforting words to victims of a horrendous tragedy, he may find himself instead dealing with the uncomfortable issues that he left back in Ottawa.
Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.