I can't recall the last time Prime Minister Stephen Harper took questions in Ottawa from the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG) at an open-ended press conference. He took a question or two from the PPG when Obama was in town and I think he took a few at the National Press Theatre when Melissa Fung was released from captivity in Afghanistan.
But it's been well over a year — maybe even two? — since Harper took 20 or 30 minutes worth of questions from the Ottawa-based media. His predecessor Paul Martin would stand and scrum for 10 minutes or so once a week after cabinet meetings on the Hill. Martin's scrums were not often great in terms of quality but there was a lot of quantity. Now we're not even told when cabinet is meeting and we're banned from that floor in the House of Commons where the meetings are held!
Now don't get me wrong: Harper still does a lot of press. He's been on FOX News and CNBC in the U.S., was on Indian television last weekend, and whenever he travels in Canada, he invariably does 20 minutes or so of questions with the reporters in whatever cities he's travelling in. During a House of Commons break week — when the PM and all MPs tend to travel a bit — he might do three 20-30 minute press conferences.
Personally and professionally, I don't want to do anything to dissuade the PMO from that part of their media strategy. I'm always interested to hear, for example, what Chinese-language media in Vancouver ask the PM. Travelling with the PM last week in India, theIndo-Canadian journalists with us had different issues they wanted to talk about than we did. When he was in Winnipeg during the last election campaign, a local reporter wanted to know what kind of vegetable or fruit Harper imagined himself to be. All good, if you ask me. No question is ever a stupid question.
More questions from more people in different places and more answers from our politicians are an absolute good. The questions help us all learn more about the people and the regions they come from. The answers help us learn more about our political leaders.
But I think we'd be better served if Harper took more questions from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Don't get me wrong here: I'm not arguing that the PPG has more of a right to ask questions than others (they don't!) and I'm not arguing that PPG members would ask better questions. But I would argue that we might learn a bit more about Harper if the PPG got to ask a few more questions. That's because PPG members tend to follow a narrative or thread of a particular story over the long haul and will ask questions based more on historical context than the questions he receives from reporters where he's travelling. PPG members tend to seek nuance and information that goes beyond the "talking points" and, we hope, gets into candour and personal introspection. I covered, for example, both last fall's APEC meeting in Peru as the world was going into recession and this year's APEC meeting in Singapore as the world was ready to come out of recession. Had I the opportunity, I would have been very interested in hearing Harper's assessments of the differences in the two meetings and how his pitch for financial system reform was received then and now. I'm interested in these things because I'm betting that the readers of the newspapers I write for are interested. But as we have only a limited number of questions, it's tough to get to that point in the conversation with Harper because we have to ask about the top story of the day (see below – How Do We Decide What To Ask Harper).
This limited access is doubly frustrating because Harper is among the best politicians I've ever seen at handling a room full of journalists. He's not "hiding" from the PPG because he's likely to be tripped up. I've only seen Harper "tripped up" by a PPG member once and that was Allan Woods (then working for Canwest, now at the Star) when he led off the 2006 election campaign coverage by asking Harper if he loved Canada. The answer, of course, is yes. But Harper stumbled to get that out and it was a telling moment that, though he's tremendously well briefed on most policy files, he, at that time, still had trouble just being a regular guy. (He is a much, much better politician nowadays when it comes to connecting to everyday Canadians.)
Instead, when Harper does 30 minutes with the PPG, there are 3,4 maybe five decent stories that will emerge from his remarks – a result of the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, he's very well briefed on just about anything you want to ask him.
All of this is a long way of getting around to the rather depressing "Questions Scorecard" for the recent overseas trip of the prime minister.
I went with him (and, like all news organizations, we paid for our travel) as he spent 2 days in Singapore and 3 days in India. Several members of the PPG travelled with him but there were plenty of reporters with him who do not work in Ottawa.
We were on the same plane for 27 hours travelling to Singapore and 20 hours travelling from India to Ottawa. We did not speak to the Harper at all on the 2 full days we spent together in the plane.
In Singapore, Harper took 2 questions on our first day there (1 in English, 1 in French.) On our second and last day there, he took 6 questions. (4 in English and 2 in French.) Of the 8 questions put to him in Singapore, 5 were from PPG members.
Over 3 days in India, Harper took just 3 questions, 2 from PPG members and 1 from a Indo-Canadian journalist. At a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, the Canadian media — about 15 of us? — got all of one question. The Indian media were allowed 1 question as well. This severely restricted press conference was, apparently, more a function of Singh's aversion to taking reporters' questions. (He never does, we were told) Moreover, Singh's PR people who organized the conference insisted we ask 1 question of only one leader. Both the Canadian interrogator (the Globe's John Ibbitson was chosen in this case) and the Indian reporter ignored that odd restriction and asked both leaders to answer their questions.
The next day, as we wrapped up our time in India, we got two more questions.
How do we decide what to ask Harper?
Some of my Twitter correspondents, incidentally, asked how it is decided who gets to ask the question when only have one or two. Here's that answer:
There's a general convention that's developed among the Canadian reporters that, when there are more reporters who want to ask questions than the PMO will allow, then we huddle up and try to come to some consensus first, on the question or questions and then, second, on the interrogator. And that's how, for example, Ibbitson ended up as the interrogator at the Harper/Singh press conference. The question was one which the group of us settled on and we left it to John to phrase it.
That's quite a contrast to the White House press corps. When Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs calls on a White House reporter, that reporter is asking whatever question it is that reporter is interested in asking. There is no thought to canvassing others if there is a chance for only one or two questions that day.
Tags: journalism, stephen harper, parliamentary press gallery