PMO proposes secret cabinet meetings
to avoid press scrutiny
[PoliticsWatch Updated 6:00 p.m. March 27, 2006]
OTTAWA — A
meeting between representatives of the Prime Minister's Office and
the Parliamentary Press Gallery last week failed to resolve a
simmering dispute between the two parties and raised new fears about
tighter restrictions on reporters.
On Monday, the Parliamentary Press Gallery released a
transcript of a meeting its executive members held with PMO
communication staff Friday morning to iron out some logistical
issues and complaints about access to cabinet ministers.
> Read the transcript from the
March 24 meeting between the Press Gallery and representatives from
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Office
In a memo sent to Gallery members, Emmanuelle Latraverse, president
of the Gallery and a Radio Canada correspondent, said the meeting
failed to resolve any of the issues and raised new concerns.
Latraverse said in an interview with PoliticsWatch the government is
considering no longer announcing cabinet meetings.
Currently, the Press Gallery and the PMO are involved in a dispute
over a PMO plan to not allow reporters to wait outside of cabinet
meetings on the third floor of the Centre Block where two
microphones are stationed for scrumming cabinet ministers. The
practice has been in place since the 1970s.
The PMO has cited a number of reasons why it does not want reporters
outside the room after cabinet, but reporters are suspicious that
moving the scrums to a lower level of the Centre Block would allow
cabinet ministers extra escape routes to dodge reporters.
The PMO doesn't have control over where reporters can be in the
Centre Block. That comes under the authority of the Clerk of the
House of Commons.
If an event is announced, then reporters can set up microphones
outside the room. But the Press Gallery believes the PMO may hold
meetings without publicizing them to prevent the media from setting
up on the third floor.
According to the transcript of the meeting, when asked if she
planned to publicize cabinet meetings, Sandra Buckler, Prime
Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications, said she was
"not sure yet."
Buckler said she wanted to move forward by announcing cabinet
meetings and holding the scrums on a lower floor outside in the
foyer of the House of Commons.
The reporters have mixed feelings about the move because many are
also happy with the amount of access Harper has provided in his
Unlike former prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, who
tended to take only six or seven questions after cabinet, Harper
holds full half-hour press conferences outside the foyer, with the
chamber as a backdrop.
According to the transcript, Buckler also cites safety concerns as a
reason why the PMO did not want reporters outside the cabinet
"Then there's the safety element. I mean it's crowded up on the third floor. There's a lot more media than there were say 30 years
ago," she said.
"I think it's crowded upstairs. It's chaotic. It's mayhem. It's not focussed and I think this government is very keen to provide access in a way that is safe and also people can hear and understand what's at play."
Originally Harper's staff cited the need for "more space"
for moving reporters down a floor.
But the Globe and Mail recently reported on a leaked e-mail
outlining the government's communication strategy to put a tight
leash on a largely inexperienced group of cabinet ministers.
That e-mail mentions moving the microphones and says, "Set-up for post cabinet scrum is intentional -- Ministers have been told they are not allowed to speculate on future direction of government."
One Hill veteran who read the transcript said the PMO is making some
"weak excuses" for all the changes.
"The safety issue - that's crazy," he said.
Interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham said he never felt his safety was
in jeopardy when the scrums were held outside the cabinet room on
the third floor.
"I don't think it's a matter of safety," he said. "I
think it's a matter of inconvenience of having to express opinions
on issues at a moment when one would like to control the environment
when you're expressing those opinions.
"It might be the safety of ideas rather than the person that
one's concerned about."
In the meeting with the Press Gallery, Buckler admitted that many
ministers are still learning their portfolio and that is one of the
reasons for limited access.
"I would argue that you will have more access than you could possibly imagine once the cabinet ministers are comfortable in their portfolio and they start doing their job here in the
House," she promised.
Buckler herself is new to the job, having replaced Harper's former
director of communications William Stairs just six weeks ago.
During the meeting, Buckler was not clear on what the National Press
Theatre was, was unaware of a recent meeting between Harper and the
president of Haiti and said she had never seen an open microphone
scrum set up before.
Buckler would not be interviewed for this story, saying she would
not comment on process.
She said she looked forward to having a productive relationship with
the national media and referred to the transcript of the
The Press Gallery also said they are concerned that the PMO will:
> Reserve the right not to inform Canadians of the visit of foreign heads of state;
> No longer systematically grant access to a pool reporter at photo opportunities between the
prime ministers and his guests.
The Press Gallery plans to decide its next step when it holds a
meeting next Friday.
On Monday, Latraverse said she planned to make another written
complaint to the PMO about not allowing pool reporters into a
photo-op with the prime minister on Monday morning.
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