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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 media availabilities. 

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 room. 

"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 meeting. 

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. 

: Related Links

> Read the transcript from the March 24 meeting between the Press Gallery and representatives from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Office

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