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Transcript of meeting between PMO and Press Gallery officials on March 24, 2006

[PoliticsWatch Posted 5:00 p.m. March 27, 2006]

The following is a transcript of a meeting to iron out issues between the executives of the Press Gallery and the Prime Minister's Office. The Press Gallery insisted the meeting to be on the record in order to dispel any misunderstanding about the issues addressed. The transcript was released by the Parliamentary Press Gallery on Monday March 27, 2006. 

Participating in the meeting were Press Gallery president Emmanuelle Latraverse (Radio Canada), Stephanie Rubec (Sun Media) and Isabelle Rodgrigue (Presse Canadienne).

The PM's Director of Communications Sandra Buckler was accompanied by PMO communication staff  Stéphane Rondeau, Geneviève Desjardins and Christine Csversko. 

The following is an unedited version of the Gallery's transcript. Editorial changes to clarify some points are in brackets and italicized. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: An easy one to start with. The Press Gallery Dinner, just to advise you we'll be mailing the formal invitation to Prime Minister Harper today. The date's been picked for November 4th, the Museum of Civilization again. It was the only date we could get unless we skipped a dinner. So just so you know you'll be getting that in the mail today.

Now as to the purpose of our meeting, as you all know, we've received a number of complaints from our members over the last number of weeks about a number of issues ranging from the way the prime minister's availabilities are handled to the cabinet meetings, lack of access to cabinet ministers, photo ops, and so on. So I'm hoping we can have a frank discussion and if we can't agree on everything at least we'll know where we all stand and we can decide how we're going to proceed from now on.

I thought we'd start with the obvious one which is the prime minister's availabilities. I think everybody is happy about the access we've had to him in terms of time and substance of his answers. I think there's a consensus about this in Ottawa. However, there is a concern about the fact that he's not going to the (National Press Theatre) which has always been the place of choice for prime ministers to come, the main reason being that it's the one place where there is universal and agreed-to simultaneous translation which makes him understandable to all our members. As you know, many of them mostly don't speak French and so usually and so this was kind of a level playing field and it's usually the place of choice because we got to run those press conferences and there's been some serious concern on the part of our members about the fact that a member of your staff picks and chooses who gets to ask questions.

Now have you put an X on the theatre? Is it something you're not going to do? I'm just hoping to hear from you so we can have a discussion on this. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, I hear about seven or eight issues there so maybe you'll let me address them as best as I can. One, I heard from your members that they actually quite enjoy the foyer area because it's more open and accessible and it's not as crowded as the Press Gallery whereas, what is it, is it S130, is that the room? 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: No. 

Sandra Buckler: What's it called, the Charles Lynch, right? Is that what it's called?

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah. 

Sandra Buckler: So we're not adverse going to the Charles Lynch Room. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: No prime minister has ever gone to the Charles Lynch room. 

Sandra Buckler: No, what's the room called? 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: The National Press Theatre. 

Sandra Buckler: The National Press Theatre. That's with the big long table with the flags. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah. 

Sandra Buckler: Yeah. We're not adverse going there but we'd like to have a podium instead of the table. But we, as you probably have noticed, we're a different kind of government and we place a heavy value on communications and we like the visuals and the ability to present the Parliament to Canadians which is one of the main reasons we like going in front of the House. But we understand the issue of translation. We're excited the fact that this prime minister is bilingual and takes questions in French and English. But we also understand that the simultaneous translation issue remains. So I would say that moving forward we're flexible and not committed to not ever going to that room but we'd like to see some changes and it also depends on our announcement. We will retain the option on where we think we best can deliver our message. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: As to the fact that (Harper press secretary Dimitri Soudas) gets to pick and choose who asks the questions, is there some -- I understand the fact that you don't -- no prime minister has ever liked the shouting matches. 

Sandra Buckler: We don't and I don't think it helps -- I don't think it helps ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: And it makes it much harder for him. 

Sandra Buckler: You know if you take yesterday as an example I don't think it helps either side look professional when they're shouting. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: What we're -- there is general concern about the fact that how the list is set up and the fact that your staff gets to run that list. Would it be an acceptable compromise to do like is usually done when premiers come to town or when international conferences happen where instead of having somebody pick and choose the questions you set up a microphone where reporters line up which ensures, you know, an orderly thing where you don't get to ask a question if you're not standing at a microphone which has been kind of a longstanding practice that has usually worked really well, just sort of getting rid of the mayhem. 

Sandra Buckler: I've never seen that. I've never seen that. I've only ever seen the mayhem and then what we do. So when would the lineup happen?

Emmanuelle Latraverse: The Pearson Building when there's press conferences in that main hall, in the auditorium ---

Stephanie Rubec: Auditor general. 

Stephane Rondeau: Auditor general. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: The auditor general's press conferences ---

Stephanie Rubec: Premiers. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: When the premiers are in town. When I was at the UN Conference in November. 

Sandra Buckler: With the prime minister? That's my phone. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: It was the other -- but I mean that's the way like in the big conferences I've gone where there's an open availability there's somebody who kind of directs the microphones. You have one or two and therefore I'm sure some order, you know, to make sure that people get a follow-up or whatever but at least reporters end up -- there is not the sense on the part of reporters that your staff decides who gets to ask questions. And there's been a general concern about that. 

Stephanie Rubec: You eliminate all the screaming that you heard yesterday and other days because the reporters -- whoever gets to the mic first gets to ask a question first. So you're not going to get a bunch of people angry that they know they're not going to get a question in because they know that Dimitri never gives them one. 

Sandra Buckler: I don't know if that's fair. I don't think that's a fair statement. 

Stephanie Rubec: Some people feel that. There have been complaints to that regard. It might not be fair in your eyes but some people have complained to us. 

Sandra Buckler: Some people have told us that they enjoy the fact that they get to get on a list where they wouldn't get on a list in the Gallery or in the press room. So I think there's got to be some give and take here. It can't always be one side versus another. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: But I'm offering you what I think is -- I mean there is concern on the part of members. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, there's concern all around. I don't think it's just one-sided. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: No, I'm not saying it's one-sided. I'm saying that while the Gallery, you know, appreciates that while there are availabilities and so on ---

Sandra Buckler: Yeah, but we answered like 18, 19 questions. I don't understand. 

Stephanie Rubec: Do you have a solution?

Emmanuelle Latraverse: I'm not ---

Sandra Buckler: No, no, I'm just curious to know. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Well, everybody appreciates this and thinks that it makes for better reporting on everybody's part but we're wondering if by setting up an independent microphone where reporters line up then reporters organize between themselves who gets to ask questions and who doesn't. And you still get to run a clean, organized, non-shouting, professional press conference. And so in this sense both sides win. You don't get the whining because somebody didn't get a question and so on. The rules are clear and we feel it might be a good compromise to kind of meeting each other halfway on this. 

Sandra Buckler: Because I've asked Dimitri about his list and he assures me that he rotates and takes -- he just goes downstairs and picks a variety, a number of people. And I've watched -- I think since I've joined the Prime Minister's Office I've watched two media availabilities and they've been very civilized and everyone walked away quite happy. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Well, that's not what we hear. And that's certainly not what happened yesterday. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, yesterday I think there was other issues at play. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: No, but I mean we can debate this forever. You hear from the people who like the way you run things and we get to hear from the people who aren't happy. 

Sandra Buckler: Right on. Yeah. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: That's the nature of the debate. 

Sandra Buckler: Yes. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: I'm just saying in order to sort of make everybody happy and understand their concern about wanting things organized and putting an end to the shouting and all these things. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, everyone looks better. So I think we can agree on that, that it doesn't make anybody look good.

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah, we all agree. So we're bringing forward this idea of the microphones and maybe you didn't know about that it's been used in the past and has consistently worked well and has eliminated the shouting so you can try it, refuse it. I'm just bringing it forward as a good faith compromise here as to how to make everybody happy. 

Sandra Buckler: Okay. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: So that's what we're ---

Sandra Buckler: I'm hearing you. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Good. Next thing, cabinet. Is it a formal decision to try and remove the cameras from the third floor?

Sandra Buckler: I think coming back to our original comment that this is a government that places a high emphasis on communicating directly to people and finding the best opportunity on how to do that. Downstairs in the foyer is a wonderful opportunity to show Canadians their parliament, you know, reconnecting them with the government. And so it is our desire to have the prime minister downstairs as often as possible to talk about issues that are relevant to Canadians. It would be my expectation that if we were to make cabinet meetings public - i.e., send out media advisories and let you know when they take place - that cabinet ministers would be free to come downstairs and talk about issues that matter to them and their files and that's how things in our opinion we'd like to seem them unfold that way. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: What about the fact that it's been -- it's one of the few things that any government of any stripe over the last 30 years has agreed on was a procedure that ensured access. When ministers want to stop, they stopped; when they didn't, they didn't. But this makes for running around different doors of parliament trying to chase after cabinet ministers which is what is inevitably going to happen if you remove the cameras from the third floor.

Sandra Buckler: Well, I think there's a natural -- there's a natural pursuit -- there's a natural pursuit of elected officials which I think is healthy and normal and I think after cabinet when people walk downstairs and there is a mic there where the prime minister will of course do his outs, cabinet ministers will leave the building and they will either talk or not talk whether there's a mic there or not. I don't think the location is the issue. I think it's whether cabinet ministers have something to say and if they don't they won't say anything. 

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. There's a lot more media now than there was say 10 years ago. And I think from a ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Other than a safety issue for your cabinet ministers ---

Sandra Buckler: Well, we also worry about the media. It's very crowded. There's tape ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Well, we'll take care of our own safety issues. 

Sandra Buckler: If you're going to let me -- if you're going to have a discussion you have to actually let me finish my sentence. 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. I think every time the prime minister goes downstairs he gives meaty content to the reporters. And I think when cabinet ministers go downstairs they will also give meaty comments. But it's downstairs. It's open. It's accessible. It's airy. It's not crowded. The TVs have their live feed downstairs. They don't have the tape going up the stairs. I mean to me it just looks like from a safety point of view it would be easier for access downstairs. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: The concern on the part of our members is that your cabinet ministers are available on certain issues and not at all on others and that having the access upstairs gives us a chance to at least try having access to them on all issues that we report on. 

Sandra Buckler: I think for you guys to get access on all issues you report on you have numerous opportunities. You have outside Question Period. You have phoning the ministers. You have their (communication directors) now which I'm happy to say I think we're fully staffed up. You have press secretaries. You have opportunities when you see them in the House on the first floor to talk to them and you have numerous cabinet ministers who are quite keen to talk to you. 

Stephanie Rubec: What about the other half of the year when the House isn't sitting?

Sandra Buckler: Well, we wouldn't be having cabinet so I don't understand. 

Isabelle Rodrigue: The House is not sitting right now and you have cabinet. 

Sandra Buckler: Yeah, but we'll have the mic downstairs and people will come downstairs and talk if we have cabinet next week and I haven't -- I haven't seen the agenda for next week. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: So you're actually arguing that all your cabinet ministers are available on a range of issues?

Sandra Buckler: I didn't say that. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Not only the ---

Sandra Buckler: I didn't say that. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Well, that's the concern there is on the part of our members ---

Sandra Buckler: Well ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: --- is that they are not. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, here's the thing - and you'll disagree with me wholeheartedly so I'm waiting for it - but we are a new government and we have new cabinet ministers who are quite keen to understand their portfolio. They've had numerous briefings. They've been on tour. They've been travelling meeting the stakeholders and the House comes back on April 3rd. 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. As of right now they're out, they're in their ridings, they're travelling. You're right, they're not in town. They're not in town. I can't make them come into town. But there are phone calls. There are media requests. I'm seeing a lot of cabinet ministers now appearing in print and on TV and on radio which I think is a healthy evolution based on the fact that we're a new government. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: So you are going ahead with trying to remove cameras. 

Sandra Buckler: We're not trying to remove any kind of access from cabinet once it's publicized. I think when we publicize our cabinet meetings there will be a mic downstairs and the minister -- the prime minister will come out and do outs and the cameras will still be there. They're just not going to be on the third floor, they'll be on the first floor. 

Stephanie Rubec: That restricts access because ministers don't necessarily need to come down that stairwell to come down to that mic before they leave. The whole point of having the two mics upstairs is because ministers leave, as you know, three, four at a time, different sides of the corridor. Some of them each want to say something but there's a danger that ministers are going to leave without me getting my, I don't know, Public Works question in because the Public Works Minister is leaving at the same time as the Treasury Board President. 

Sandra Buckler: I can't control that. I can't control how people leave cabinet. I can't. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: But you are aware that there's been -- there is an understanding with the House of Commons that the cameras are allowed on the third floor in that corridor when a cabinet meeting is announced. 

Sandra Buckler: When cabinet meetings are announced. And we're saying that we'd like to move forward by announcing cabinet meetings and having the discussion on the first floor. 

Isabelle Rodrigue: Well, we'll have to -- do you intend to publicize these cabinet meetings?

Sandra Buckler: Not sure yet. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Good. We'll take this to our members. Now let's move to the issue ---

Sandra Buckler: That's my phone and I can't get to it in a hurry. It's little MoSho (phonetic). It's annoying I know but it's my signature ring. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: There's also concerns about the issue of photo ops and the prime minister meeting with heads of state such as Mr. La Tortue a few weeks ago, the week I was away, and premiers like Gary Doer and the press not having a chance. 

Sandra Buckler: Gary Doer didn't ask for a photo op so there was one -- there wasn't. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: And what about Mr. La Tortue where people found out that a head of state had been on an official visit ---

Sandra Buckler: I can't remember that one. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: An official visit to Ottawa after he'd left the country. 

Sandra Buckler: Yeah, I can't remember that one, I'm sorry. I just know that Gary Doer didn't ask for a photo op. 

Stephanie Rubec: The Haitian president, you don't remember his visit?

Sandra Buckler: Not off the top of my head. That was probably day three or day four for me so I can't recall that one. 

Stephanie Rubec: Is there no -- we would like to see an advisory of a public schedule. Two heads of state meeting is a public event, not a private we're going to have tea at my house event. It's a public event. Why can we not get heads up that they're in town, even if there's no photo op, that they're meeting and that there will not be a photo op?

Sandra Buckler: I think every meeting is sort of on a case by case basis. Not sure -- if it's a private meeting, it's a private meeting. If it's a public meeting, it's a public meeting. 

Isabelle Rodrigue: What is a private or a public meeting? What's the difference?

Stephanie Rubec: If you're discussing issues of the country and not your kid's hockey game it's not a private meeting. 

Sandra Buckler: I'm not going to prejudge what happens in advance of a meeting between two people. 

Isabelle Rodrigue: What is a private meeting?

Sandra Buckler: It could be just a courtesy call, could be very quick, maybe unscheduled. I can't really say. I know that we're, you know, trying to be as open and as accountable as possible but if some people don't want a photo op, we're not going to force a photo op. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah, but the concern is that you don't want one. 

Sandra Buckler: I wouldn't agree with that statement. 

Isabelle Rodrigue: There's a practice in several places where there is a weekly schedule, general schedule of activities, event of PM, it's the case in New Brunswick, Washington. Do you intend to look at the possibility of doing this?. 

Sandra Buckler: I couldn't tell you. 

Stephanie Rubec: Because you don't know? Because you don't want to say? Why can't you tell us?

Sandra Buckler: Because I don't know. 

Stephanie Rubec: Okay. Because it's something that could be discussed in the future. Is it something you could bring to whoever does know and can make the decisions so that we can know if that's ever going to happen?

Sandra Buckler: I'll have to come back to you on that. 

Stephanie Rubec: Okay. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Good. How about photo ops in his office? Are we going to retain the right to have a reporter in there?

Sandra Buckler: Again, I think it's on a case by case. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Because you also know that that's been the tradition for the last 30 years. 

Sandra Buckler: Don't know that. I don't know that. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: I'm informing you. 

Sandra Buckler: Thank you for that. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: And anything else you can think of? Oh, where is that list of your director of communications and press secretaries? 

Sandra Buckler: I don't know. I guess we should -- I should ask about that. I don't know about that. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Okay. Because we've had numerous calls on that too. 

Sandra Buckler: Yeah. Well, if you call various offices they'll tell you. But I don't know. I don't even think I have a master list. I use 992-4211 to get ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah, but the problem is also that the phone number doesn't always answer (inaudible). 

Sandra Buckler: 992 is the switchboard ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Switchboard. 

Sandra Buckler: --- for the Prime Minister's Office. Really? I always get an answer. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah. 

Stephanie Rubec: In the evenings. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: And the press office also. 

Sandra Buckler: Really? Oh, we do go home. We do -- at a certain point at night we do go home. 

Stephanie Rubec: The switchboard is supposed to be a 24-hour service where you can reach the Prime Minister's Office whenever you need to when, you know, something goes up and you need to talk to somebody. 

Sandra Buckler: Hm, I've never heard that before. 

Stephanie Rubec: And it's happened to me personally. 

Sandra Buckler: Okay.

Stephanie Rubec: It's happened to others that I've heard where you try and call and even during the day it's happened to me when nobody answers. 

Sandra Buckler: Really? That's awful. 

Stephane Rondeau: To the press office or to the switchboard? 

Stephanie Rubec: Well, 992 or 957-5555 and the other one. 

Stephane Rondeau: Okay, 5555. Okay. 

Stephanie Rubec: And the other one, the switchboard after hours. 

Sandra Buckler: Wow, I've never heard that. 

Stephane Rondeau: Gee, I phone it night and day and ---

Sandra Buckler: Me too and I get phone calls night and day. I'm surprised. Okay, Well, look, I can look into that one ---

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah. 

Sandra Buckler: --- because that's not -- that is a problem. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Yeah, and we get voice mail at the press office in the middle of the day too. 

Sandra Buckler: Well, we're busy as you can appreciate. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Okay, whatever. 

Sandra Buckler: Oh. Hey, that's nice. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Anything else you want to raise?

Sandra Buckler: No, I think that's good. I've enjoyed our chat. 

Emmanuelle Latraverse: Good. Thank you. 

-30-

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