From a great height
A relaxed, jovial, but no-less-single-minded Prime Minister pays a visit to the press gallery
Aaron Wherry | Oct 04, 2007 | 14:56:44
The communique from the press gallery was altogether breathless.
"We have just been informed by Sandra Buckler, Director of Communications at the PMO that the Prime Minister will hold a press conference in the National Press Theatre at 3:45 p.m. today. An official media advisory from PMO will be issued shortly."
Exactly 37 minutes later, the Prime Minister's Office elaborated in a short e-mail.
PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER
OTTAWA – Public event for Prime Minister Stephen Harper for today, October 3rd are:
3:45 p.m. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be available to take questions from the media.
In case there was any confusion, a short note at the bottom of the bulletin confirmed that the event at which the Prime Minister would be taking questions from the media was indeed "open to media."
That the leader of the Canadian government might enter a building belonging to the parliamentary press and then agree to take questions from the assembled correspondents is apparently cause for some measure of excitement here in Ottawa. So much so that the Prime Minister spoke today to a standing room only crowd, a flurry of furious hands flying into the air as soon as he approached the microphone.
"There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand for a press conference," he said. "So I'm here to answer your questions."
He asked the moderator for a pen. She apologized for having only a red one to give him. "These days it will do," he responded. The gallery, easily impressed by all signs of spontaneous attempts at humour by those of political occupation, laughed heartily.
But so much for small talk. First question: Mr. Prime Minister, the other day you predicted another minority government would result from the next election. What gives?
"You know, if you do the math, when you have four parties, each getting, say, a minimum of 20 seats each, the math for someone to win a majority is not very easy."
Producers from various weekday afternoon chat shows quietly penciled in another five years of daily election speculation.
But what of the opposition parties' demands? Do you have the least bit of interest in pretending to listen to them?
"Well... let me just say that I, uh... I think it's been an unusual couple of weeks... in Canadian politics. You know, we had the by-election results in Quebec. And I know I'm not supposed to be an analyst, but as an analyst I wouldn't have predicted that the results of those by-elections would be a message to Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Dion to make non-negotiable demands."
This seemed a roundabout way of questioning the intelligence of his opponents. That said, he continued, the government has no policy against negotiating with fools. Or separatists who exist only to weaken the federation, for that matter.
"We will attempt, as far as the Throne Speech can, to address head-on the issues that they have raised... Let me just say that I know the opposition has all kinds of demands. I respect that they are right to make demands. At the same time, let me just say, that the government has some things it wants to get done."
Harper reiterated this vision en français. A woman in the third row of the theatre fiddled with her blackberry.
Fourth question: What challenges do you see ahead of yourselves, what with your politically suicidal opponents trying to force an election and you trying to, you know, do stuff?
"Well, you know, my preferred course of action would be to lay forward a Throne Speech and to govern on that Throne Speech. And as I think I've just said, the Throne Speech will lay out our priorities in the key areas... We're going to ask parliament for a mandate. Once we have that mandate, we're going to consider that it basically gives us the right to consider those matters confidence going forward and get results and get things done."
This was essentially a civics lesson in parliamentary procedure. The Prime Minister pledged to keep governing. Unless he couldn't. In which case there would be an election. In which a first-past-the-post system would determine the next government. Unless, of course, the party with the most seats was overtaken by a coalition, in which case the Governor General would have to step in and things would get rather complicated.
The obvious now thoroughly stated, there was a question about Afghanistan. "We can't responsibly just pull up stakes and go," Harper said," and leave the possible chaos in Kandahar. I don't think that is a responsible thing to do."
But enough about the well-being of people in other countries. About that election - why not force one?
"We have been very clear from the beginning that we want this parliament to work. And we want to govern."
Much booing and hissing from the chat show producers.
A TV reporter with little interest in ever speaking to the Prime Minister rose next. "Prime Minister, welcome to the National Press Theatre. I'd love to ask you why you finally decided to come here, but since I've only got one question I won't."
Harper came back with a riddle: "Well, first of all, let me say I won't answer your first question, other than to hope that this press conference doesn't answer that question." Though no one could quite figure this one out, it was almost definitely a joke at the gallery's expense.
There was a question about General Rick Hillier, another about the Canadian Wheat Board and a half dozen each to do with the Throne Speech and Afghanistan. The Prime Minister rarely looked anything less than relaxed - leaning on one elbow, smirking every so often, gesturing firmly with his right hand, mostly avoiding that red pen.
Someone asked if we were winning the war in Afghanistan. He chose to question the meanings of both "winning" and "war." Perhaps unsatisfied with the sound bites so far, the gallery kept pressing him on questions of procedure, all but begging him to say something needlessly inflammatory. Ever selfless, the Prime Minister eventually obliged.
"It's not a choice between: we obstruct you or we have an election," he said when presented by one columnist with the seeming inevitability of opposition. "The choice is: you either force us to an election or give us this mandate... It's not a matter of making threats. They have to fish or cut bait. I don't believe, in politics, you make threats unless you mean them. I don't know whether they mean these threats or not. I'm very clear: we have to be able to govern... They have to fish or cut bait on this."