Harper and the press: matching bubbles

WELLS: How Harper makes a mockery of the money our bosses spend on covering him

Every once in a while I actually get one right. This is from my column for the issue of Maclean’s dated Jan. 22, 2007. (For whatever reason I can’t find that column online. I’ll post a link if that changes.) I was writing about how social media multiplies the avenues political parties have for getting their message out. Which means they don’t necessarily need to be in tomorrow’s Globe. Which means a prime minister doesn’t even need a bunch of reporters following him around, right? But then I thought about it for a few more minutes:

During the 2004 election, Harper asked his staff why he needed to haul a planeload of reporters around with him. By now he will have figured out an answer: an airplane is a handy place to pen up malcontents. The real campaign will be elsewhere. Harper will feed the press pack an event in the morning and another after lunch, then vanish for hours at a time to shoot Web ads; give interviews to local, ethnic and online publications; approve direct-mail appeals to carefully identified elements of the Conservative voter base; and otherwise talk right past us to you, or some of you. The changing media landscape opens up both danger and opportunity for politicians. But the biggest danger would lie in ignoring what’s going on.

I thought of that old column this morning while I was spending a couple of hours with my fellow malcontents in Markham, Ont. My plan was to spend a couple of days with the Harper campaign. It became clearer today that that simply isn’t possible, because the reporters “traveling with” the Harper campaign are, for the most part, kept well away from it.

This morning the Conservative leader promised loans to help immigrants get their foreign credentials recognized in Canada. He did it in a well-polished car-parts plant in Markham while the overwhelmingly South Asian workforce at the plant stood around and behind him. Then he took the five questions he deigns to take each day from reporters — and that’s it for us until a rally tonight to support Chris Alexander, the party’s nominee against Liberal incumbent Mark Holland.

The prospect of a big campaign rally in the GTA was enough to get a curtain-raiser for the Ajax event on the front page of the Star this morning. But I’ll tell you this as sure as I breathe: Stephen Harper is not betting on a presser at a car plant and some rah-rah in Ajax to win him the GTA. There’s a photo op today attended by only photographers and a reporter or two. But beyond that, he’s got eight hours without us bugging him. By the weekend it will be a little clearer what else he did, which carefully-selected niche markets he’s visited or otherwise contacted, which strategies he’s hatched or shut down. But his press spokespeople aren’t telling us most of it. I suspect most of them don’t know most of it.

This public schedule — two events a day — is not an innovation and it is not unique to the Conservatives. In fact modern news cycles punish party leaders who try to do more: Stockwell Day in 2000, and Jack Layton in 2004 and 2006, soon discovered that they impressed nobody with seven events a day, and that they merely multiplied the likelihood they’d get tired and get caught doing something dumb by mistake. But Harper has refined the distinction between public campaign and behind-the-curtains campaign beyond anything any other leader has done. He’s constantly late for his few public events. I do not believe it’s because he can’t pick cufflinks. The other day he did a round table with a large number of ethnic media organizations. Last week in Halifax he did a radio interview. Reporters “traveling with” him weren’t told about either.

So that’s Harper’s bubble. I don’t think it’s wicked. Having predicted it, I think it’s rather clever. But it rather makes a mockery of the thousands our bosses are spending for the theoretical benefit of access to a national party leader.

Meanwhile, there is our own bubble. This one is only partly imposed on us by Harper.

In Halifax, Harper spoke about free trade with Europe. Traveling press got five oops, four questions and local press one. Of course none of our questions was about trade with Europe. Instead we (well, my colleagues) got into a shouting match with the Conservative leader about his unwillingness to take more questions. This morning was the third day of questions about those young people who got shut out of Harper rallies, in at least one case because the student’s Facebook page made her look cozy with the Liberals. There was another question about the vetting of disgraced former Harper staffer Bruce Carson. Of course there was no question about foreign credentials recognition.

By the peculiar psychology of campaign journalism, asking a party leader how he has governed the country or how he would proceed if given a mandate to govern it some more is “playing along,” “in the tank,” “throwing lob balls.” Asking him process questions to work through our frustration at how he’s treating us, on the other hand, is “tough” and “uncompromising.”

Look, I find it upsetting that the Conservatives are shutting people out of their events, even people who have previously jumped through the ridiculous hoops it takes to be accepted to Conservative rallies but who are then found unacceptable for whatever Orwellian reason. I’m used to more relaxed rules.

But we are living in deluded fantasy if we think the hardest question an incumbent prime minister can face is about the attendance rules at his campaign events. And I cling to the belief that what’s worst about the Carson affair is that, five years after Harper’s government promised to provide clean water on Indian reserves, it’s still possible to get rich promising clean water for Indian reserves. A sixth question about the vetting process doesn’t really get at that.

Meanwhile, out of four questions in all for traveling press, we blew two on issues that have nothing to do with how Harper used to govern, or would after May 2. (In fairness I should point out that I’m in a glass house here because on most days I don’t even try to influence the choice of questions. My broadcast and wire-service colleagues have more pressing deadlines and are under greater pressure.)

I don’t think questions about governing are softball questions. Harper has been prime minister for five years; why is recognition of foreign credentials still something that needs doing? How would his new program do any better than all that preceded it? When he talked about free trade, I wondered why his trade deal with Europe is now more than a year behind schedule, and why Harper’s news conference on a Halifax dock was the first argument on the issue I’ve heard from him in two years, while opponents of a Canada-EU deal multiply.

We don’t even have to stick to the topic of the day. The Liberal elder care plan is far more generous — and expensive — than the tax benefit in Harper’s pre-election budget. Does he not believe the challenge is worth more spending? Why not? When Harper’s admirers complain about the (sotto voce) Liberal support for a carbon cap-and-trade scheme, I remember that Harper ran on such a scheme in 2008. I’d like to hear whether he still even pretends to have such a plan.

There’d be room for all of these questions if Harper were taking 15 questions a day. But I’m pretty sure that part (only part) of the reason he doesn’t is because it keeps the travelling pack feeling frustrated and, therefore, comically self-obsessed, so we will keep asking variations on “Why are you so mean to us?” and ask even fewer questions about his record and projects. His daily 10-minute torment having thus been neutralized, he can then leave the pack behind and go run his real campaign. Today, the press corps had lunch at Baton Rouge.

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