© Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk following a joint press conference in this file photo from Saturday, March 22, 2014.
It’s an almost everyday occurrence: “11:45 a.m. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will greet Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of Ukraine. Willson House, Chelsea, Quebec. - Photo opportunity only (cameras and photographers only).”
Prime Minister Harper meets with someone or greets soldiers or sailors, shows up at a manufacturing plant or a bridge: photographers and camera operators are expected to be there to capture the moment.
What’s not so well known is that, should anyone have the temerity to actually ask a question of His Excellence, they may actually be removed from the event by security. The prime minister of Canada, it seems, does not like to answer questions. So he doesn’t.
In fact, Harper doesn’t even seem to like having his photo taken, unless he controls the image. The taxpayers pay someone to produce acceptable pictures: “CHELSEA, QC — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of Ukraine, shake hands after announcing the conclusion of negotiations toward the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement during a signing ceremony at Willson House. PMO photo by Deb Ransom.” (I’ve written about that before.)
Sometimes, when it’s an international event, the prime minister might tolerate two - that’s two - questions. Reporters get together ahead of time to determine what issue is worthy of the precious scrap of answers. It’s something that media from other countries comment on when they run into the at-most-two-question policy - they find it laughable, really.
Here’s journalist Justin Ling in Vice magazine: he got to ask one of the two questions at a rare event featuring Harper and the Australian prime minister. “One of the Australian journalists leaned over to me: ‘Hey, mate, is it normal for you guys to only get two questions?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘We normally don't get any.’ He began laughing. Then realized I wasn't joking. Then he stopped laughing.”
It’s hard to imagine that the prime minister is afraid of the media or of answering questions; more likely, as with the head of many long-in-the-teeth administrations, he simply doesn’t haven’t any respect for them. That happens.
In the beginning, political parties and new governments need the press. Ask someone about the federal Liberals and they might still raise the AdScam scandal - the media exposed AdScam, and Harper benefited. He benefited, and he was available to talk.
Now, though, the shoe’s on the other foot: hard questions are a pain in the neck and are potentially damaging to the Harper brand.
So, we have a prime minister who doesn’t answer questions.
Fair enough. Harper doesn’t have to answer questions if he doesn’t want to. (Fact is, he doesn’t even answer that many in the House of Commons.
Often, other ministers answer for him. In the last session, he was only in the House of Commons for 35 per cent of the question periods; in April and May 2015, that was six question periods, according to the Ottawa Citizen.
He has attended fewer and fewer question periods with each year of his administration.)
But the media doesn’t have to keep up the charade, either. Because this has been going on for months - the photo-ops and the caveat that no questions can be asked.
We should stop.
We should stop completely.
There is absolutely no value in a photograph or digital video of the prime minister in yet another suit shaking yet another hand. It is completely hollow material, devoid of news content. Using the photos and video under the current circumstances is deceitful.
The national media should simply stop attending, pop up one regular file photo of Harper if they have to have an image for their story and explain that they didn’t attend the event because the prime minister was refusing all questions.
I feel like I have to stress this. If Stephen Harper doesn’t want to answer questions, that’s absolutely his perogative. But the media has a responsibility to explain exactly what kind of roadblocks there are to covering issues in this country.
The federal Conservatives want to continue to position Harper as a statesman. The media shouldn’t continue to help maintain that image, especially if the prime minister is actually the equivalent of a straw man, albeit one that’s adept at shaking hands and smiling for the cameras.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org