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‘Night and Day’ difference between Trudeau’s press relations and Harper’s, say media observers

By Tim Naumetz      

Justin Trudeau displaying 'gutsy' approach to media, even at risk of being blindsided by tough, unexpected questions, says Barry McLoughlin

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has held nine news conferences in Ottawa’s National Press Theatre since the day after he won the 2015 election. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has held nine news conferences in Ottawa’s National Press Theatre since the day after he and his party won a majority government in 2015, compared to only five NPT appearances by Stephen Harper over his 10 years as prime minister, according to press theatre records.

And as of Dec. 15, Mr. Trudeau had also held 71 other “media availabilities”—shorter question-and-answer sessions with journalists—across the country over the same period, according to Mr. Trudeau’s press secretary, Cameron Ahmad.

But while the increased media interaction is good for Mr. Trudeau’s transparent and accountable government brand, it is also a gamble for the prime minister, as it increases the chances of being blindsided by unexpected questions on potentially explosive topics, says Barry McLoughlin, one of Ottawa’s senior media strategists, who has advised a string of party leaders from almost all sides.

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Mr. Trudeau’s willingness to face somewhat unpredictable questions despite circling storm clouds is a significant departure from Mr. Harper’s approach to media relations, says Mr. McLoughlin and Press Canadienne reporter Lina Dib, who has covered Parliament Hill through four terms of prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau.

And, with Mr. Trudeau facing questions related to the contentious cash-for-access fundraisers at two media encounters this week—one in the National Press Theatre on Monday, and another on Thursday after a meeting with indigenous leaders in his Parliament Hill Office—Mr. McLoughlin says Mr. Trudeau is being “pretty gutsy” in the face of a controversy that could do his government serious damage.

“The brand of being open and transparent and accountable is directly connected to how you communicate with the media,” Mr. McLoughlin told The Hill Times.“Are you actually making yourself available to the media? Are you responsive to their questions?” he said.“These are all important to that kind of brand, and he’s made it clear he intends to have that kind of brand.”

Mr. Trudeau has also made it apparent that this approach “was in contrast to the Stephen Harper brand,” added Mr. McLoughlin,  the president of McLoughlin Media.

‘A huge divide’

Ms. Dib, who joined the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in January 1997, says the difference between Mr. Harper’s media strategy and Mr. Trudeau’s approach is “a huge divide.”

“It’s night and day—night having been the past 10 years,” Ms. Dib said, referring to Mr. Harper’s leadership.

She includes cabinet ministers in her response, who she said were rarely available to the media during the Conservative Party’s time in power, as opposed to Liberal ministers who she says are, in some combination, available for encounters after every major weekly Cabinet meeting.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re answering your questions fully, or that they’re giving you information that is immensely valuable, but they are there, you can ask questions and sometimes you can get stuff out of them, which you could not before, and that’s all of them,” said Ms. Dib.

“The prime minister is very rehearsed in his answers, whenever he is dealing with the media, but once and a while you get him off topic, off message, like we just saw,” she said, referring to a rough encounter Mr. Trudeau had with a CBC reporter in the National Press Theatre on Monday.

“Anytime I meet anyone, you know, they will have questions for me, or they will take the opportunity to talk to the prime minister about things that are important to them,” he responded after the journalist probed him about potential ethical breaches in  $1,500-a-head Liberal fundraisers where Mr. Trudeau is present.

“But the fact is my approach continues to be to listen broadly through every different opportunity that I get, and make the right decisions based on what’s good for Canada. And I can say that in various Liberal party events I listen to people as I will in any given situation, but the decisions I take in government are ones based on what is right for Canadians and not on what an individual in a fundraiser might say,” he said.

Two hours later, opposition MPs—fuelled by Mr. Trudeau’s press theatre comments—pressed him relentlessly him in the House of Commons daily Question Period.

The Commons adjourned for its winter holiday recess on Wednesday, but Globe and Mail bureau chief Robert Fife, who broke the cash for access story along with Globe colleague Steven Chase, questioned Mr. Trudeau on Thursday in the second media encounter of the week he may have wished he’d avoided.

“You came into office with a lot of integrity and you promised Canadians that you would set high ethical standards,” said Mr. Fife. “Do you honestly believe that having special access for people who pay $1,500 to chat you up is the right thing to do?”

“First of all, we will always work with the ethics commissioner and anyone else who has questions of this government,” responded Mr. Trudeau. “I look forward to making sure we provide answers to anyone who is asking us questions about particular aspects of this government functioning, as is responsible for our various commissioners and officials to do.”

“And secondly, I am committed to demonstrating to Canadians that the confidence that the confidence that they placed in me and in our government is well placed,” he said.

Mr. McLoughlin said Mr. Trudeau’s strategy of government transparency has, to this point at least, been successful.

“I think that you take your risks with it, of course, and I think you’re seeing some examples of risk taking—these have legal implications, they have ethical implications, they have implications for credibility of government. And, you could say, at one level, it’s pretty gutsy to do a media availability when you know darn well you’re going to be, you know, fired at over some hypersensitive issues, so you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for doing that,” said Mr. McLoughlin.

“The safest thing for any prime minister is to duck, is to formalize it, and restrict it, that it’s almost semi-scripted. He’s clearly not taken that approach, and I think you’ve got to give him a lot of kudos for doing that,” Mr. McLoughlin added.

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