'Bring it on'

Harper draws line in the sand for the opposition, daring MPs to go for vote

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The Gazette, Friday, October 5, 2007

Pierre Trudeau was courted by the media and gave them the back of his hand. Brian Mulroney courted the media and they gave him the back of theirs.

Stephen Harper's relationship with the media, particularly the Ottawa press gallery, is a curious work in progress. The media are slowly learning when Harper gets intelligent questions, he responds in kind. When there's a game of gotcha going on, he refuses to play. For his part, Harper is slowly overcoming the instinctive suspicion by all Conservative leaders that the media are a bunch of lefties, not to mention lazy and misinformed.

Thus, when Harper hastily scheduled a news conference at the National Press Theatre on Wednesday afternoon, his first appearance there in the 20 months since he took office, it was a test for both sides.

The venue itself has been the subject of a long-running skirmish - not important enough to be called a feud - between Harper and the press gallery. At the press theatre, a member of the gallery executive presides and chooses the questioners. In other locations, such as the foyer of the House of Commons, Harper's office recognizes reporters who must put their names on a list.

That this should be the cause of a standoff is a mystery to people who live and work in the real world. Outside four square blocks of downtown Ottawa, nobody cares who is in charge of the prime minister's news conferences. For the record, in the White House and Downing St., the U.S. president and British prime minister select the questioners at their press conferences. But Harper broke a long-standing Ottawa convention, and while he gained better visuals in a controlled environment, he paid a price for it in that the pack turned on him early. Indeed, both sides took a hit - Harper looked obstinate and the gallery looked surly.

The media were absolutely whipsawed by the announcement of Harper's news conference. Without any advance word, he scheduled a newser on their home ice, under their rules. Did he have an announcement? Was someone crossing the floor? Was he firing Rick Hillier as head of the Canadian Forces? No, no and decidedly not.

It turned out Harper had nothing to announce, but plenty to say. He enjoyed himself so much he stayed for more than 45 minutes and took the proverbial 20 questions. As for the gallery, they were on their best behaviour. Every one of their questions was pertinent, pointed and polite.

The purpose of Harper's visit was anything but a social call. It soon became abundantly clear he was putting down markers, and drawing lines in the sand, around the Speech From the Throne coming on Oct. 16.

First, he was at a loss to explain why Gilles Duceppe and Stéphane Dion would think their poor showing in the Quebec byelections somehow empowered them to make impossible demands on the Throne Speech. But then as Harper said, "it's been an interesting couple of weeks in Canadian politics," with Dion's Liberal leadership in a meltdown and Duceppe denying he's a lame duck leader of the Bloc Québécois.

Harper said he'd be happy to talk to them, but wouldn't be negotiating the content of the Throne Speech on their terms.

"We always listen very carefully what the opposition says and we will attempt as far as a Throne Speech can to address head on the issues that they have raised," Harper said. "We may not be giving the policy they want, but we will try and address the issue, and we will be seeking a mandate to govern."

In other words, bring it on.

"A mandate to govern." If he said it once, he certainly said it twice, and actually said it 10 times. A clear mandate. Seeking a mandate. Looking for a mandate. This is known as the message track.

What does he mean by that?

"We will be interpreting a positive result, a positive vote on the Speech From the Throne as a mandate to consider the major elements of the Throne Speech and the major elements of the government's program to be matters of confidence going forward, because we must be able to govern," Harper said. "And, you know, this is only a reasonable request. So I think the opposition ... it's not a matter of making threats. They have to fish or cut bait."

Not only will the Throne Speech be a question of confidence, but "while I say we can have some flexibility," he reserves the right to regard votes on everything in it as questions of confidence. That's what he means by a mandate.

Or as Roy Rogers used to sing at the end of his show: "Happy trails to you, until we meet again."

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