Neil Macdonald: Harper no Obama when it comes to dealing with scandals

Beset by three so-called scandals at the moment, Barack Obama has been meeting his accusers and the press head on, Neil Macdonald writes. The same cannot be said for how Stephen Harper operates.

Scandal management

The National

8 years agoVideo
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have contrasting styles in acknowledging and managing scandals 4:54

Of all the criticisms levelled at Stephen Harper by his critics, the most puzzling, at least to anyone who has covered Washington, is that he behaves more like a president than a prime minister.

As much as Harper might actually relish that comparison, his behaviour is far from presidential, at least when it comes to answering tough questions about public controversies and governance.

It is true that both Harper and Barack Obama like talking about "accountability."

"We must … uphold a culture of accountability," Harper told his Conservative caucus this week. "And I know that the people in this room have."

And it is also true that both Obama and Harper are less accessible to the media than their immediate predecessors.

Obama, wrote an Associated Press reporter recently, is "limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn't have dared."

But hold on a moment. This is America. Press freedom is engraved in the Constitution. And the words "access" and "accountability" have entirely different meanings here than they do in Canada.

The fact is, no modern president, Democrat or Republican, has shown the level of contempt for taking questions from the media that Stephen Harper has demonstrated.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to questions about the resignation of his chief of staff, and Senator Mike Duffy, during a joint press conference with the president of Peru on Wednesday. (Canadian Press)

Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University in Baltimore, specializes in studying presidential communications.

Up to the end of last month, she says, meaning after 51 months in office, Obama has held 84 news conferences, 38 of them solo and 46 with some other visiting leader at his side.

He's held 110 short question-and-answer sessions, usually with a small pool of reporters, and has granted 700 interviews, either one-on-one, or with a group of reporters. Even at that, he's considered a piker.

George W. Bush held 99 news conferences and 364 Q&A sessions over the same timeframe. Bill Clinton racked up 142 newsers and 666 question and answer sessions.

That, of course, is in addition to the daily on-camera White House press briefings that are such a staple of American popular culture.

Much different in Canada

No similar statistics are available for Harper's responsiveness, but Canada's prime minister is almost a professional hermit by comparison.

A cursory search of the public record by CBC News turned up only five full-fledged Harper news conferences in the past six years.

Now that Harper has a majority government, he doesn't appear to bother at all with wide-open sessions with reporters; the last one we could find was in 2009.

The prime minister does allow some short question-and-answer sessions in which he will take a couple of quick queries, and he does grant interviews. But again, these are only a tiny fraction of the presidential average.

And when he doesn't like questions on a particular subject, he just ignores them, no matter how much the Canadian public would appear to want explanations.

Take his response to the mounting questions about the resignation of his chief of staff and the expense controversies surrounding former Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

Early in this affair, when Duffy's expense claims began to look questionable, Harper supported him. When Duffy announced, disingenuously it turned out, that he would reimburse the public to the tune of $90,000, Harper stood in the Commons to praise the senator's "leadership."

Then, when it emerged eight days ago that Harper's own chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had paid the bill, and much more serious questions arose over the circumstances of the payment, Harper simply went silent.

He remained mute when Duffy was forced out of the Conservative caucus, and when Senator Wallin followed her colleague the next day.

On the weekend, when the chief of staff himself resigned, Harper issued a short written statement expressing regret. Again, no substantive answers to what was becoming a deafening uproar of questions.

Finally, on Tuesday, the PM appeared before his caucus to address the matter and, exceptionally, reporters were allowed in to record his remarks.

Harper's only direct comment on the matter: "I'm not happy, I'm very upset, about some [of the] conduct we have witnessed. The conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office."

He then launched into a self-congratulatory speech about his government's "accountability," taking a shot at Liberal party ethics for good measure.

When reporters began yelling questions, Harper ignored them, a smile fixed on his face, while party officials had them kicked out of the room.

Into the breach

Behaviour like that by Barack Obama, who actually commands considerably more deference from reporters by dint of his office, would be unimaginable.

A typical Obama response was his reaction to the most serious of the three scandals that he is dealing with at the moment: revelations that the Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative groups that sought tax-free status during the run-up to the last election.

Within hours of the admission by an IRS executive, the president's spokesman was expressing Obama's disapproval.

Not long afterward, Obama himself appeared before cameras to denounce the tax collectors' actions as "inexcusable misconduct" and to announce he would hold the responsible parties "accountable."

In this case, "accountable" turned out to have teeth. Obama quickly fired the acting head of the IRS and imposed several new rules on the agency, some of them over its objections.

His attorney general then ordered the FBI to investigate any possibility of criminal behaviour.

Reacting head-on and substantively to scandals has been Obama's trademark.

Republicans might not have liked his answers, but he has responded in detail to multiple questions about the killings of State Department staffers by extremists in Libya last fall, the so-called Benghazi affair.

He has also stepped in to defend a Justice Department prosecutor who, investigating a leak of classified material, secretly seized records of phone lines at the Associated Press news organization, which broke the story.

By contrast, Harper largely ignored questions from reporters on many of the controversies that have dogged his government in recent years, like the robocall allegations from the 2011 election and the electoral rule-breaking and subsequent resignation of Labrador cabinet minister Peter Penashue.

Harper does respond to questions from opposition leaders in Parliament, something Obama cannot do with Congress.

But Harper's answers, in the tradition of that venue, are often more combative than substantive.

After his brief remarks about the Senate scandal in caucus, Harper left for a trade mission to Peru, where he did take two questions from reporters yesterday during a joint press conference with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. 

He said he had not been consulted by his former chief of staff about the Duffy payment and would not have agreed to it had he known in advance.

He said the decision was Wright's alone and that is why he resigned. But he didn't address the fact that he initially expressed full confidence in Wright in the first few days immediately after the Duffy payment became public.

A false distinction

Harper's style would simply not be tolerated here, says presidential historian James Thurber, of American University in Washington, D.C.

"There is an expectation in America of a great deal of transparency when it comes to making decisions, and when scandal comes up [people] want to know right away and the media wants to know, and the president knows they have to focus on this. Or it gets worse."

As for the Canadian Conservative contention that the news media is just one means of speaking to the public, Thurber is dismissive.

"I think that is a false distinction. I think the way you speak to the American people down here is through the media.

"We have first amendment rights, we have freedom of the press and the president knows that."

CBC News asked Harper's press secretary to characterize how often the prime minister responds to the media.

He had no overall figures, but did point to one particular month, August 2012, in which Harper took 46 questions on 12 occasions.

In sum, said the official: "The prime minister makes announcements all across Canada and takes questions from reporters from coast to coast to coast."

So there.


  • CLARIFICATION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story suggested that Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University agreed with the author's observation that no modern president has shown the level of contempt for taking questions from the media that Stephen Harper has demonstrated. In providing CBC News with her research on presidential press conferences, Prof. Kumar was not commenting on the Canadian situation.
    May 24, 2013 3:39 AM ET