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Inside the First Standoff Between Media and the Trudeau Government

What? You expected a love-in between politicians and reporters?

I'm going to explain to you how the Trudeau government, despite all of its rosy, journalist-loving rhetoric, just repeated the first thing that the Harper government did upon taking power.

So rewind to 2006. the Conservatives were just elected, and the country is simultaneously excited to be rid of the pocket-lining ol' boys club of the Chretien/Martin years, while simultaneously nervous of the new Stephen "Secret Agenda" Harper administration.

Almost immediately, Harper's government bans access to the third-floor hallway outside of the cabinet room.

Your reaction to reading that sentence was likely similar to the reaction of your 2006 self: so what?

The third-floor mezzanine overlooks the foyer, just outside the House of Commons. Generations of Canadian political reporters could expect that every single minister, following their weekly cabinet meeting, would walk out of the cabinet room and into the throng of reporters assembled on the third floor.

Journalists could expect that, because there was no other escape. Unless you rappelled down from the windows like the Pink Panther, you would have to walk through the journopuddle.

Harper put the kibosh on that. He forbid journalists from ascending the marble stairs up to the third floor.

At the time, conservatives told the media: stop whining.

You're not allowed on the third floor, the new Prime Minister's Office told media, but we'll do availabilities in the foyer.

"As long as Canadians can hear from their government, it shouldn't matter what floor they hear it from," Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, told media.

But quickly, those availabilities in the foyer dried up. Then ministers became scarcer and scarcer. Suddenly, interviews with the prime minister stopped. Press conferences became rare. MPs and officials were suddenly unavailable an awful lot.

Ten years on, the Harper communications shop was run like a two-bit student union with a power-mad public relations undergrad at the helm.

Jump back to reality: Trudeau's government is pulling the same shtick.

At first, they wholesale replicated Harper's policy: no reporters on the third floor. Then, after a number of us complained to the powers that be, they relaxed: reporters would be notified in advance of cabinet meetings, and they would be allowed onto the third floor to scrum ministers. Some, however, would descend to the foyer and speak to reporters there, instead.

Everybody was happy!

But last week, the PMO tried to push us down to the foyer. All of our ministers will come talk to you! They told us. We love the media! They told us.

'Twas not to be. Fully a third of the cabinet were no-shows. That includes Bill Morneau, the finance minister, who ducked reporters the week it was revealed that the government would be running a much bigger deficit than expected.

Back to the old ways.

This week, the entire Press Gallery mounted the steps and set up a microphone on the third floor. We cordoned-off a little area for the minister to speak. It was to be as civilized an affair as politics ever gets in Ottawa.

But minister after minister, the new breed of politicians who are supposedly charged with carrying the flag of this decentralized and media-friendly government, told us: "I'll take questions downstairs!"

Many of us pointed out that there were no reporters downstairs and that they wouldn't be able to answer any questions. But they kept walking.

And so, a standoff began.

The Liberals have pulled out a handful of excuses, saying it's a logistical thing. Or a safety thing. Obviously, the Trudeau government has treated the media better than the dying days of the last regime. That doesn't mean we should roll over and thank them every time screw us over.

But ultimately, it's a control thing. The Liberals, just like the Conservatives, want to control who speaks to the media, when, and where.

One Trudeau communications staffer said simply: "No scrums on the third floor."

Kory Teneycke, your ghost lives on.


Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.