Watching Stephen Harper introduce Bill Gates in a press conference held Tuesday, it was clear that Harper is winning his battle with the national media. The Canadian Prime Minister now gets covered as if he were a President, not a Prime Minister; the head of the Canadian state representing the people, not the first among equals in a government responsible to Parliament.
Gates announced that his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is partnering with the Canadian government on an important initiative to fight AIDS. The federal government will put up $111 million, and the Gates Foundation $28 million, in an effort to develop an effective AIDS vaccine.
A year ago Harper had declined to attend the international AIDS conference in Toronto, and his government had refused to announce plans to fund AIDS research and prevention efforts at that time.Gates was in Ottawa to address a co-sponsored Microsoft, Chamber of Commerce lunch.
Philanthropy works better as a theme for Harper than social activism; a billionaire makes a better photo op for a Conservative than an AIDS worker.
Speaking directly to Canadians, making himself look more moderate, and building support in big city regions is what is driving Harper in the Conservative pre-election campaign. Building a presidential image through his symbolic presence in the daily life of Canadians, allows Harper to broaden his leadership appeal.
Saturday, Harper attended the Leafs-Oilers game in Toronto. Hockey Night in Canada featured him as a guest in the second period intermission. At the Air Canada Centre, the policy wonk becomes a hockey Dad, a regular guy, and a fan himself. Indeed, a week earlier he had dropped the puck for the opening face-off during the World Pond Hockey Championship held in Plaster Rock, N.B., where he was there to talk hockey, not politics, it was explained.
A Canadian Prime Minister has long had powers to spark envy in an American President. First, as party head Harper commands obedience from his MPs, something no American President can obtain from his congressional delegation. Second, like the American President, the Canadian Prime Minister is at the centre of a large bureaucracy — too large to be directed except by centralizing authority in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), except the Prime Minister has a professional public service to do his bidding as well, while the President has to recruit and staff, his or her administration. Finally, the Canadian Prime Minister can conduct foreign policy, and name ministers, senators, judges and even the Governor-General without requiring approval from anyone.
The main difference in the prime ministerial system of government and the presidential regime, is the treatment of the office by the media and in public opinion. The Canadian Prime Minister is head of the government of the day, and must face a permanent opposition in the House of Commons — not just the official opposition and its leader, but third parties as well.
This country has a collective leadership represented in Parliament, not a single leader who incarnates the nation. The Governor-General symbolizes the nation, not the Prime Minister.
What Harper wants to do is to separate himself from the back and forth, give and take of a parliamentary regime, through a media strategy that allows for presidential style press conferences with questioners chosen in advance. President Harper wants to speak for his “administration” through controlled appearances in local media markets without the distraction of opposition voices.
In the Harper government, cabinet ministers are scripted by the PMO and reduced to playing a supporting role, much like cabinet secretaries in the U.S. Political opponents in the House of Commons, such as StÃ©phane Dion, are not just “my learned friend across the aisle.” Instead the leader of the official opposition is attacked in television ads, modeled on an American practice.
Harper is unhappy that the parliamentary opposition has been uniting to pass legislation that his minority government does not favour. Parliament votes in laws the Conservatives oppose, but Harper is required to implement. In a minority Parliament, the opposition holds a veto, not the Prime Minister.
This contrasts with the American system where the presidential veto makes compromise with Congress a part of the political reality, and brings the president to the centre of every Washington story.
Covering parliamentary government, not reporting on the Prime Minister, is why we have a press gallery in the House of Commons, complete with office space, and broadcast facilities.What was missing at the Bill Gates press conference was the diversity of Canadian political opinion.
The opposition parties need to be heard every time the Prime Minister stands in front of a backdrop of flags. In a parliamentary democracy, uncontested photo-ops are reserved for the head of state, the Governor-General.