Decision to re­duce PM’S brief­ings crit­i­cized

Calgary Herald - - CANADA - JESSE SNY­DER

OT­TAWA • The decision by Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau to be­gin wind­ing down his daily press brief­ings could fur­ther erode gov­ern­ment over­sight at a cru­cial time in the COVID-19 pan­demic, democ­racy ex­perts and an op­po­si­tion MP said.

Trudeau on Mon­day an­nounced that he would be re­duc­ing his daily brief­ings to the pub­lic — dis­missed as a “morn­ing show” by his political op­po­nents — to a few days a week. The prime min­is­ter stressed that he would “keep reg­u­larly up­dat­ing Cana­di­ans on how this virus is pro­gress­ing” and said the pub­lic must “con­tinue to fol­low lo­cal pub­lic health guide­lines” as threats from the virus per­sist.

The brief­ings have served as Trudeau’s main com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel since the pan­demic struck in early March, reg­u­larly re­ceiv­ing mil­lions of views. A Face­book stream of the prime min­is­ter’s up­dates to the Canada Emer­gency Re­sponse Ben­e­fit (CERB), for ex­am­ple, gar­nered 1.6 million views alone.

While crit­ics panned the brief­ings as an in­ad­e­quate sub­sti­tute for reg­u­lar par­lia­men­tary ses­sions in re­cent months, the decision to pare back the brief­ings only adds to a lack of over­sight — at a time when Ot­tawa is spend­ing more than $150 bil­lion on fi­nan­cial aid pro­grams.

Kathy Brock, a pro­fes­sor of political stud­ies at Queen’s Univer­sity, said the decision by the prime min­is­ter to trim back his daily brief­ings was “wor­ri­some,” as it comes amid in­creased fears of a sec­ond wave of the virus. “Now, by fur­ther re­duc­ing the pub­lic brief­ings, it again lim­its ac­count­abil­ity,” Brock said.

While it is typ­i­cal for gov­ern­ments to step back from pub­lic view in the sum­mer months, she said it is “re­gret­table right now, given where we are with re­spect to COVID-19.”

She said the pow­ers avail­able to Par­lia­ment are largely not re­placed by the press brief­ings, which in­volve a select num­ber of ques­tions from me­dia. Fed­eral par­ties agreed unan­i­mously to sus­pend Par­lia­ment in early March, and had only lim­ited in-per­son ses­sions in the fol­low­ing four months, even as Ot­tawa rolled out un­prece­dented spend­ing mea­sures.

“Par­lia­men­tary scru­tiny is very im­por­tant be­cause Par­lia­ment can com­pel doc­u­ments, it can force min­is­ters to ap­pear be­fore com­mit­tee, and they can em­bar­rass the gov­ern­ment if it is not forth­com­ing with in­for­ma­tion,” Brock said. “That transparen­cy is very im­por­tant to our sys­tem.”

Brief­ings by Canada’s pub­lic health of­fi­cer Dr. Theresa Tam, her deputy Dr. Howard Njoo and fed­eral min­is­ters will also be re­duced to a few days a week.

Candice Ber­gen, house leader for the Con­ser­va­tives, said the “morn­ing show” brief­ings have served as a plat­form for Trudeau to make “cam­paign-style an­nounce­ments” di­rectly to vot­ers. Ques­tions by me­dia of­ten come from peo­ple who “act more like star-struck fans than ob­jec­tive and crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists,” she said, and lack deep knowl­edge of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure and leg­is­la­tion.

Ber­gen said she sup­ported the ini­tial decision to sus­pend Par­lia­ment in early March, amid deep un­cer­tainty about the spread of the virus. But she said politi­cians could eas­ily have had lim­ited in-per­son ses­sions in the House of Com­mons from May to the end of June.

The decision by Trudeau also comes as his pop­u­lar­ity rises in a num­ber of polls.

Lori Turn­bull, pro­fes­sor of political sci­ence at Dal­housie Univer­sity, said the uniquely per­sonal na­ture of tele­vised brief­ings can be ben­e­fi­cial to politi­cians, as they al­low lead­ers to di­rectly ad­dress po­ten­tial vot­ers.

“It makes the per­son look very au­thor­i­ta­tive, in charge, un­chal­lenged — it’s a good po­si­tion for a leader to be in,” she said.

The brief­ings were par­tic­u­larly use­ful for Trudeau when the gov­ern­ment was an­nounc­ing ma­jor fi­nan­cial aid mea­sures, which “al­lows the prime min­is­ter to per­son­ally deliver mes­sages about ben­e­fits that could po­ten­tially boost his pop­u­lar­ity,” Turn­bull said.

BY FUR­THER RE­DUC­ING THE PUB­LIC BRIEF­INGS, IT AGAIN LIM­ITS AC­COUNT­ABIL­ITY.

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