The title might suggest I am about to point out you’ll never find him at the Saturday Farmer’s Market on Salt Spring Island or the Galiano Island Literary Festival, where I happen to be at the moment. But this blog is not intended to be the event equivalent of Yann Martel’s reading list for the PM, sub-titled “books we don’t think he will ever read.”
No, I have been meaning to share for some time the number of places where every previous Prime Minister would be routinely spotted, but where a sighting of Stephen Harper would be as rare as seeing a pterodactyl soar over the Peace Tower.
There are a lot of traditional Prime Ministerial places and events where Stephen Harper is a “no show.”
His choice, of course. There was a shock the first year he didn’t show for some of the bigger traditions, but everyone around Ottawa has gotten used to the fact that all his events are ones he can completely control, that it no longer even merits a mention that he is MIA. Still, for some reason I cannot quite fathom, I remain interested in these departures from tradition.
So here’s a short list of places you will never find Stephen Harper:
- The Annual Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. It was always de rigueur for the Prime Minister to attend. It used to be an off the record bun fest (literally, as bread rolls were known to pelt down on the pompous). Stephen Harper has never attended.
- The Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts. Laureen takes care of this one, and many others related to the arts. I used to love attending, but discovered it is sponsored by Enbridge, so I do not attend any more either. (By the way, it is very hard to avoid Enbridge-sponsored events, although I don’t think the sponsorship contributes to Stephen Harper staying away. The Famous Five events for women in politics are also branded by Enbridge. So too the hot chocolate served on Parliament Hill for the annual Christmas Tree lighting. I live in fear of the day that The House of Commons is “brought to you by Enbridge”).
- The Annual National Prayer Breakfast. This one may surprise some folks. It was always the case that the Prime Minister attended, just as the US President has for 62 years sponsored the Washington DC equivalent. Premiers always attend the provincial annual prayer breakfasts. With about 1,000 attendees, all parties are represented at the Ottawa one, and the Conservatives usually by Jason Kenney. Not Stephen Harper.
- The Members’ Entrance to Centre Block. All previous PMs have come in the front door of the west side of Centre Block. Some used to walk to it from their office across the street. The door is only for Members of Parliament and their staff. No media, no visitors, and now, no Prime Minister. When he comes to the House, he arrives with a cavalcade of security vehicles. There’s the 2 RCMP vehicles (sedans with lots of men with wiggly wires to their ears), and then in between, there are three big black SUVs – just like Obama’s. Twice I’ve managed to sneak a peek through a window to see soldiers in one of the vans, in full-on assault readiness. Helmets, rifles, the works. The Hill security team actually stops other traffic (like the little green shuttle buses for MPs and staff) so the cavalcade can roll up to the front door without the remote chance of other government vehicles (going 20 km an hour) somehow interfering with the PM’s motorcade. The vehicles roll up to the front door and then roll right by it so the PM can enter through the back door service entrance.
- The big marble staircase next to the Chamber, where, traditionally, television cameras would film the PM going up (or down), occasionally stopping at a nice mid-point to proclaim something, or make a jocular comment. Stephen Harper goes the back-way.
- The elevators inside Parliament Hill. Well, you might wonder, if he doesn’t take the stairs he must take the elevator. Quite right, it’s just that no one will run into him on the elevator because he insists on no other people beyond his security bubble travelling with him. Guards prevent mere mortals, such as other Members of Parliament, having access to the elevators when it is “off service for the Prime Minister.” I have to say I discovered this to my chagrin while waiting for a hip replacement and having a lot of pain on stairs.
- The National Press Theatre. Other prime ministers used to use the press theatre for press conferences. It has a great set up for media and a journalist from the press gallery acts as MC and chooses the order of the questioners. We know Stephen Harper didn’t like that feature. He basically does not have press conferences in Ottawa. He hardly holds any anywhere. And, if he does, they are tightly run and generally not on Parliament Hill.
- Add to this all those casual events and places within Centre Block where I used to run into Mulroney, Chretien or Martin. Receptions, the Parliamentary Dining room, the hallways…
So, to sum it up, the only chance I get to speak with the PM is when he has to shed the security bubble and come into the chamber to take his seat. I have had some good (brief) chats in the seven minutes available between when he walks to his desk at 2:07 and when Question Period starts at 2:15. It is almost a safe zone for him. No reporters and no other MPs bearing gifts, letters, treatises or birthday cards as I do. I like to give him one small element of unpredictability in his universe.