Journalists' continued frustration with a lack of access to information earned the Harper goverment the CAJ Code of Silence Award at Saturday night's gala. On Sunday morning, it was an issue that Thomas Mulcair took up when he gave his keynote speech to a room full of journalists. Joshua Rapp Learn reports that the NDP Leader of the Opposition not only took the Harper government to task, but also gave insight as to how his party would deal with the issues journalists face on a daily basis.

Journalists' continued frustration with a lack of access to information earned the Harper goverment the CAJ Code of Silence Award at Saturday night's gala. On Sunday morning, it was an issue that Thomas Mulcair took up when he gave his keynote speech to a room full of journalists. Joshua Rapp Learn reports that the NDP Leader of the Opposition not only took the Harper government to task, but also gave insight as to how his party would deal with the issues journalists face on a daily basis.

By Joshua Rapp Learn

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair vowed to work alongside journalists to fight against the Harper government’s lack of transparency at The Canadian Association of Journalists conference on Sunday.

“I think we can agree that an informed society is the very bedrock of our democracy,” Mulcair told the conference delegates in his keynote address. “Our democracy works better when you’re able to do your job well.”

Mulcair’s message was well-timed: It was the morning after the CAJ gave the Harper administration its Code of Silence Award to recognize the most secretive government or publically funded agency in the country. Journalists attending the keynote address were still sleepy after the late-night awards gala and perhaps a little incredulous at the access they were being granted to the leader of the opposition after years of neglect by the Harper government.

He says his job isn’t that different from the work of journalists. As leader of the opposition, he has to hold the government accountable, often by using the Access to Information Act.

“Sometimes we have to pay thousands of dollars in fees for simple requests.”

Mulcair divided the hour evenly between a speech and an open question period. Speaking softly with expressive hand movements he says he picked up from his French-Canadian mother, he began with a candid anecdote about learning to prepare his answers in advance regardless of the questions in his first media training nearly 30 years ago.

“I hope you don’t hold it against me,” he said.

On a more serious note, he criticized the Harper government for eliminating some of the sources of research and information that show governments how to improve their work including the long form census and organizations monitoring welfare, the environment and Aboriginal health.

“If you don’t want to have information that’s inconvenient for you, you eliminate it,” he said in regards to the Tory cuts. “This is a government ill-at-ease with the very notion of institutions that serve our common needs as Canadians.

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“They love being in power, but they don’t like governing. In other words, they don’t like the art of managing, making those tough choices, going into the details. They actually don’t like the government itself and it shows in their choices.”

Mulcair stated that the “epic battle line” will be drawn the next few years over issues like climate change. “If the government’s policy is that climate change doesn’t exist, how can scientists possibly speak openly about its existence?”

The NDP leader, for his part, was more than happy to clarify his position. He says he isn’t against the development of the Oil Sands and doesn’t have plans to introduce a new tax on them. Instead, he believes existing legislation concerning pollution and the environment should be enforced. “We have to apply the basic rules of sustainable development.”

In the lengthy question period, he told one journalist he would restore the cabinet outs that Harper hasn’t allowed for years. These outs enable reporters to talk to ministers as they leave cabinet meetings. “I’m going to make the bet. I’m going to put my faith that we can do that successfully,” he said

“It’s based on mutual understanding and respect.”

As far as using the National Press Theatre, Mulcair wasn’t so clear.  The Theatre has been used by prime ministers and their cabinets to give moderated press conferences since Lester B. Pearson dedicated the room in 1967. It has been more or less shunned since Harper came into power. But when Mulcair was asked whether he would make use of it if he became Prime Minister, he said the difficulty was reaching it in the cold. “It’s across the street and in the winter it’s not always easy to get to.”

In any case, Mulcair seems to be operating on a different strategy than Harper. A journalism conference is possibly one of the last places the Prime Minister would spend his Sunday morning.

“It’s in my interest as opposition leader and as a citizen to see that you can excel as journalists. Of course this includes holding me to account. Keeping the opposition on track, the whole system with checks and balances,” Mulcair said. “So I understand you’re going to be hard on me at times. I get that. In fact I expect it and I value it—in principle.” he continued, pausing and smiling before uttering the final two words.

“Journalists don’t applaud but that doesn’t mean the speech is boring,” he joked at the beginning of his address, repeating in Quebecois his press correspondent’s warning. Perhaps NDP strategists weren’t surprised when the press applauded his speech.