TORONTO - Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak may spend their days on the campaign trail attacking each other, but there's one thing the Ontario political rivals agree on — the desire to control their message by severely limiting media access.
It's a strategy that paid off in spades — and a majority government — for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who angered the Parliamentary press gallery, but apparently not voters, by limiting reporters to five questions daily during the federal campaign last spring.
"They’ve obviously looked at what Prime Minister Harper has managed to do and thought 'Well, what’s good for him is good for us,'" April Lindgren, professor of journalism at Ryerson University, said of McGuinty and Hudak.
"This is what I think is a tragedy really for public accountability because if reporters aren’t going to ask those questions, who will? It’s not going to be the party faithful."
Former federal Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario PC leader John Tory all made themselves available to the media, taking virtually every question reporters asked, but all lost elections and then their jobs as leader.
Harper's tightly scripted photo-ops, rallies and announcements are closely mirrored in the current Ontario campaign by both McGuinty's Liberal camp and Hudak's Tory campaign, with each leader holding only one media availability a day, usually around 9 a.m.
The goal is to force reporters to limit their questions to the only new topic of the day, the one the leader just announced — or more frequently re-announced — even though the campaign will often be on the road for another 12 hours that day and face many other issues.
The limited access also shields the leaders from having to face questions when local candidates stray off message, such as when Liberal Dave Levac this week raised the spectre of a carbon tax, something Hudak accuses McGuinty of secretly planning to introduce.
"It gives them time to figure out whether the issue is going to go away or to craft a response according to their timetable, to see what the other players are going to say," said Lindgren.
"Basically it denies the public to see how they react when they’re not reading from a script or speaking their memorized lines of the day."
McGuinty is running what critics call a "bubble" campaign, where the leader is mostly protected from reporters — taking five questions a day — and sheltered from potentially embarrassing encounters with non-party supporters.
However, the Liberals say they're doing just what they did in the last two Ontario campaigns when the party won majority governments, and are not following Harper's playbook.
"Our campaign is modelled on our own successful campaigns," said Liberal strategist Alicia Johnston.
"We are doing exactly what we did in 2003 and 2007."
Hudak's campaign is slightly looser, with his handlers rarely cutting off reporters' questions and occasionally holding a second media availability in a day.
A Tory strategist who did not want to be identified said the party likes to have Hudak hold only one media availability each day because it has only one message each day that it wants reporters to focus on.
"We don't cut scrums off," said the PC insider.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has a more open approach compared to her opponents, taking reporters' questions after every event, at least three times each campaign day.
Only rarely is Horwath pulled out of a media scrum by a handler yelling "last question," and she still does mainstreeting, old-style campaigning where the leader meets voters on the street who have not been pre-screened and cleared by party officials.
"McGuinty’s campaign obviously quite consciously patterned themselves after Stephen Harper," said NDP strategist Elliott Anderson. "Hudak’s team, it’s not surprising, is also seeing that it worked.
"It’s funny that it’s seen as something that’s old to actually go out and talk to people."
McGuinty and Hudak are engaged in a "groundhog" style campaign, added Anderson.
"You just pop up, shoot your one thing out, and it’s all about message control," he said.
"I think they both feel that if they can tightly control the message, and get their one hit out a day, it’ll all come together."
Avoiding media questions is not fair to voters who are expected to assess each candidate during the campaign before they cast their ballots, added Lindgren.
"For politicians to snub their nose at reporters I think is tantamount to snubbing their nose at voters, but I’m not sure that this is equated in the public mind," she said.
"Too often it’s dismissed as media whining."