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Thanks, we'll pass: Quebec preem won't follow Harper rules for news conferences

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois are shown in these 2012 file photos. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld, Graham Hughes

ESTEREL, Que. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet with the premier of Quebec on Friday. But they won't be holding a news conference together.

That's because Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has refused to play along with the prime minister's rules for tightly controlled question-and-answer sessions.

According to Marois' entourage, the prime minister's communications team proposed they follow the Ottawa practice of taking questions from just four journalists and asked for their names in advance.

Marois' office said no.

The leaders will instead make a joint statement before meeting privately in Quebec City tomorrow, then any public events will be held separately.

The custom of limiting the number of questions to several journalists, whose names have been agreed upon in advance, has been standard practice since Harper took office.

That modus operandi tends to keep questions focused on hot topics of the day so Harper news conferences will only rarely touch on an unexpected or longer-term subject.

The custom in the Quebec legislature is far more spontaneous.

Politicians there face a number of follow-up questions and are sometimes repeatedly challenged if they won't offer a complete answer. The news conferences tend to be longer.

In fact, participating in freewheeling discussion has been almost a prerequisite for political success in the province. Nearly every major federal and provincial politician except for Harper has over the years appeared on the sometimes-edgy talk show Tout le monde en parle.

The stunning NDP surge in the province is even frequently traced back to the late Jack Layton's 2011 appearance on that show.

Harper has declined invitations to appear on the show, although his heritage minister, James Moore, earned some plaudits for showing up and holding his ground in a few feisty exchanges.

A spokesman for Harper declined to comment on Friday's logistics out of "respect" for private discussions. But he downplayed the issue, describing the situation as normal.

"This is exactly what happened when Mr. Harper met the former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty," said prime ministerial spokesman Carl Vallee.

Just before he left office, McGuinty appeared with Harper at a Toyota plant where they announced funding for a hybrid car last week. They did not hold a news conference together, however.

Vallee said a joint media availability with a premier is a rare occurrence, reserved only for major announcements and federal-provincial agreements.

This will be the second Harper-Marois meeting since the pro-independence premier was elected last Sept. 4. They will appear in Levis, across the river from Quebec City, reportedly to announce funding for an infrastructure project there.

The two leaders chatted at a francophone nations summit in Congo, where Marois called their encounter "very cordial" and "almost warm."


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