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Ahead of appearance at first nations meet, how busy is Harper?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays cribbage with Verna Rutherford, left, Metha D'Amico and Ben Berg during a visit to the Trinity Lodge Seniors Home in Calgary, Alberta, December 23, 2012.

Mike Sturk/Reuters

Just how busy is Stephen Harper?

An Assembly of First Nations memo to chiefs obtained by The Globe and Mail describes the Prime Minister's plan to only attend the start and the end of Friday's meeting as "disappointing."

A schedule released by the Prime Minister's Office Thursday afternoon outlines a four hour meeting in which Mr. Harper would attend the opening half hour and the final hour. Cabinet ministers would attend working sessions in between.

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The Prime Minister's plan to step out of Friday's meeting raises the question of whether Mr. Harper really is too busy to spend a full afternoon discussing what is arguably the country's most complicated and challenging policy file.

Parliament is currently recessed until January 28. This can be a busy time of year behind the scenes in Ottawa as the government prepares its next budget, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has previously signaled the 2013 budget will be a fairly bare-bones document.

The Prime Minister's Office employs two dozen communications staff who craft two very different messages when it comes to Mr. Harper and his schedule.

For the day-to-day news media, Mr. Harper is portrayed as a ridiculously busy man who must keep meetings short, can't attend conferences with premiers and is rarely available to answer questions from the Parliament Hill reporters who are assigned to cover his government.

Yet the PMO also projects a different message to the broader public. Through photos, social media and interviews aimed at a wider audience, Mr. Harper is portrayed as a Canadian everyman who likes watching sports and eating snacks on the couch.

It's not uncommon for Canadians watching an NHL game to see cameras capture Mr. Harper sitting in the seats, watching the game just like everyone else. The PMO then releases these images on the Prime Minister's government website. Examples can be found here, here and here.

His Facebook page shows he took in last year's Grey Cup game in Toronto and had time to surprise Justin Bieber with a Diamond Jubilee Medal at Scotiabank Place. The Canadian singer later told U.S. talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that it "wasn't fair" of the Prime Minister to bring flags as a backdrop at the concert to make it look like an event at an official venue.

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Mr. Bieber was widely criticized for wearing his stage overalls in the picture.

Mr. Harper recently commented on his leisure time during a year-end interview with Global National's Dawna Friesen, who ended her interview by asking the Prime Minister about his plans for the holidays.

"Overeating and some couch time, is that it?" she asked.

"Yeah, I have got to stop that. Unfortunately, I do too much of that all the time so I can't really use Christmas as an excuse for that."

Media coach Laura Peck, who is vice-president of McLoughlin Media and teaches a political management course at Carleton University that is attended by government and opposition political staffers, says the double message has served the Prime Minister well.

In terms of public image, Ms. Peck said there was little concern that Mr. Harper is viewed as a hard worker, but the Conservatives are using social media to balance his image by showcasing his personal time.

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"Some people thought at one time that he had only one persona, and that was policy wonk, economist, constantly working," she said, explaining why the government moved to highlight more of Mr. Harper's personal interests via social media. "It rounds out his public persona. These are real Canadian pursuits and a lot of Canadians like looking at it... When you are outside of Ottawa or outside of downtown Toronto, it's amazing the positive impact that these kinds of interests and pursuits have on the people."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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