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Diplomacy and access

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Many people in the last two days have thought about what they know of Gary Doer.

I had many a conversation Friday with colleagues in the National Press Gallery almost all of whom have come into contact at least at some point with the Manitoba premier-turned-ambassador-designate.

It drove his opponents in Manitoba nuts to hear of Doer's popularity at premier's meetings. That came partly because he was always good for a sound bite. But also partly because he was also always good for a beer after the formal meetings were over.

After almost any meeting Doer could be found in the local bar or restaurant letting his hair down. Unlike many politicians, he welcomed reporters to join him. It was a good strategy and I'm sure a purposeful one from his perspective.

Many of my colleagues in the Manitoba Press Gallery have had their tussles with him. He is not always the easiest person to interview, has a pretty bad temper and he can definitely hold a grudge. I have had my own run-ins with him. But he has always almost been incredibly accessible to the media and rarely if ever was I denied an opportunity to talk to him.

In his resignation announcement Thursday, he said he always felt as a politician you could not be accountable to the public without being accessible to the media. Having worked in Ottawa now for nearly two years and seeing the difference in communications styles between the Doer government and the Harper government, I can attest to the fact that he is not lying about that.

I thought it perhaps was a slight dig from Doer at Harper -- not knowing then of course than less than 24 hours later the two would be sitting together in Harper's office or that Doer would suddenly be subjected to the Harper administration's view of being accessible to the media -- which is to say almost not at all.

But even Friday, when he was being pulled about by the Prime Minister's Office and prevented from delivering every quip he could in a scrum, he took the time to call his hometown newspaper. We were the only newspaper he called yesterday.

The other thing I can attest to is a relative surprise at how often and how well he worked with people from differing political opinions. He could be as scathing about his opponents as any politician. But when he needed to band together with people of different party stripes he did.

He developed a close friendship with former New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord -- a Tory -- so much so that the two did joint trade missions together and signed a number of mutual provincial agreements.

He also on more than one occasion took the leaders of the opposition parties in Manitoba with him on lobbying fights to Ottawa and Washington.

I will always remember getting a call-back from Doer on one his trips to Washington in the fight against Devils Lake. He was in the airport in Washington readying to come home. I asked him my questions and was preparing to hang up when he said there was someone else there who wanted to talk to me. He passed his cell phone over and on the other end of the line was Tory Leader Stuart Murray.

How many other premiers have ever taken their chief opponent with them on a trip like that and then not only encouraged them to get attention about it but provided the means and the opportunity?

It is that kind of attitude that will serve him well in Washington. As a reporter I can only hope his successor understands and believes as well that the media are not the enemy. As a voter I can only hope other politicians realize that just because you wear party stripes doesn't mean your work starts and ends in that colour.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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