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Ontario spending $310K on new ‘communications centre’; critics say will limit access

<p>Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy speaks in the government's new communication centre in the basement of a building connected to the Ontario legislature by tunnel on Tuesday March 26, 2024. The Ontario government is spending about $310,000 on a new space for press conferences, which opposition parties say duplicates a room that already exists and will mean less access for the media. THE CANADIAN PRERSS/Liam Casey</p>. LC

The Ontario government is spending about $310,000 on a new space for press conferences, which opposition parties say duplicates a room that already exists at the legislature and will mean less access for the media.

The Progressive Conservative government used its new “communications centre” this week for the finance minister’s budget press conference and a technical briefing for journalists.

But it now intends on using the room, in the basement of a legislative precinct building connected to the main legislature via a tunnel, for all on-site government press conferences, senior government officials told The Canadian Press.

That’s despite there being a room that already exists for that purpose.

The media studio inside the main legislative building has for decades hosted press conferences by government ministers, opposition members and advocacy groups.

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But that space is a neutral one operated by the Speaker of the legislature on behalf of the press gallery, and journalists are not limited in the number of questions they can ask a minister.

Not so in the new government communications centre. Journalists there will be allowed to ask one question and one follow-up, the sources said, similar to the format of off-site press conferences with the premier or government ministers.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra defended the need for a government-controlled media space.

“I think we saw, especially during COVID, that we needed to have access to a media studio 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Calandra said, in explaining the rationale for the new venue.

The government required a space for press conferences that already has the tech in place and is available on short notice, one source said. The existing media studio does not operate on the weekends and is sometimes already booked by another group, the source noted.

The government rarely holds press conferences on weekends.

Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie said the new space appears to be a way for the government to avoid accountability.

“We know he has always had an utter disrespect for journalists and for the important role they play in Ontario,” she wrote in a statement, referencing Premier Doug Ford.

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“Their new $310,000 media studio is a complete waste of our hard-earned tax dollars.”

The cost for the new space includes about $240,000 for construction, $37,000 for technology such as audio-visual requirements, $25,000 for a black-panelled backdrop, and $8,000 in miscellaneous costs, the government sources said.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said it is an irresponsible use of public money and will limit the media – and therefore the public’s – access.

“It’s extremely troubling to learn that Conservatives think it’s OK to spend over $300,000 for their own private press conferences,” she wrote in a statement.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said using a space operated independently from government for press conferences is important.

“This certainly seems like an attempt to limit journalistic freedom and public accountability, which is totally undemocratic,” he wrote in a statement.

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