Premier Darrell Pasloski and his cabinet colleagues are a busy lot – so busy, it seems, they increasingly don’t have time to communicate important matters with the public.
This bewildering assertion has been offered up with growing frequency in recent months by cabinet’s spindoctor when our reporters have sought comment on matters of public concern. It would be far more believable if our ministers were similarly unavailable to speak about the easy stuff that makes them look good. But that is not the case.
One recent example shows just how silly this has all become. Late last month, the hospital corporation finally released for public consumption a report it had received two months earlier on the health needs of Dawson City and Watson Lake. It confirmed what many critics have long asserted: these communities need better access to social services and community nursing – Watson Lake, in particular, is in dire need of more addictions counselling – rather than more acute care, which is what the two new hospitals built in the areas are intended to deliver.
Surely many voters would appreciate hearing what Health Minister Doug Graham would have to say about all this, beyond the canned statements included in a news release.
We were assured Graham did have five minutes to spare the afternoon before we printed our final edition of the year – on an anodyne, unrelated matter of the government making a big donation to the food bank. We pressed for an interview with Graham on the hospital report instead. Graham’s handler declined.
So, keeping in mind that Graham had allotted five minutes to speak to us, the reporter dealing with the food bank kept things to under one minute, then explained the minister’s thoughts on the hospital report were needed and transferred him to another reporter.
Alas, Graham was no longer on the line. Only the spindoctor could be heard, insisting that Graham had had to dash. She later added that he hadn’t had a chance to read the report yet – which is awfully strange, because he had already issued a statement about its contents.
His sudden reluctance to speak was also strange, because anyone familiar with Graham knows that he has no shortage of strong opinions, and is usually more than willing to share them.
To Graham’s credit, he did grant an interview this week. At its end, he maintained that he had no knowledge of our earlier interview request. If this is true, it means the minister was kept in the dark on the matter by his own spokesperson. That would speak volumes about the premier’s communications strategy: keep everyone in the dark – certainly the public, and sometimes even your own ministers.
When ministers do speak, they’re expected to stick to a tight script. During another telling moment earlier this fall, Graham was asked in an interview about the rules governing pharmacists if there was anything he’d like to add. “Yeah, there is,” he said. “I want to add some stuff but my staff have all told me to shut up.”
It’s so difficult to obtain comment from our ministers on delicate subjects, it’s not unusual for reporters to have to resort to ambushing politicians with unrelated questions at the rare news conference one will emerge from their bunker to attend. It’s sometimes the only way to reach them. Maybe that’s also the only way they’re allowed to speak on certain subjects.
This all fits part of a larger pattern. As a rule, our ministers are able to address technical questions best answered by officials, provided it makes them look good, while they throw officials into the firing line when there is anything too politically contentious involved.
When the government stonewalled for months about the cost estimates related to plans to rebuild F.H. Collins Secondary, cabinet’s spindoctor long maintained that this was merely a technical matter, beneath the interests of ministers. Only when previously-suppressed information finally surfaced, after this newspaper challenged the government’s decision to keep it secret, did cabinet release some canned answers (which, more often than not, did not meaningfully address our questions) in an email.
Yet occasionally the opposite problem occurs. In the autumn, while investigating the government’s decision to stop providing methadone to prisoners, one of our reporters was promised an interview with a nurse involved with the program in question. Then cabinet communications rang with “good news” – the justice minister, who is certainly no expert in the matter of methadone administration, would answer questions instead. Justice officials later refused to let us speak with the nurse.
Local newspapers, meanwhile, are regularly bombarded with puffed-up letters to the editor signed by ministers, boasting about rehashed spending plans. We’ve recently decided to take a firmer stand on running this dreck, reckoning that regular readers deserve to have their views published ahead of ministers who already possess a soapbox to pontificate from. We’ll continue to publish letters by government ministers that actually have something of substance to say.
The public deserves better than this. But, if something is to change, it will have to come about from more than the indignant whinging of self-righteous journalists like ourselves. It’s up to you to tell the premier and his colleagues that answering important questions isn’t a luxury they only indulge in when they feel like it and when it proves convenient. It’s their job.