EDITORIAL: The gateway to political spin

“The messages seem fine though they don’t really address the questions”

“No” is a beautiful word.

It’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its directness and its clarity.

On page 5 of this paper, readers have a chance to learn about what happens to the word “no” when it goes through the meat grinder that is Yukon government communications and comes out the other end as such a mealy-mouthed mess that the word is lost.

Last Nov. 15, reporter Jackie Hong began asking whether the mining roads project known as Resource Gateway was going to be completed on schedule.

For those not familiar with the project, Gateway is nearly half a billion dollars worth of roadwork funded by the territorial and federal governments as well as industry. The roads are designed primarily to help areas of southeast Yukon and the Klondike where mines are expected to be built.

It was such a large pot of money that the prime minister showed up in Whitehorse a few years ago to announce the cash himself.

The deadline to spend that money was always going to be tight. In its proposal to Ottawa, Yukon said it was going to have construction done by 2024 and the entire project complete by 2025.

Things have been slow moving. Deals with all the affected First Nations have not been signed yet and socio-economic assessments have not been completed.

After the issue came up in the legislative assembly, Hong began asking for an update on Gateway’s progress.

An access to information request shows how the answers to her questions were manipulated to protect the government’s image at the expense of providing a direct answer.

Here is one of Hong’s original questions as conveyed in an email from a Department of Highways and Public Works spokesperson: “Is the project going to be completed in 2024? (She was looking for a Yes/No)”

Within a weekend, John Bailey, the assistant deputy minister of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, emailed back and responded with:

NO

Bailey replied to a handful of other questions about timelines and expectations with equally clear answers.

This is how government communications should work. The expert on a file should be relied on to answer questions directly and truthfully.

From there, the paper trail shows that Bailey’s answers were approved by a handful of government wonks from various departments.

More than a week passed. Our reporter still hadn’t heard back even though government officials had clear answers in their hands.

By Nov. 23 more communications people were involved, including cabinet officials. That’s when the word NO disappears from the email chain.

Suddenly the answer to the yes/no question of will the project be completed by 2024 becomes: “We continue to work with First Nations and Canada to finalize agreements for the Yukon Resource Gateway Program.”

Bailey is asked for his thoughts on these new responses:

“The messages seem fine though they don’t really address the questions,” he writes in an email.

Thank you, John Bailey, for saying what reporters in this territory have been shouting for generations.

The government had the answer, they just didn’t like it, and so they chose to keep it from the public.

Even though they were warned that the questions were not being answered, the machine that is government communications plowed forward.

By Nov. 30 (now two weeks since the questions were asked) the answer the department was preparing to give the reporter changes again.

Minister Ranj Pillai is now involved.

The minister wants the messages “refined” according to his department’s spokesperson to say that the government is not behind schedule.

In a matter of weeks the answer has gone from the project will not be completed by 2024 to we are not behind schedule.

Liberal cabinet officials got involved and the truth got lost in the mud.

Eventually Pillai gave interviews on the subject. He wouldn’t tell the News outright whether he thought construction was going to finish on time, saying only that the government was “endeavouring” to remain on schedule. He also said he was not against asking Ottawa for an extension if it came to that.

It wasn’t an outright lie, but Pillai chose spin over clarity when he knew what the clear answer was.

His spin was so impressive that the Whitehorse Star ran a front page headline to go with its version of the story that said “Gateway completion: 2025.”

That’s the opposite of what Bailey told his department.

Generally speaking, journalists rarely write “process stories.” Stories about how articles came to be are often considered too “inside baseball” for readers to care.

In this case though, Yukoners deserve to know how the sausage was made.

It’s not necessarily a huge deal that the Yukon won’t meet that 2024 deadline. There are, as Bailey points out in his coherent original response, mechanisms in place for Yukon to inform Ottawa if it needs any “adjustments” in the schedule.

The Liberals did the right thing by agreeing that the project would not go forward without the approval of the affected First Nations. That’s what government-to-government relations are supposed to look like.

The choice by those in charge of spin at the cabinet level to infantilize voters is a much more serious concern.

Someone decided that Yukoners could not handle a straight answer. Instead of just saying “No, we won’t be done in time, but we have a plan,” Liberal gatekeepers turned that clear and direct response into non-committal jargon.

Their knee-jerk reaction was to avoid saying anything negative even if that means choosing not to be transparent.

At the risk of sounding like Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, Yukoners could have “handled the truth.” Instead they’re left wondering what else they might have been told in the past has been couched so carefully that the truth remains hidden.

(AJ)

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