The silent treatment

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Something weird has been going in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.

Government ministers don't want to talk about about the good things that they're doing to make the province a better place.

I'm not being sarcastic here; I'm being completely serious.

In the past few months, several times the government has brought in legislative changes that are entirely positive, and supported by all three parties in the House of Assembly. Despite the fact that they were doing good things that everybody was happy with, government ministers absolutely refused to speak to journalists, and talk about what was going on.

Weird, right?

This week, the situation got so ridiculous that I think the government has recognized that what they're doing isn't working, and I think the policy might be changing. It's kind of a long story, but I think it's kind of interesting too, so here goes.

***

As most of you probably already know, there are four basic stages that any bill goes through in the legislature. First reading, second reading, committee and third reading.

First reading is purely pro-forma. The bill doesn't even actually get read - just the title of the bill.

If you go to the Progress of Bills page on the House of Assembly website, you can see that Bill No. 1 got first reading way back on March 5th, the day of the Throne Speech when the House opened for the year.

However, the only thing anybody in the public knows about that bill is the title: "Procurement by Public Bodies Act."

(It's worth noting that the government doesn't do bills in order. As of Thursday, they've completely passed Bills 2-28, but they haven't bothered to move forward with Bill No. 1. I've never understood why they do it this way, but maybe if I say so here, somebody will leave a comment down at the bottom of the page and explain why.)

Anyway, the real guts of debate happens during second reading, and at the committee stage. (Third reading, like first reading, is pretty formulaic, generally without any debate.)

At some point between first reading and second reading, the government tables the full text of the bill. The minister whose department is responsible for the legislation literally hands the text of the legislation to a House of Assembly page, who then carries it to the table in the middle of the House. Once the bill has been tabled, it's a public document. It gets posted on that Progress of Bills page and it gets delivered to the intrepid, pulchritudinous reporters of the press gallery.

It can be a matter of days or weeks after it's been tabled before a piece of legislation makes it to the floor of the House of Assembly for second reading.

This interval is the crux of what we're talking about here today.

It's what's had me pulling my hair out for the past three months, because in Newfoundland and Labrador, unlike any other jurisdiction in Canada I've spoken to, government minister flatly refuse to speak about a piece of legislation until the day it goes to second reading.

Let's recap really quickly: The bill becomes a public document, and is available for everyone to read. Yet for several days or weeks, the minister who was in charge of seeing it drafted won't speak about it publicly.

This might seem like a small thing, but let's see how it played out this week.

***

On Monday, a piece of legislation called the Personal Services Act got first reading in the House.

On Tuesday, the legislation was tabled, and we in the media learned it was regulating tattoo, piercing and tanning shops. When the law comes into effect, youths under 19-years-old won't be allowed to use indoor tanning facilities, and youths under 16 won't be allowed to get tattoos or piercings without parental consent.

This is a significant new bit of public policy. It's newsworthy.

Needless to say, I straightened my bow tie and got straight to work.

After contacting the communications folks in the Department of Health, I was told that Health Minister Susan Sullivan - the minister introducing the legislation - would not talk to me or anybody else about it until the day of second reading.

No problem.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael was happy to talk to me about it. So was Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons. They both had intelligent comments about making sure tattoo and piercing parlours are clean and hygienic. They both had insightful things to say about the health risks posed by skin cancer, and the risks posed by indoor tanning.

My story ran on the front page of Wednesday's paper; Sullivan was not quoted.

I didn't hear it personally, but I understand that VOCM reporter Danielle Baron also broadcast something about the tattoo and tanning legislation. She didn't quote Sullivan either.

On Wednesday, CBC reporter Lee Pitts had a story on the supper hour newscast, which involved a substantial investigation into the issue of underage tanning - the exact thing that the legislation was set to address. Pitts noted that there was legislation before the House which would regulate tanning salons, but he didn't get an interview with Sullivan either.

On Thursday morning, Sullivan held a news conference, where she was flanked by advocates for tattoo, piercing and tanning regulation. She explained the legislation to reporters, and answered questions about it.

Thursday afternoon, the Personal Services Act got second reading in the legislature

The thing is, by the time Sullivan held her news conference on Thursday, the legislation was old news.

In Friday's paper, the story quoting Sullivan is on page three. My story on the same legislation quoting the Liberals and NDP on Wednesday went on page one.

It's also worth noting that a month ago, The Telegram's bodacious business reporter, Dan MacEachern, wanted to do a story on regulating tanning salons. The legislation was clearly already in the works, but Sullivan refused to speak to him about it.

In Saturday's paper, just before the legislation was introduced to the House, our audacious arts reporter Tara Bradbury had a story about people in the tattoo industry asking the government for more regulation. Bradbury's interview request to Sullivan was also turned down.

***

Another situation happened earlier this year when I wanted to do a story about a suite of amendments to the Aquaculture Act when they were tabled in May. It wasn't earth-shattering stuff by any means, just some legislative changes that gave the minister more enforcement powers. The industry welcomed the changes, and both the Liberals and the New Democrats were supportive. Of course, Minister Darin King refused to speak to me about it before second reading.

No other media was interested in the amendments. I just think that aquaculture is a really fascinating industry, and the economic impact that it's had on the south coast of the island is astounding. Any excuse I can get to cover aquaculture, I tend to jump at it.

It would have been really nice to quote King on the story. But news is what's new, and I didn't want to wait and take the risk that John Furlong at the Fisheries Broadcast or somebody else might beat me to the story. Moreover, the government almost always issues a news release at second reading in the House of Assembly trumpeting the good work they're doing. If I waited until then, when King would be ready to talk to me, everyone would know about it, and the loyal Telegram readers wouldn't get the benefit of hearing about it first.

In the end, I did a story quoting everyone except King.

***

OK, so that's basically the lay of the legislative land. (And by the way, in case you can't already tell, clearly I'm no fan of this policy.)

It only seems fair to let the government explain why they do things this way. This is a policy that isn't confined to any one department, so I went to Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy and asked why government ministers refuse to do interviews before the day of second reading. I received an e-mailed statement in reply, which I'm reproducing here in its entirety:

"The practice of news releases, media interviews, news conferences, scrums etc not occurring on proposed legislation until the day of 2nd reading in the HOA is a practice that has been in place since well before 2003. I understand the rationale behind the practice was that it would be disrespectful to the House/MHAs to discuss legislation in any detailed way publicly before the Minister formally spoke to it in the House (second reading) and before debate occurred. I don't see us changing this practice. However, I think it would be reasonable for departments to provide a general comment/quote on the legislation prior to 2nd reading. This would be left to the discretion of the dept, with media going through the normal processes for media requests. Detailed information through debate in the House, news releases, news conferences, scrums or interviews, as appropriate, will continue to be provided on the day of 2nd reading."

It's worth noting that this policy is by no means standard across Canada. I sent a few notes off to other political reporters in Ottawa and other provinces. Nobody had heard about a policy like this, and I got e-mails back peppered with words like "bizarre" and "crazy." From what I hear, in other places, if it's good news and reporters are interested in it, government ministers can barely contain themselves, and they talk about it as soon as the legislation is publicly available.

If anybody reading this knows of any legislature in Canada (or for that matter, anywhere else in the world) that observes a similar rule, please leave a comment below.

It's also worth noting that on Thursday Sullivan had her news conference at 9 a.m. and was answering all manner of questions about the legislation in the morning. Second reading on the bill didn't happen until around 3 p.m. in the afternoon. If the rationale for the current policy is that it's inappropriate to discuss legislation with the media before you debate it in the House, that's not the way things are happening right now.

***

I appreciate Kennedy's response, and I respect the rationale that in theory, detailed debate should happen in the House of Assembly first. I also appreciate the apparent change of policy where the government may provide "a general comment/quote."

Trust me, that's a new development. Earlier this year when I was writing about the Aquaculture Act, I would have walked from St. John's to Belleoram for a general comment from Darin King. Earlier in the session, I would have walked all the way from here to Vancouver for a general comment on the amendment to the Pharmaceutical Services Act (but that's a whole different story. With that legislation, the government and both opposition parties had quietly entered into an agreement so no one would speak about it until second reading for a bunch of complicated reasons.)

But if I can shamelessly editorialize for a second, I really hope at some point in the near future, the government abandons this no-talking-till-second-reading policy all together.

The news is a competitive business, so journalists are going to work hard to make sure that their stories get out there first. If there's a public document floating around that's newsworthy, we're not going to wait days or weeks to do a story on it.

At the same time, legislation is complex, and written in the sort of legal language that can make it difficult for non-lawyers to interpret. Nobody is in a better position to explain the spirit and intent of a piece of legislation than the minister who is introducing it to the House. And the only way that reporters can be sure to understand a piece of legislation is if we can ask the minister questions.

If you go back to that Progress of Bills page you'll see that there are at least 11 more bills that the government wants to pass before the end of the session. At least four or five of them are contentious enough that we in the media might be doing stories on it.

I'll keep you updated on how it goes.

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