Anatomy of a smear

Peter
Peter Jackson
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"I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

- Rodney Dangerfield

As in hockey games, political discourse often devolves into the rhetorical equivalent of head shots and fistfights.

Similarly, it often takes a while to sort things out - who the instigators were, who needs two minutes in the clink and who should hang up their skates for the rest of the season.

"I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

- Rodney Dangerfield

As in hockey games, political discourse often devolves into the rhetorical equivalent of head shots and fistfights.

Similarly, it often takes a while to sort things out - who the instigators were, who needs two minutes in the clink and who should hang up their skates for the rest of the season.

Not so last week.

There are a few factors we don't know about heightened tensions between doctors and the provincial government. But there's no doubt who the instigators are: Premier Danny Williams and Health Minister Jerome Kennedy.

And the pair should apologize for it - unequivocally.

Let's set aside the "demands" doctors may be making in contract negotiations. Perhaps they are "through the roof" - as the premier so eloquently put it - although you'd hope some headway has been made after a year of talks.

And let's set aside the situation with pathologists and other doctors in leadership roles, many of whom are resigning those posts or considering it in light of intense scrutiny by their employer - scrutiny that led to justifiable disciplinary action the previous week before for delays in reporting lab errors.

Let's get down to the brass tacks of contract talks. And let's attempt to answer this question while we're at it: who, in the name of God, do Williams and Kennedy think they are?

First, there was Kennedy's wild assertion in front of the media that pathologists are being "childish." His comments were spurred by an external review that found a "toxic" environment in local laboratories.

Kennedy had no qualms about tarring all pathologists with the same brush. And for reasons that weren't apparent then, he also cited these doctors' salaries - about $350,000 a year.

A couple of days later, the premier weighed in. He had a perfect opportunity to play down Kennedy's hostile rhetoric. Never one to resist tossing gasoline on the fire, however, Williams took it up a notch.

He said he would have used stronger, "more dramatic" language to describe the specialists.

Stronger language?

It's no secret Williams likes to throw around charged terms like "traitor" and "shafted" on occasion. Most voters are willing to shrug it off as the darker side of what they see as tough leadership.

But when the premier says he regrets not getting the chance to join in the pummelling, something is frightfully wrong.

This is not leadership. It's mud-flinging. It's sand-kicking, sucker-punching. It is, in a word, childish.

On Thursday night, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA) was informed by an official that negotiations were off. Or that the next meeting was off. Or that meetings were off - for now, at least. Or maybe permanently.

The message, it appears, was ambiguous. But the NLMA took it to mean talks were off. Association president Brendan Lewis wrote the premier to say any chances for fair negotiations were clearly dashed, and asked for binding arbitration.

The response?

Talks weren't called off, Kennedy assured reporters Friday morning. Nope. Only one meeting was cancelled. And it was cancelled - wait for it - in retaliation because the NLMA was funnelling information - specifically threats of mass resignation of pathologists - through the Liberal party.

These so-called "threats," of course, were no secret. A few pathologists had already stepped down from lab posts or taken sick leave. And Eastern Health CEO Vickie Kaminski admits she'd already been hearing from concerned pathologists throughout the week.

As NLMA CEO Rob Ritter made clear, the NLMA has no control over the actions of any doctor or even any group of doctors.

This isn't the Teamsters; it's a professional association.

Deliberately or not, Williams and Kennedy had concocted a bogus conspiracy theory involving pathologists, the NLMA and the Opposition.

To the beleaguered Ritter, there's little doubt what was going on.

Kennedy's curious reference to wages earlier in the week was obviously calculated to spur public resentment against doctors, and to kick off a campaign of smear and sabotage.

"Tying the negotiations to (Kennedy's) comments criticizing doctors in the lab - all of those things together lead me to believe that there is a bit of an orchestrated plan here to prime the public on a particular mindset," Ritter told the CBC. (Ritter had, till that point, steadfastly resisted speculating about the government's motives.)

On Friday, the premier sent a stern letter to the NLMA, stoking the flames even higher.

"This government does not respond favourably to threats or misleading information," he wrote.

Threats, indeed.

Well, in the same vein, doctors in this province should not stand for unprovoked intimidation and smears. Nor, for that matter, should the public stand for it. If the premier has a shred of decency or an ounce of courage left, he should apologize.

He should apologize for his personal attacks, for the poisonous atmosphere he's created and nurtured, and for deliberately sabotaging the discretion and trust crucial to contract negotiations.

He should take responsibility for this mess. And he should do it now.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, CBC

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Recent comments

  • isdaby
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Doctors are starting to behave like teachers & nurses. True professionals dont take planned sick leave. What are pathologist anyway. Seems to my there just glorfied lab tecs & not very good ones at that.

  • Susan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    What's the big deal about a pathologist's salary being made public?? If I recall correctly, when the NLNU were negotiating, full page ads were in this very paper with all salaries published. Is this any different or are, once again, physicians being held to a different standard than the rest of us????

  • the rams
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    Soldier of Danny your mom called, your Kraft Dinner is ready. Oh yeah and a big glass of Kool aid. Nerds. :(

  • Geoff
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    Excellent column, Peter. You nailed it.

  • John Doe
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    So let's get this right. Williams government...bad...Doctors...good...Oh my. The telegram is now practicing WWF tag team spin doctoring. I can see Peter and Russell now, who's gonna bash the gov. today Russ? Me or you? Well I guess Peter is right. The doctors can do know wrong. We should just keep on giving them whatever they want, right. They deserve it. Besides if we don't they will all go to the mainland.

  • mom
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    Excellent column. The external review found a toxic environment in local laboratories - could this have been caused by too much work for too few staff? If you are going to be publishing the doctors salaries, shouldn't you include the salaries they would receive in other provinces for comparison? I do agree with the need for an apology by the premier.

  • Darrell
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Excellent column Peter. Coming from someone who doesn't attack Danny for the sake of doing so, it adds that much more cred to your argument.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Jackson's article, true to form, has captured the essence of the leadership in this province . Williams' behaviour has to change drastically . During his tenure as premier Williams' outbursts have become all too predictable . No one person ---- Justice Cameron or organization -- Eastern Health , NLMA , is exempt from his critical attacks . The old adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks rings true in this case . Williams , sad to say is not about to change his tactics , and because his actions are so anticipated and rigid , he will be the architect of his own undoing .

  • Soldier of Danny
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    Its a shame that the same person who directed the greatest movie trilogy of all time has to share the same name as this tool of a writer.

  • Jerry
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Thank you for writing such a clear, well-argued, and timely column. It's the best statement I've read on this story.

  • Peter (Reader)
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    The column displays a little of a Dicken's mentality - Oliver Twist - the work house boys fear say ....please sir, may I have some more(gruel).... for fear of getting less gruel.

    Lawyers are (supposed to be) trained to stand up to hospitals and Doctors and Nurses in their client's interest. Perhaps that is the difference between US and CDN health care - fear of litigation. Whether this deters bad medicine or intimates good medicine - who knows??

    To paraphrase DW - it's your health, your life, your decision - hurt feelings by any other party is secondary and childish.

    (Still a good column, though!)

  • Taxpayer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    This is just one in many examples that the government just doesn't know how to govern. You would think that being able to interact with people would be a skill that these people had learned, but it is just not so. In the case of the doctors also they have picked a fight with a group they cannot win again. Boys resign and let some one capable takeover.

  • isdaby
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    Doctors are starting to behave like teachers & nurses. True professionals dont take planned sick leave. What are pathologist anyway. Seems to my there just glorfied lab tecs & not very good ones at that.

  • Susan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    What's the big deal about a pathologist's salary being made public?? If I recall correctly, when the NLNU were negotiating, full page ads were in this very paper with all salaries published. Is this any different or are, once again, physicians being held to a different standard than the rest of us????

  • the rams
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    Soldier of Danny your mom called, your Kraft Dinner is ready. Oh yeah and a big glass of Kool aid. Nerds. :(

  • Geoff
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    Excellent column, Peter. You nailed it.

  • John Doe
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    So let's get this right. Williams government...bad...Doctors...good...Oh my. The telegram is now practicing WWF tag team spin doctoring. I can see Peter and Russell now, who's gonna bash the gov. today Russ? Me or you? Well I guess Peter is right. The doctors can do know wrong. We should just keep on giving them whatever they want, right. They deserve it. Besides if we don't they will all go to the mainland.

  • mom
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    Excellent column. The external review found a toxic environment in local laboratories - could this have been caused by too much work for too few staff? If you are going to be publishing the doctors salaries, shouldn't you include the salaries they would receive in other provinces for comparison? I do agree with the need for an apology by the premier.

  • Darrell
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Excellent column Peter. Coming from someone who doesn't attack Danny for the sake of doing so, it adds that much more cred to your argument.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    Jackson's article, true to form, has captured the essence of the leadership in this province . Williams' behaviour has to change drastically . During his tenure as premier Williams' outbursts have become all too predictable . No one person ---- Justice Cameron or organization -- Eastern Health , NLMA , is exempt from his critical attacks . The old adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks rings true in this case . Williams , sad to say is not about to change his tactics , and because his actions are so anticipated and rigid , he will be the architect of his own undoing .

  • Soldier of Danny
    July 01, 2010 - 20:01

    Its a shame that the same person who directed the greatest movie trilogy of all time has to share the same name as this tool of a writer.

  • Jerry
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    Thank you for writing such a clear, well-argued, and timely column. It's the best statement I've read on this story.

  • Peter (Reader)
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    The column displays a little of a Dicken's mentality - Oliver Twist - the work house boys fear say ....please sir, may I have some more(gruel).... for fear of getting less gruel.

    Lawyers are (supposed to be) trained to stand up to hospitals and Doctors and Nurses in their client's interest. Perhaps that is the difference between US and CDN health care - fear of litigation. Whether this deters bad medicine or intimates good medicine - who knows??

    To paraphrase DW - it's your health, your life, your decision - hurt feelings by any other party is secondary and childish.

    (Still a good column, though!)

  • Taxpayer
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    This is just one in many examples that the government just doesn't know how to govern. You would think that being able to interact with people would be a skill that these people had learned, but it is just not so. In the case of the doctors also they have picked a fight with a group they cannot win again. Boys resign and let some one capable takeover.