Bill 29 is only part of the problem

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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I don’t make a habit of writing whole columns about letters to the editor — especially about letters to the editor that are cogent and to the point — but on the weekend, there was a short missive from Topsail’s David Murphy that included these two lines about this province’s recently limited freedom of information law.

Confederation Building under wraps. July 16. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

“And while you are at it, at least tell them to stop whining about Bill 29, get off their backsides, and start doing some real research and writing to uncover the information  they want from government.

“Tell them to stop crying for crumbs, get out there and do some real work, like was done in ‘the old days’ by real hard-working journalists.”

If this seems like an “I’ve got more ink than you, so here’s a smacking” column, I apologize, because that’s not the point.

It’s just that Mr. Murphy makes an interesting argument: I’ve been working in this province as a journalist for a couple of decades (one of the first provinces in the country with freedom of information legislation — legislation, it’s worth noting, brought in by the former PC government of Brian Peckford), and one of the things that is clear is that it’s an extremely difficult place to do investigative journalism.

Why?

Because it is a small place where the provincial government — of any political stripe — has a long reach. It funds businesses, it partners with businesses, it “invests” in businesses, and often, it is a major customer of businesses. And he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

If I had a nickel for every outraged businessperson I’ve talked to about government issues who then turned around and refused to be even an anonymous source in an article, I’d be retired.

Some of this province’s toughest businesspeople are simply scared witless of even the chance of the government thinking they might have spoken to the media — because the risk of damage to the bottom line is too great.

Not long ago, former Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce president Barry Warren said that Municipal Affairs minister Kevin O’Brien had threatened the chamber.

Why, Warren was asked, aren’t other businessmen coming forward to support the story?

Easy, he said: they do business with government, and they can’t afford to talk.

It’s not only Mr. Warren who has made that point in recent days: former P.C. cabinet minister Shawn Skinner has expressed much the same sentiments when talking about Nalcor contracts going to foreign businesses inexperienced with conditions in Labrador.

Skinner has said his company considered the impact of speaking out before coming forward, and decided they were big enough — and broad enough — to shoulder the risk.

And it’s easy to understand why businesses take that position. When you’re doing business with an elephant, you worry about it rolling over.

One of the other options to address Murphy’s concerns? Perhaps backroom discussion with civil servants.

Tough. Successive governments in this province — again, of different stripes — have made it clear that even such contact is grounds for immediate firing.

Liberal Paul Dicks, years ago, made an interesting point when he suggested there was no need for whistleblower legislation in this province (a position that, by continuing to delay such legislation, the current administration seems to agree with).

Dicks said civil servants are government employees first: they owe their loyalty to their employers, and should deal with issues the way employees deal with employers.

Fundamentally, then, public servants in this province are not actually public servants — their loyalty is not to the public, but to whatever government signs their cheques.

Effective access to information legislation is not about making it easy for journalists: there’s nothing easy about the months it takes to make requests, winnow through mountains of documents and then go through the process of long interviews based on a partially carved up and redacted paper trail.

It’s not a shortage of reportorial shoe leather — it’s more about the imbalance of a small province with a very big, and very far reaching, provincial government.

Access to information legislation just does a little bit to level a seriously-tipped playing field.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. Email: rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce

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  • Pierre Neary
    September 25, 2013 - 20:55

    Even the wrong joke about the wrong person in NL can land you in hot water. Brings to mind Danny Williams and Craig Wescott.

  • TIPFINLAY
    September 24, 2013 - 17:02

    Mr. Wangersky's points are valid as far as they go. Yes, this is a small population province with a very large government that exerts huge influence on almost every aspect of business. Moreover, our business sector - unlike that of other jurisdictions - revolves almost exclusively around natural resources. Those resources are largely government controlled. Government's influence, of course, extends into municipal government (of which we have many) as well as into the non-for-profit sector (a much larger segment of our economy than most people realize). So no - nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds it. That is what makes oversight so important ('oversight' in the American context of independent agencies established to keep governments lawful, honest and accountable). We have a handful of those agencies in this province - including the Information Commissioner. Unfortunately, unlike the U.S. where the President has limited power to get rid of a commissioner who doesn't spout the government line, our Premier has much more latitude. That, I believe, accounted for the decision of the Information Commissioner to issue a statement last year in support of Bill 29. Hard to have any faith in his office after that. But beyond government's decision to gut access legislation, there are other reasons for the failure of our media to conduct indepth, let alone investigative reporting. The Telegram, VOCM and NTV are, after all, businesses and as such also rely in varying degrees on the good will of government. Moreover, this is a business sector that has seen an enormous retrenchment in recent years. Newsrooms all across the country have been reduced to a skeletal crew, if not eliminated altogether. Deterred by costs, eroding profit margins and fear of losing government advertising, corporate media has pulled in its horns. That leaves CBC - the public owned agency whose whole existence was predicated on the need for news and public affairs reporting not beholding to advertisers or shareholders. Successive governments and especially the current one - have cut CBC's news budget to the quick. The TV station here on Parkway has become something of a sick joke. Last evening's CBC supposed 'one-hour newscast' actually contained four minutes of local news (two stories) before the station switched to their Toronto feed - which in this instance was the story out of Kenya. By contrast, NTV's local coverage ran for 40 minutes before switching to national/international news. Add to that the propensity of the local CBC to use their weatherman like an all-day lollipop. Why not just call it a one-hour weather cast? Don't they realize we have computers? CBC local management are not to blame but nor are they blameless. Harper realizes there would be a public backlash if he killed the CBC outright, so he has condemned it to death by way of a thousand cuts. All that said, journalists still have a great deal of opportunity and flexibility if they choose to use it. Many simply don't realize their own potential to be game-changers. There are much fewer good role models locally or globally than there were 20 or 30 years ago - reporters that were like pit-bull terriers when they got their teeth into a story. Tough guys that would as soon hand in their resignation if they thought the news director or station manager was getting in their way. No sadly, that calibre of Watergate-era journalist has all but disappeared from mainstream media. The good news is that they are beginning to resurface - slowly, tentatively - online. Call it the Snowden effect. There is a growing realization out there that government has become increasingly cynical, secretive and corrupt. It refuses to keep itself honest. It desperately needs a kick up the Duff on a regular basis. And at least as long as government doesn't get its grimy hands on it, we can look to the internet to replace a little of what we have lost, for example, in the transition from the Evening Telegram to the Telegram.

  • Winston Adams
    September 24, 2013 - 15:52

    All men are liars Jesus says in the good book. I always find it interesting how far some will stretch the truth. It is a tool for humour, but not for serious issues. Russell, you say " If I had a nickel for every outraged businessperson I've talked to about government issues who then turned around and refused to be even an anonymous source in an article, I'd be retired. How true is that statement? Let's say you need just 100,000 dollars to retire, which is not much these days. You need to have talked to 2 million outraged businesspeople here at a nickel each. With about half million people here, ........ well , your arithmetic is very poor, so you need very little to retire. I get your point , just don't go too far making it.

  • Terry
    September 24, 2013 - 15:29

    Thomas Jefferson warned about this two hundred years ago. " The government that becomes strong enough to give you everything you want becomes powerful enough to take away everything you have". He was a lawyer not a psychic. Anything change since then? Absolute power corrupts absolutely! People still think Nfld, Canada, US are governed by people we voted for.

  • Right Wild
    September 24, 2013 - 15:15

    Regardless of Wangerskys "point" , it seems a senior citizens letter and opinion has twisted some undergarments.

  • EDfromRED
    September 24, 2013 - 12:10

    A province with First World possibilities deserves better than a Third World Government.

  • Nessie
    September 24, 2013 - 09:30

    Mr. Murphy's letter to the editor regarding your editorial gave you the opportunity to make a Great Retort and I am Happy you took the advantage since you struck the nail right on the head, with having to do very little investigative journalism The problem is staring us all in the face. I am going to comment on two of your points Mr. Wangersky. In your first statement you said "one of the things that is clear is that Newfoundland and Labrador is an extremely difficult place to do investigative journalism". "Why you asked"? Your answer was "because it is a small place where the provincial government — of any political stripe — has a long reach. It funds businesses, it partners with businesses, it “invests” in businesses, and often, it is a major customer of businesses. And he who pays the piper, calls the tune. In your second statement you said "Not long ago, former Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce president Barry Warren said that Municipal Affairs minister Kevin O’Brien had threatened the chamber". "Why, Warren was asked, aren’t other businessmen coming forward to support the story"? "Easy, he said: they do business with government, and they can’t afford to talk...... MY OPINION IS, IF OTHERS AMONGST US HAVEN'T NOTICE, that these are the very reasons our province has not been able to move forward over the past 64 years, then we will be in great economic turmoil for a long, long time to come Between the political system in our province and that in Ottawa, we have become the basket case of Canada and that is despite our great abundant natural resource base and our great strategic geographic location situated at every point on the Atlantic Ocean Trade routes. Corruption abounds in Newfoundland and Labrador and it will be the order of the day until the electorate of our province smartens up. Don't expect those who are getting rich from the Corrupt Political and Economic System described in your article to stop protesting on their own behalf, they will forever keep the rest of us in the "have not" echelon of society. We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who are the great majority have to take a Stand!!!! It is in our hands! By the way Bill 29 was instituted to cover up a lot of sins and amongst them are those who would be perceived to have 'conflict of interests' over contracts they will be awarded for the development of Muskrat Falls.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    September 24, 2013 - 08:52

    Priceless. Right to the point. Right to the heart of the issue. Well done Mr. Wangersky. You have been, and are, doing a great service to the people of this province.

  • Ben
    September 24, 2013 - 08:49

    It’s funny you mention the incident in Gander, brought forward by a defeated Liberal candidate in the area. BTW the chamber did come out and say that things were blown out of proportion and things did not happen that way. What MHA would hold back money from his own district? It doesn’t even make sense! In most districts in this province if there is a function taking place, the elected officials in that area would take part in it. I don't know why an MHA from the St Johns area would expect to be acknowledged there, he/she can certainly be there but would not serve a function. This is much to do about nothing! The funniest thing I have seen is David Zelcer chasing Kevin O'Brien around Hotel Gander asking him for a comment. Maybe he should have asked Scott Simms if he was allowed to serve breakfast that morning. I think we all know what he would have said and that’s why it has not been reported. So to me I would like to see the reporters research and report all sides of a story, not just the negative one against the government. But then I guess it’s what sells a story and that’s what journalism in NL is about these days.

  • Don II
    September 24, 2013 - 08:29

    Well said Mr. Wangersky, you have hit the nail on the head! The facts and the truth cannot be known in Newfoundland and Labrador due to the culture of secrecy and cover up that has long existed at every level within the Government of Newfoundland. The behind the scenes secret meetings, the back dated letters, the lobbyists (registered or not) and their influence , the smear tactics used to discredit critics, the withholding of information, the real reasons behind the changes to legislation, the ignoring of blatant breaches of the law, the unethical (if not unlawful)plans and plots hatched by politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies are rarely exposed. It appears that if the media could access the facts and the truth there would be a Government involved scandal headline to publish every week!

  • Concerned Citizen
    September 24, 2013 - 08:04

    I agree with Mr. Wangersky. A prime example of this is the legal aid lawer in Gander who was suspended by his employer, the PC government, after he spoke out against justice cuts in the March budget.

  • Colin
    September 24, 2013 - 08:01

    Sorry to be "that guy," but you are in the business of writing, so: If you had a nickel for every businessperson you talked to, you'd have five cents. One nickel in payment for every time. In order to make more than that, you'd need a nickel for "each" one you talked to.

  • Eli
    September 24, 2013 - 07:38

    Well said Mr. Wangersky. I've said it for years: "Where's the opinion of the so called intelligentia in matters that need to be questioned". There are 2 few but like you said, they're scared witless in fear of losing some lucrative contract or appointment to a board.

  • John Smith
    September 24, 2013 - 07:26

    Mr. Wangersky continues his tired tirade against the sitting government. He is against muskrat Falls, he was against Danny Williams, he is against Cathy Dunderdale...we know Russle...we know...we get it...thanks for protecting us from the big bad government...what would we ever do without your cliches, and hackneyed prose to keep us safe from the injustices of those out to get us...save us Russle...save us from the evil PCs...LOL give me a break...

    • Eli
      September 25, 2013 - 15:19

      Save us o Lord from the PC governments of this world.

  • hua mulan
    September 24, 2013 - 07:20

    this is some good article. I think what he is saying is that it is not Bill29 that is the culprit, but ourselves; it is not that the system is undemocratic, but something we poore peoples have let happen to be. Is he also not saying that before Confederation, our little towns were run by the whatever stripe of clergy was predominant therein, whereas now our little towns and successfullll businesses are successful because they kowtow to whatever political stripe is running the really big shew? Bill29 has not only hidden but really just made legal the long accepted nepotism, corruption and graft that is going down as normal affaires d'estates in our loverly idyllic quaint little far east of the western world just as advertised home province????

  • Jon Smith
    September 24, 2013 - 06:55

    "Executive Council September 23, 2013 Government’s Action on Disclosure Reflects Principles of Right to Know Week " See-government wants us to know everything that they want us to know and that they think we can handle. So why whine about it-just go away and wait until 2015 when government will tell us how to vote. No pressure being a Newfoundlander-just lay back and do as you're told and just because you're in that position don't think for a minute you are being screwed.

  • Pauline
    September 24, 2013 - 05:46

    Ok what's the difference between the liberals and the pcs, nothing, Because the Liberals been hiding behind Bill 29 since July 5 /2013, When they said no to Mr Murphy from corner brook. From running for the provincial liberal leadership race. All because of his article of June 24/2013. If this man is so bad, why don't they lets the people know. Its their duty.