Am Mr. Ned and I would like to order COLUMNS from you and would like to know the types and sizes you have in stock as well as the prices and the types of credit cards that you take for payment. Thank you and waiting to hear from you as soon as possible.
Perhaps it is intemperate to compare a sitting premier to a phishing mission from an Internet scammer — but my purpose in the comparison is to point out that, sometimes, what you convey is something other than what you intended.
Mr. Ned, whoever he might be, emailed me Tuesday night. Somewhere in the wilds of the Internet, he deduced that I was in the columns business. Not that hard, really. Mistakenly, though, he thought that the columns I produced were more, well, structural and less literal — hence his request for the types and sizes of columns I have in stock. A pretty basic misunderstanding — not that kind of column, this kind of column.
Now, to Premier Kathy Dunderdale and a different kind of misunderstanding.
Dunderdale, new to running a provincial government, is in real danger of making the mistake that because she’s able to do something, she actually should do it.
It may be just jitters about the new legislative session, but Dunderdale has started screening the questions she takes from the media.
Here’s how things usually work at the House of Assembly: reporters send a note into the House after Question Period, asking the premier or ministers or opposition members to come out and answer questions on particular issues. Out come the requested politicians, the camera lights come on and interviews occur.
This week, the premier’s staff began interceding with reporters, vetting their questions in advance and saying that the premier wouldn’t comment on particular issues.
The federal government’s argument that there should be provincial elections to fill Senate vacancies? The premier has nothing to say on that.
How about provincial subsidies for a new AHL team for St. John’s? Once again, the premier had nothing to offer — except to send out one of her ministers to be cannon fodder.
Sending out a minion doesn’t make you look commanding — it makes you look afraid. Afraid of the questions, afraid of giving the answers. Or worse: incapable.
Telegram reporter Steve Bartlett got portions of the premier’s briefing notes from when she took over the job, using access to information legislation. He had some questions, and even offered a week’s time to respond — the response from the premier’s office?
The premier won’t comment on anything contained in the notes whatsoever. No questions. No answers. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Then, there was the premier’s Wednesday travel to the MacMorran Community Centre in St. John’s: a press release went out Wednesday announcing “The Honourable Kathy Dunderdale, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, will address the annual general meeting of the MacMorran Community Centre, today (Wednesday, May 25).”
The announcement was issued at 10:50 a.m., just 10 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin. Media who managed to make it there were told — despite the wording of the news release — that the premier was appearing as an area MHA, and would therefore not be commenting on anything as premier.
Not that kind of politician, this kind of politician.
A bad road to pick
The problem is where this all leads, should the premier decide to continue with this routine.
We’ve had Bunker Premiers before. Years ago, if you wanted to speak to Premier Brian Peckford, you had to give your questions to his press secretary, Frank Petten, who would often simply respond: “The boss doesn’t want to talk about that.”
Trouble is, reporters still need answers, so generally, they put up with the foolishness for a while, and then they resort to the far-less-structured ambush interview, where they ignore anything close to propriety and just start flinging questions at politicians — who then end up looking stupid while fleeing, or end up answering things awkwardly in a rush.
It is impossible to look like a statesman when you’re being chased down a hall by television camera crews, or when you’re fumbling desperately to get your keys into the car door. You inevitably look like a criminal doing the “perp walk” at provincial court, ducking and weaving to avoid the questions and the lights.
So, just like I’d suggest to Mr. Ned that there are two distinctly different kinds of columns, I’d suggest to Dunderdale that there are two kinds of politicians: those who look decisive, and those who just look, well, scared.
There is no doubt a premier can send a cabinet minister out to answer questions that she would rather not. There’s no doubt that a premier can stay in the House of Assembly to avoid the things she doesn’t want to be caught saying.
It sure does tell everyone else what type and size of premier you have in stock.
Right, Mr. Ned?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.