Ministers rule

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There’s a big difference between politicians and journalists. Politicians are elected to their posts; journalists aren’t.

When an elected member of the legislature goes to bat for a constituent, he or she is doing his job. Journalists are not specifically tasked to help citizens out. Their job is to tell a story — to inform people of what’s going on.

It’s a crucial distinction.

This past spring, the media complained that the province’s new access-to-information legislation is too restrictive. It puts too much power in the hands of ministers — ministers who have a variety of means to arbitrarily withhold information they deem too sensitive for public eyes.

That’s alarming enough as it is.

Now, the province seems to be extending that policy to sitting MHAs. And that sends a chilling message to members who are trying to help the citizens who elected them.

The government confirmed this week that all requests for help or information now have to go through the minister’s executive assistant.

“It’s a violation of people’s confidentiality,” New Democrat Gerry Rogers told the CBC. “It politicizes the work that we do … when it’s just working on behalf of individual constituents.”

Apart from raising privacy issues, funneling all such requests through the minister’s office sends an alarming signal to citizens.

“The minister has no right, nor any need, to know about the particular issues of an individual constituent in our riding,” she said.

Rogers is right. The policy raises serious questions.

Journalists know how frustrating it is to have to go through ministers for information. The issue came to a head in 2008 when the Williams government decided to clamp down on government experts speaking directly to reporters. Instead, all questions had to go to the minister.

It resulted in a parade of useless interviews, with ministers stumbling through matters they knew little about — everything from health care to fire safety. The experts who could explain these things were essentially gagged.

Under the new policy for MHAs, constituent requests must similarly take a circuitous route, one more prone to confusion and delays.

But the most sinister factor is one Rogers alluded to — the politicization of public assistance.

Before now, an MHA could go straight to a public servant for help, someone whose job it is to deal with the specific request. That servant generally had no stake in who or what was behind the query.

Now, every request has the potential to be run through a partisan filter. Is that opposition member getting a little too ambitious? Let’s throw a little monkey wrench in the works. Is that request coming from a government district? Put that one on the fast track, shall we?

In bringing down new measures to filter virtually all information through ministers, this government was adamant it would treat all requests fairly.

Trust us, they said. We have your best interests at heart.

It’s a patronizing message. And it comes from an administration that seems increasingly determined to close itself off from scrutiny.

Promises are fine, but actions speak volumes.

Organizations: CBC

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Recent comments

  • uncivil servant
    August 16, 2012 - 21:27

    I don't know if it's a formal policy but that's the usual practice. It's been that way for as long as I can recall (going back to the Wells years). The normal practice is to contact your equivalent. For example, Directors contact directors, managers to managers, MHA office to Minister, etc. If an MHA was to contact a manager or employee then the response is usually sent back through the Minister's office. The reason is that employees do not want to get dragged into any political games. Likewise, calls from backbencher's office should also go though the minister's office. If a file is considered to be confidential then the managers or employee will not speak with the MHA anyway.

  • What Qualifications
    August 16, 2012 - 10:12

    You do not need any educational or professional qualifications to be political support staff. None. Friends of the Party, bag carriers or bed warmers to the politician. Tat's the problem with the new plan.

  • Richard
    August 16, 2012 - 09:52

    The politcal culture of Danny remains alive and well in this province. Fear, control, intimidation. It's as if he never left.

  • Skeptical Cynic
    August 16, 2012 - 08:52

    If the Dunderdale crowd's poll numbers are any indication, their new approach at trying to micro-manage the flow of information has backfired on them. Not very politically astute, and I'd say there's more than one MHA now worried about Dunderdale's questionable leadership qualities, and how it's all going to play out in the next election. Hell, the woman wouldn't even be there if it wasn't for Danny Williams. The question still remains tho: will the party that forms the next government commit to repealing the Dunderdale'government version of the Official Secrets Act?

  • Scott Free
    August 16, 2012 - 08:12

    ah, the Secret Society known as The Con Party of NL at it's finest. These Harperites have taken on some of the more sinister characteristics of Prorougie Steve and his paranoid American cousins, the Republican Party. The Con Party of NL is more concerned with patronage appointments, lies, deceit, and cover-ups than representing its constituents.

  • Too Funny
    August 16, 2012 - 07:49

    "It’s a violation of people’s confidentiality,”. Huh? If it's confidential then it means government employees cannot talk to you about it as well.