Every other week, someone’s hard-luck story shows up in newsprint or on TV. He or she looks to be in a bad way — perhaps grossly overweight or thin and emaciated, tribulations written all over their face.
These are the poor, the sick, the less fortunate in society. Under a less caring state, they would be left to live in squalor, or perish in an alleyway. But in this country, fellow citizens pony up with their taxes to create a social welfare net.
Some people fall through the cracks. Others may get money they’re not entitled to. But what’s universally true is that social assistance can involve drawn-out dealings with a seemingly callous bureaucracy.
Enter Ryan Cleary.
Cleary, the NDP MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, publicly tore a strip off provincial Advanced Education Minister Joan Burke this week. He said Burke’s department has ignored the plight of a woman who wants to return to her life in Alberta but lacks the means to get there.
The woman applied under what’s called the “stranded persons” repatriation transportation policy. The department reportedly rejected her claim, so Cleary has been going to bat for her.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar situation arose in March.
In that case, then Liberal House leader Jim Bennett was outed in the legislature for leaving a blistering phone message with Burke’s staff over another person looking for help with transportation.
Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy made the phone rant sound like an international war crime. Bennett eventually apologized.
But lost in it all was the very real frustration people can feel dealing with government departments.
There are a couple of things to consider here.
First, there’s the dilemma of the individual case file.
People hitting bureaucratic roadblocks can always bring their pleas to the media. But the government can’t talk about specific cases. So the whole thing becomes one-sided and emotional.
Sometimes, justice prevails, but it doesn’t always result in a happy ending.
Whereas Bennett’s phone message included a threat to go to the media, Cleary obviously followed through on his.
If this is how social assistance appeals are to be handled now, there’s something very wrong with the system.
Furthermore, Cleary’s inability to get anywhere with this case certainly seems to reflect the new order at Confederation Building.
Ministers’ assistants have become departmental gatekeepers, turning even the most routine appeal into a political mug’s game. This process is now entrenched in the new “access” law, Bill 29. And it is infuriatingly wrong-headed.
The media can play an important role as advocate, standing up for the oppressed. But sometimes people simply don’t qualify for assistance.
And neither the media nor politicians should be the routine arbiters of that.