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.