Going to bat

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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.

Organizations: NDP MP, Liberal House, Confederation Building

Geographic location: Alberta, March.In

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    November 09, 2012 - 10:01

    A question we might someday discuss on its merits is: Ought government to provide for people's needs, or is its function chiefly to allow them to provide for their own needs as efficiently as ordinary people are well able to do when properly brought up? Should not government's giving us what we deserve mean only its inflicting on us any detriment we deserve by what we do, so that we can deserve benefits by what we do to get them? Or is it not true that what we deserve are the effects of what we do?

  • Maggy Carter
    November 09, 2012 - 09:18

    Peculiar editorial. You had me until the penultimate paragraph. The regularity with which hard luck, often heartfelt, human misery stories appear in the media. Often, as you say, someone who has 'fallen through the cracks' of our social services net. Then there are those politicians, like Cleary and Bennett, who go public or - in Bennett's case - are outed because of their frustration in pressing the case of their unfortunate constituents. From there, of course, it is a natural segway into Bill 29 and the Dunderdale's strategy for sucking the oxygen out of any public discussion that might reflect on the shortcomings of her government. Your editorial roundly condemns Bill 29 and the rise of the political assistant as arbitrary gatekeeper of what information should, or more importantly should not, see the light of day. But then just as I think you're about to finish with some profound thought or conclusion that wraps the whole thing - the next thing I know you've done a one-eighty and driven off a cliff. 'Sometimes people simply don't qualify for assistance' ... and, in effect, the media and politicians shouldn't be taking up their cause. Yes, it would be nice if we lived in a world where legislation and regulations guaranteed social justice and where bureaucrats would always interpret the rules correctly. But we don't yet live in Utopia. It isn't one size fits all, the policies aren't always fair, or a low level government manager is simply not having a good day. Representing the interests of all their constituents - including those who, for whatever reason, are not thriving under our capitalistic system - is a trait we should encourage, not condemn. I'm not always a Cleary fan, but I do applaud any politician who goes that last mile to the job he was elected to do. If in the end, the decision refusing help is found to be the correct one, then that's O.K. too, but at least the supplicant will have received his/her day in the court of public opinion. And sometimes, as in the case of the Rogers family from Stephenville, the public attention to someone's plight elicits a response from the general public that helps solve a problem with or without a change of heart by a minister or her gatekeeping political assistant.