24 March 2005

To govern is to choose

Politics is about choices.

It is about voters making choices.

It is about politicians making choices.

On that level, there is no surprise in the government's defence of its decision not to build a cancer clinic in central Newfoundland. We had choices to make; the cancer clinic was something we decided not to do.


What's missing from that answer?

The why.

Why did the government decide not to build the clinic or even refurbish it?

Is it because they didn't have enough money? Nope. They were willing, as anyone can see, to spend $117 million paying off The Rooms and some school construction, thereby pushing the budget in deficit by $14 million.

Loyola Sullivan has excused that by saying they won't have to borrow to make up that $14 million. There is a loan from the Government of Canada for $378 million interest free that we will draw from.

Is it because the regional health authority didn't recommend it? Nope again. The clinic is the top priority. It got axed from last year's budget because last year there genuinely wasn't enough money.

The government's talking points on this issue have been conspicuously weak.

There have been attempts at misdirection, like the Premier's initial response today in which he brought up an interview given by Opposition Leader on Roger Grimes last week on reviewing salaries for Members of the House of Assembly.

There have been pious claims that cancer is important. "Next to of course God, America, I..." time again. The Premier has said repeatedly over the last few days what he said in the House today: " I have indicated previously that the issue of cancer is an issue that is very dear to my heart because we lost a family member within the last two weeks to cancer. So, it is something that I am very concerned about. "

I sympathize with the Premier; my grandmother has inoperable and essentially untreatable lymphoma. But so what, Premier Williams? If cancer was so important, then one would expect you were offering your personal bereavement as a reason to forgive you for spending too much money.

Premier Williams, if cancer was indeed so important to you and you could wave around a clipping from The Independent to rebut Roger Grimes, and, since we know you saw the NTV piece last week, why didn't you simply say that cabinet met after the NTV story and added a few bucks to the budget for Grand Falls. It isn't in the budget document because it had to be printed and that was finalized 10 days or so ago. Last minute addition. Urgent need. I think people would understand that.

There has been an attempt to claim that the Premier didn't know how bad things were there, making reference to the graphic images from last weeks' NTV documentary. The Premier is claiming, one supposes, that in all the time he has been Premier no one has ever managed to convey to him - not John Ottenheimer - not Beth Marshall - not the current health deputy or a previous one who is Clerk of the Executive Council - nor anyone else on the planet - that cancer is so important that a new facility or a refurbished one is need in central Newfoundland.

Then there is this statement made by the Premier in the legislature today:

"I also had an opportunity first-hand to see the cramped quarters which these people were in and, believe me, it certainly had an impact on me, there is absolutely no doubt about it.

The other thing, as I said before, Mr. Speaker, there has been a request for over $4 million for this particular clinic. We do have scarce funds in government. We are trying to be fiscally prudent and not waste money, not the extravagance that was carried on by previous governments with the Cabinet ministers and everybody flying all over the world at considerable expense. If they had been conservative in the money ..."

After acknowledging that he knew exactly how bad things were, the Premier then tries to pretend that all the money he brought back from Ottawa has disappeared. We are somehow in a time warp transported back to last spring. The problem for the Premier is that we attended the news conference, read the news reports and saw the TV ads about your great victory.

The Premier's comments quoted above are nothing less than a shameful attempt at obfuscation, a close cousin of deceit.

Then, there is the issue of John Ottenheimer's visit to the area for a first-hand look. This was the Day One government political response. It was an attempt to get the issue off the screen by expressing shock and taking seemingly spontaneous action - "it is so serious and shocking and cancer is so important, the Premier is putting the minister on a bus today". That served only to raise expectations which then had to be dampened. Hence the efforts on Wednesday at deflection.

But it turns out that Ottenheimer's sojourn in central is not in response to the clinic issue at all. Turns out he was already going to open a new dialysis unit. This will be a side trip.

Oh. I see.

And when all else failed, the Premier fell back on the old stand-by: "We had to clean up the mess left by that crowd on the Other Side, who didn't deal with this issue anyways when they were here."

After riding so high in the polls and after seeming to have mastered finally the political craft, on the second day of the Cancer Clinic Crisis, the Premier and his ministers are flopping around for some plausible response. Their political staff remains apparently so inept or unaware that they either never anticipated this issue arising or they can't figure out a good response. Fire the lot and send them packing with the same crowd that wrote the hideous speech in January last year.
Here's a novel idea: how about telling people the truth?

To govern is to choose. That's a "gimme". So the choice was made, Premier Williams and you made it.

To govern is also to be accountable to the voters.

To be accountable, the Premier need only explain why government chose not to build a cancer clinic that they all knew about. It's much simpler than the nonsense in which the Premier and other ministers are now engaged.

If the reasons were sound, if the judgment was clear, then the Premier need worry about nothing.

But here's the other side of it, Premier Williams, in case you want to take advice from someone else and keep on your current course:

In politics, you can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before someone takes the gun away from you.