09 May 2007

Homer Taylor

Two days.

Two news releases from innovation minister Trevor Taylor accusing the opposition of misinforming the people of Newfoundland and Labrador about the $20 million fibreoptic deal Taylor announced last fall on behalf of the provincial government.

Check the first one and the second one both accusing the opposition of selectively releasing information.

What's wrong with this picture?

Disclosure of information on a government project in his department rests entirely with Taylor. If information is being released in bits and pieces, Taylor has the ability to fix that situation pretty quickly. It's just plain silly for a cabinet minister to be on the defensive like this.

And that's really where the problem with this whole mess rests: with Taylor and his boss.

The provincial government has made an absolute mess of the comms on this deal from the outset. Rather than provide simple, straightforward explanations of the deal, Taylor, former finance minister Loyola Sullivan and later the Premier have tried a bunch of different stories about the deal and its details.

At one point, the province was purchasing an equity stake in the consortium. Then it bought a few strands of fibre instead. The various people who've spoken on this deal - either from government or the consortium - can't even agree on the total cost of the project and the level of public money involved.

Now usually with a story like this - where there are allegations of favouring political and personal buddies - a government that trumpets its high standards of accountability would push information forward.

Putting tons of factual information in public kills off speculation and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to make an accusation that will stick.

In fact, over the past couple of days, Taylor has returned to this accountability theme.

Unfortunately for Taylor, everyone knows that, in addition to its fumbled explanations at the front end of the story, the provincial government has delayed and delayed and delayed releasing information about the project. The Premier even stonewalled the Auditor General's investigation which he supposedly supported. Danny Williams insisted up and down that The Law prevented disclosure of cabinet documents to the AG and by jingo, there was no way this Premier would break the law.

Then - under continuous pressure - Williams suddenly caved in, admitting all along that cabinet had the prerogative to decide if cabinet documents could be released. So Williams would give the Auditor the documents he wanted to see. And The Law? Well, it turns out that while the law isn't an ass, Williams previous explanations were at least a donkey.

At one point, Taylor even criticized reporters for covering the story. He even accused the opposition of focusing on the relationship between the Premier and two of the major players in the deal. Well, that's pretty obvious, so obvious in fact, that, as Taylor admitted cabinet rejected the deal twice because the optics were bad.

The documents Taylor is referring to were a series of e-mails released in the House of Assembly by the premier. The Opposition spent some time going through them and found a few examples of public servants questioning the deal. They did so in the course of exercising their professional responsibilities and, to be frank, that's all the opposition has noted: public officials had problems with the deal.

It raises the spectre of the infamous Sprung greenhouse. Some $22 million of public money spent by a previous administration - and here's the key part - over the objection of provincial public servants. The opposition hasn't made that connection but they are almost certainly headed there.

That's what the story looks like today.

And it looks that way because Trevor Taylor and his boss have failed not once, not twice, not thrice, but on every single occasion to do what anyone with half a clue knows they should do: release the information without delay.

Taylor needs to tell the story himself, from start to finish with documentation. Make an overhead slide show. Do that and the story goes away in a heartbeat.

It's not too late to do that.

That is, unless there is some substance to the various criticisms that have cropped up about this deal.

That is, unless the provincial government had good reason to reject this deal, not once but twice, as Taylor himself has acknowledged.

If either of those is true, then the unnamed communications officer's e-mail released this week gave a clue to what government has been trying to do all along, namely spin the story.

Ask any competent public relations professional about spin.

They'll tell you that's what comes out of the back end of a burro.

And so far?

That's what the provincial government's explanations of this Sprung-sized investment have been worth.