02 August 2009

Changing the frame, at last

Premier Danny Williams may well have lived up to an election promise and brought the auditor general in to look at the books, but until then, not one single "honourable member" involved at the centre of the slimefest thought of taking a principled stand on the issue.

We’ve talked about frames before and that quote from the Saturday Telegram editorial shows just exactly how effective some frames can be in skewing the discussion of a topic.

That idea – that Danny Williams made an election promise and sent the auditor general to the House of Assembly – is one that the governing party and its supporters have pushed since the moment the Premier revealed the existence of the auditor general’s investigation.

It has survived despite countless column inches of news coverage and minutes of electronic reporting.  It has survived despite an extensive investigation by the province’s Chief Justice that shows the full detail of things.

But try and find one single sentence in the entire report by Chief Justice Derek Green that confirms anything even close to the claim that “Danny Williams…  brought the auditor general in to look at the books…”.

You won’t find such a sentence, though, because it never happened.

The second half of that editorial quote is also wrong.

Not one but three members of the House of Assembly “thought of taking a principled stand on the issue” of ethics and accountability in the House of Assembly.

In fact, the three – Danny Williams, Harvey Hodder and Ed Byrne – felt so strongly about the need for stricter financial controls that they held a news conference in order to unveil nearly two dozen commitments designed to address public distrust of politicians.

In the event, the three only got around to implementing about half their commitments, though,  and the ones related to the House of Assembly allowances only came about because there was no way to avoid them. 

The Telly editorial isn’t just satisfied to repeat the official frame;  the writer takes the time to add a myth or two of his or her own.   Take, for example, the view of the role played by the provincial government’s cheque-writer, otherwise known as the comptroller general:

The comptroller-general's office, which issued the cheques, unable to question any of them, no matter how peculiar.

That simply isn’t true, of course. One of the enduring mysteries of this entire affair is how the chief cheque-writer could issue cheques far in excess of maximum amounts that were well known to officials and yet at no point did he or his staff apparently raise any concerns. As Chief Justice Green notes in his third chapter:

During this era, the Comptroller General had full access to all financial documentation in respect of the disbursement of public funds from the accounts of the legislature. Internal audit and compliance staff of the Comptroller General could review transactions of the House of Assembly and test for compliance with policies. In short, while the House and the IEC were understood to have the authority to make management and policy decisions, independent of Treasury Board or Cabinet, various elements of this overall financial control framework of government were deemed to apply to the House of Assembly.

Far from being unable to pose questions, the comptroller general had both the knowledge and the legal ability to ask questions about the chronic overspending.  He didn’t.  Nor did the auditor general raise any questions either even though he and his staff  had access to the same information available to the comptroller general. 

Both offices – the CG and the AG – produced annual reports on government spending and dutifully reported the overages.  Neither said so much as “boo”.  For 2004 and 2005, for example, both the AG and the CG issued the Public Accounts that showed the House accounts for members’ allowances out of whack by roughly a  million each year.  They never once noted that the budget presented the previous spring had claimed that the accounts were exactly on budget

The Telegram editorial illustrates the extent to which the frame applied to the House of Assembly scandal persists despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  In other words, three years after the people of the province learned of the scandal and after a series of reports and court cases, there is still a marked preference in public comment for fiction over faction, for myth over reality. 

Until commentators reject the frame applied to the scandal three years ago, it will remain a political life unexamined.