25 May 2012

The Dunderdale-O’Brien Confusion #nlpoli

In a scrum on Wednesday, May 23, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said:

“What we are talking about, in fact, is a two hour window here.”

In the House of Assembly on Thursday, May 24, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said:

I have asked Minister MacKay for an explanation of the gap that occurred on January 30 in the search when there was a five-hour period that they were not engaged in the search. The answers are not satisfactory; the protocols need to be changed.

There is no five-hour period in the Burton Winters search that matches whatever Kathy Dunderdale is talking about in that exchange in the House of Assembly.  In fact, it’s pretty hard for anyone with even a sketchy knowledge of the events in Makkovik in late January and early February to figure out what Kathy Dunderdale is getting on with.

You can confirm that by checking the batch of documents the provincial government released on Thursday as part of its ongoing and increasingly curious campaign to try and smear some of Winters’ blood on federal officials. The documents include a timeline of the incident.  The letters from federal defence minister Peter MacKay contain lengthy and detailed explanations for events involving the federal role in the search for the 14 year old Winters.

Look at the letters and you’ll have a hard time figuring out what Kathy Dunderdale meant when she said in the House that “I have asked…”.  The provincial letters in the batch all came from municipal affairs minister Kevin “Fairity” O’Brien.

Take a look at this bit  - pictured below - of the last letter in the pile.  O’Brien’s staff sent it off to the defence minister on Thursday.


O’Brien states clearly that he is not satisfied.  He doesn’t say  anything about Kathy being put off. Then O'Brien mysteriously switches to the plural “we”.  Who is this “we”?

Here’s the thing, though.  When O’Brien says “I am not satisfied”, he could be expressing a personal opinion.  On the other hand he could also be expressing the considered position of the government of Newfoundland and Labrador based on expert opinion.  In that sense, it would make more sense to speak of “our” and “we”.  But which is it?

The fact the letter is written from different  perspectives suggests confusion. That’s one thing.  For another, anyone reading these letters might wonder on what basis Fairity and his colleagues have come to the conclusions they evidently reached. O’Brien does not cite any evidence to support his opinion. Nor does ‘Brien connect the despatch of the Cormorant helicopter to the search outcome to show that this issue even matters.  And he certainly doesn’t connect it to a pattern of behaviour on the part of federal search and rescue officials.  Nothing in the exchange of letters supports the Premier’s comments,  O’Brien’s comments in the letters and the provincial government’s public attack on the federal government over this incident.

Those familiar with official correspondence between ministers will recognise that these letters from the province fall far below the standard one would expect to find. In their content and style, they appear amateurish and reflect poorly not only on O’Brien but on the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The fact that they lack any substance is all that much worse. O’Brien also makes blatantly false statements. Further down the first page of his letter dated May 24, O’Brien states that the federal government should answer a request for assistance “especially when the province has exhausted its immediate options for other air support.” 

The timeline released by the provincial government makes it clear, though, that the provincial government had not exhausted its option for air support, immediate or otherwise.  As everyone has known since the beginning, the searchers had helicopter support within two hours of making the request.  That support came from a private helicopter that fortunately happened to be in the area.  Incidentally, that appears to be the two-hour window the Premier spoke about on Wednesday

The government contract helicopter provider couldn’t fly from Goose Bay because of weather.  This stands out in the documents because it refutes O’Brien’s contention that the Canadian Forces should have sent a helicopter from Gander immediately on receiving the provincial request because weather changes over time.  The same could be said of the provincial contractor, the agent who had the legal obligation to be the first responder.

The Premier’s scrum on Thursday is no help to the provincial government’s cause.  The Premier recites the timeline of events. For someone prone to making major factual mistakes, this alone is impressive.  She’s worked hard to get her lines right. This makes one wonder why she would not meet with Burton Winters’ family.

She notes that the province has responsibility for ground search and rescue.  She also acknowledges that the provincial government’s own contractor – the one who was supposed to fly when called – refused to go fly because the weather on scene was bad.  All the things the Premier says of the federal officials – that they should have flown because the weather can change – are not merely true of the provincial government’s contractor.  They are more relevant since they had the first responsibility to respond.

The Premier said as much herself.

The rest of the provincial letters are no better.  One is based on information broadcast by the CBC program The Fifth Estate. The federal response to that letter notes at the outset what anyone familiar with the case knew:  the CBC story contained numerous factual errors and inaccuracies.  The letter reads as if it were written by someone who had absolutely no knowledge of ground search and rescue or the particular incident. 

Except, the letter is coming from the minister responsible for emergency response in the province.  Presumably his officials -people with direct knowledge of events and years of experience  - either drafted the letter or reviewed.  If they did, then you have one issue.  If you didn’t you have another.

The letters from the provincial government to the federal government released Thursday are amateurish.  They call into question the competence of the government officials, political like the minister and public servant alike. They are embarrassing.

Kathy Dunderdale expressed frustration at the state of federal-provincial relations.  She can get a pretty good clue from these letters and the entire controversy of which they are a key part.  She can get another clue from the fact that she, her minister and presumably other in the provincial government do not recognise just exactly how much these letters destroy their argument rather than support it. 

And we can all understand the root cause of the problem:  the Premier, the minister, their colleagues and their officials not only can’t see that they are in a political hole of their own making but instead think that this crap  - their crap - is brilliant.