14 May 2012

Nanny State 2: Yes, Kathy. You are in a hole. #nlpoli

When you are in a hole, the old political saying goes, you should stop digging.

That is wonderful advice.  Many the politician could have saved himself political grief by following it.

The only problem with such good advice is that it is not as easy to take as it seems.
It’s hard to follow that advice because sometimes politicians and their staff do not recognise that they are in a hole. 

Premier Kathy Dunderdale and her crowd seems to be in that spot with the latest twists in the Burton Winters’ tragedy.  Last week, Kathy Dunderdale bailed on a  meeting with Winters’ grandmother.  Nan wanted to bring along a fellow who had worked in search and rescue all his life.  This fellow was supposed to help persuade Kathy to have an inquiry into the response by provincial and federal officials when Winters’ went missing.

Dunderdale is in a political hole on this one.  Her first impulse was to play along with the Liberal and New Democrat politicians who seized on this story for their own political ends. They blamed people who weren’t responsible for the tragedy for it, namely the people who do marine and aviation search and rescue.

They ignored the people who do search and rescue on the ground for missing persons.  That would be the police – who report to the justice minister – and fire and emergency services officials, who report to the municipal affairs minister.  When the searchers found the 14 year old dead from exposure,  many people in the province wanted someone to have an investigation or inquiry into the events and find out what went wrong.

In truth, nothing really did go wrong with how the police and others handled the search. The searchers did the best they good.  They worked long and hard.  As it appears, they made a few logical but mistaken assumptions about where the young fellow went.  They wound up spending a lot of time looking in the wrong places.  Bad weather didn’t help matters.

The interpretation – the politicians put around the story didn’t hold up long as officials released more information.  Some people, Kathy Dunderdale included, are still sticking with the “Blame the feds” angle. Some news media have also been pushing the same angle. 

The result of all this framing of the story by reporters and politicians is that many decent, earnest people think that there is something secret left to be found out about the tragedy.  They feel that the only way to get the truth is to have a judge investigate the whole affair in a public inquiry.

And so it is that Burton Winters’ grandmother wants to talk with Kathy Dunderdale to convince the Premier to call an inquiry.  As CBC reported,
“You know, what we want is a public inquiry and our hope was to make a personal plea to Ms. Dunderdale in that regard,” said [Charlotte] Winters-Fost.
Provincial officials were responsible for conducting the search.  They were not responsible for the tragic outcome. An inquiry might point out some ways the provincial government could improve their search and rescue service.  That would be a very good thing. It likely wouldn’t reveal any secret information because there really isn’t anything that isn’t already in public.

Provincial officials may not have been responsible for the tragedy but their political leaders certainly can bear some responsibility for the climate where lots of people are confused and hurt and looking for answers. 
Political leaders had a chance to calm public anxiety in February.  They could have explained in detail what happened and why. They didn’t.  The current state of public angst is a direct result..

On Friday, Premier Dunderdale dug herself a bit deeper in the hole.  She explained to reporters in greater detail why she backed out of a meeting with Winters’ grandmother.  As The Telegram quoted Dunderdale:
“In terms of sitting with me and talking with me about Burton and what a fine young man he was and why I don’t believe a provincial inquiry is required, and why a provincial inquiry won’t get us the kinds of answers that they believe from the federal government, I’m happy to do that,” she said, adding that she wasn’t the one who went to the media to tell them a meeting had been set up. “It was agreed that we wouldn’t do media, that it would be two grandmothers talking to one another around those parameters.” [Emphasis added]
Dunderdale used the word parameters in another comment, as reported by CBC:
"When I agree to a meeting [with] certain parameters and say again we don't want this to be, I want this to be what you asked it to be, and not some big public relations stunt, then I'm not going to allow myself to go into a meeting where I can't give the family what she's clearly asking for," Dunderdale said.  [Emphasis added]

Something that restricts what is possible.

It’s a word that screams control and limitation.  It’s the sort of word a lawyer might use next to “limit the scope of inquiry”.

No accident, perhaps that the Premier used the word “parameters” or that she talked about the meeting with Burton Winters’ grandmother as if it were an inquiry.  Here’s another quote from the Telegram story from her comments on Friday:
I’m not going to have a mini-inquiry up in my boardroom. If you’re bringing experts or so-called experts or expertise from outside to ask questions on search and rescue, what was done, what wasn’t done, you want express answers on why the rescue failed, then you need to go to the appropriate ministry and the appropriate organizations to give you that information. That’s a completely different agenda than what was proposed to me, not once, but twice.”
Dunderdale’s comments also do something else that is very odd.  They paint the Winters’ grandmother as an inquisitor. She is someone to be feared.  In Dunderdale’s view, she becomes someone who is potentially untrustworthy:  note the reference to  a change in the “agenda” for the meeting that was different from what had been proposed twice before. Dunderdale did not say so expressly, but her language and her tone suggest that Burton Winters’ grandmother is someone Dunderdale considers to be hostile or a potential threat.

When you are in a hole, it is a good idea to stop digging.  As Kathy Dunderdale made clear on Friday, she  - and maybe her staff too – haven’t figured out yet that she is in a political hole. There couldn’t be any clearer proof than treating a grieving grandmother with simple motives like she was a political enemy.