08 October 2013

Much media ado about not very much #nlpoli

On the face of it, anyone even passingly familiar with political events in Newfoundland and Labrador for the past decade would look with some justifiable scepticism on an announcement from justice minister Darin King on Monday that the provincial government was going to have another look at building a new provincial prison to replace one built in 1859.

After all,  this project has been on the go for a lot longer than 2008, the year mentioned in the news release. The current crowd running the place have been trying to get the federal government to pay for the prison pretty much since they took office.

The favoured location for the new prison for most of past decade has been Harbour Grace.  That’s in the district recently vacated by Jerome Kennedy.

There’s another reason to be on your guard with this announcement.

Take a look at the release again.

After five years of gabbing, the provincial government is now going to ask for someone to draw up a set of plans for a prison. The lucky winner of this tidy government contract will have until next year to make some lists and draw some pictures so that cabinet can do some extra gabbing to figure out things like how much the project will cost.

Notice that King he didn’t say where they might build the prison. That would have some impact on the costs. Land costs aren’t same everywhere nor are the costs for shipping in materials. Put it in Buchans and you’d have one set of costs. Put it in Botwood or Harbour Grace and you’d have another, what with the ready access to a port to ship in the materials in both those towns. Then there’s the issue of access, both for court and for transporting prisoners around the province. Put the prison in the right spot and costs to run the prison would go down.  In other places, they’d go up.

No location means it will be harder – but not impossible – to get an idea of the cost.

All of this is stuff you’d think the justice department officials would have figured out while they were waiting for the latest letter from Ottawa saying they weren’t going to put federal money into a new provincial government prison in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Apparently not.

Now look at what King said at the news conference.  The provincial government helpfully posted a video of King’s opening remarks.  Nothing else,  of course, just his opening script.  But that’s enough. Note the huge amount of time spent congratulating the government on its commitment to law and order.   That sounds like the bulk of the opening remarks.  The announcement itself is almost secondary.

And then look at what the announcement actually is:

A public Request for Proposals will be issued in the near future for companies with expertise in planning correctional facilities. The successful proponent will be asked to develop the functional space requirements and cost estimate for a new facility.

In other words, at some unspecified point in the future, some unknown, unspecified government agency will  ask a company that knows about these things to tell provincial justice department officials what the new prison should have in it and how much it will cost.

That’s pretty vague stuff. 

It’s astonishingly vague stuff given how many times some politician or other has talked up the prison in the past 10 years.  This information that government will go looking for some time after today is something the government should already know. No? 

After all, they’ve only been asking for cash regularly and moaning when it didn’t show up for what seems like ages. In hindsight, it’s no wonder the feds wouldn’t commit to anything.  They’d have no idea how much their share of a new prison would cost.  The provincial government guys hadn’t even taken out a pencil and paper let alone an iPad to doodle a picture of the prison.  No surprise then that the federal government wouldn’t buy the pig or the poke.

Darin King’s news announcement lacked that one crucial element found in all announcements of news:  new information.  Never mind that the mighty Ceeb had the thing ready for opening already.  The actual release is a whole lot less than reported. 

If you haven’t been feeling just a little bit dubious about the substance of King’s  announcement, you should be by now.  If you are still waffling, though,  notice that the department told reporters at 9:20 AM  to get their asses over to the Building for 10:30 AM.   An announcement a major capital project would normally be in the works for weeks if not months. It’s driven by stuff like the normal flow of government business.

If you could get your hands on the planning calendar all the government comms types use to  know when everyone else is doing something,this is the sort of thing they’d have in the books months in advance.  At the Cameron inquiry we learned that the provincial government had a Lower Churchill announcement scheduled for August 2005.  That was one of the things that initially caused a bit of a shite-panic;  the likely date of details on the problem would surface around the time they already had a happy-news event planned for polling month.

That’s not to suggest anything about the way people responded to the early information about the health crisis in 2005. It just tells you that significant announcements don’t come up in someone’s mind  between the cereal and the drive to the office one morning such that you get it on within a couple of hours. 

This was not a significant announcement.  Monday’s list of announcements included a raft of warnings to media about far less important things with a lot more lead time than King’s thing.

This prison thing has all the hallmarks of announcement thrown together in haste.  Like maybe after last Wednesday when the Conservatives realised they are face and eyes into a political mess.

Maybe it had something to do with the news that the likely Conservative candidate will be running after all.  Former Harbour Grace mayor Don Coombs will look for the Liberal nomination, not the Tory one.   That’s as clear a sign as anyone needs of the local mood in the district where Kathy Dunderdale will have to hold a by-election before Christmas.

Whatever the cause, what’s unmistakeable is the haste of the announcement and the lack of substance  once you actually see what Darin King said.