05 March 2014

How do they work, exactly? #nlpoli

As laughable as it is for the Premier’s Office to insist former Premier Kathy Dunderdale received only 46 e-mails in a single week and sent none, there are some other things in this little episode that are worth noticing.

Put ‘em all together with other information and you might have something interesting.  Not necessarily huge, but interesting and revealing.

Answer the question you want to answer, not the one asked

Take a look, first of all, at the question the Telegram’s James McLeod asked the Premier’s Office.  McLeod asked for ““all emails sent or received by Premier Kathy Dunderdale.”  They gave him e-mails “received by the Premier’s account.”

That’s not the same thing, as SRBP noted on Monday.  What McLeod got were messages sent to the Premier’s generic e-mail address, the equivalent of the main office telephone number.  Dial 729-3570 and you will get the Premier’s Office.  That number doesn’t ring on the telephone set next to the Premier’s desk.  It’s answered by a receptionist.  Ask for the Premier and the receptionist will determine who you are before forwarding your call or, for most of us, taking a message or transferring you to someone other than the Premier.

By the same token, the Premier’s Office has maintained a generic e-mail address.  Back in Roger Grimes’ day, for example, you could send a message to the premier@mail.gov.nl.ca addressed listed on the government’s website.  Grimes himself had another account,  however, based on a variation on his first and second name, that he actually used.

As it seems, the Premier’s Office has resorted to an old tactic.  They’ve answered a question they wanted to answer, not the one McLeod asked.  The mention in the comment from a spokesperson reveals that they were aware McLeod wanted to know something about the blackouts.  They gave him something, but it is obviously nowhere near what actually happened in the Premier’s Office.

As for answering questions, some of you may recall natural resources minister Derrick Dalley’s comment to McLeod in a brace of interviews recently.  As McLeod struggled to get a clear answer from Dalley, the minister at one point stated flatly that the department had answered the question McLeod had asked.  That wasn’t what bothered McLeod evidently, but Dalley was sufficiently sensitive to the issue that he blurted it out.

Incidentally, the provincial government knew what was in the independent engineer’s report. That’s what McLeod went looking for.   Nalcor received a copy in November and -  without a shadow of a doubt – briefed the Premier and other ministers on the report.  The document was crucial to Muskrat Falls financing.  The official reply to McLeod’s request said they didn’t have any documents “from the independent engineer.”  They didn’t, if you read the question literally, and that’s the answer they went with. 

They went with that answer because it let the minister avoid answering tough questions about financing.  The reply put them in an awkward spot when McLeod learned the department had a copy of the report and claimed they received it the day after they replied to his information request

You can see the same sort of thing in responses from different departments to access to information requests.  One person asked for the amount spent on the Corner Brook hospital up to now.  The project has been underway since 2007, at least.  The department didn’t give the amount from the start of the planning.  Instead, they arbitrarily selected last year as the starting point, gave the amount spent as $20 million.  The reply also gave the old figure for the amount committed to the preliminary stages of the latest version of hospital.  The new figure is two and a half times higher:  $607 million, not $227 million.

That last one, and another like it about the Hoyles-Escasoni replacement in St. John’s, are interesting for another reason.  They show the extent to which the provincial government forces people to pay money to get an answer to a simple request for information using a law intended primarily to govern access to documents.  McLeod shouldn’t have had to pay money and use the access law any more than the person who just wanted to know how much the government had spent on a couple of health care facilities.  What McLeod wanted to know was something that should have been dealt with through an interview with the minister.

Aural may be moral, but it is really dumb

The problem with putting the minister in touch with a reporter is that, as the Dunderdale and Dalley episodes confirm, ministers these days get most of their information from verbal briefings. They’ve been doing it for some time. Verbal briefings are attractive  because they help government hide information from release under the access to information law.

The problem with verbal briefings are that ministers often can’t retain all the information in them. Dunderdale proved it repeatedly, as did Dalley.  In fact, most ministers from Paul Oram onward have made total arses of themselves because they got a verbal briefing they didn’t understand and then talked to reporters about it.

The reason ministers can’t make good use of the briefings is often because they are bureaucratic. They focus on details and process.  They don’t contain simple, effective political messages. Take Dalley’s two interviews with McLeod as good examples of that. The reason Dalley had to go back the second time is that he had spit out a ton and a half of information in the first interview but didn’t really explain anything to McLeod.  What’s worse he got turned around in the maze which led to the second interview.

And the reason why Dalley had people like his deputy minister sitting beside him during the interviews is not so they could pull his strings like a puppet.  Far from it.  They were there just to make sure he didn’t frig details up that he didn’t grasp from was almost certainly a verbal briefing.  In fact, at the start of the second interview, Dalley mentions making sure that “Charles” can hear what he is saying so that [deputy minister] Charles [Bown] can correct him if Dalley gets something wrong. 

After a decade in power, the Conservatives have a set of behaviours they can’t or won’t change, even when they obviously cost them dearly at the polls.