19 June 2015

The politics of information #nlpoli

A couple of recent post are reminders of how important it is to take a look at issues in the province from another perspective.

On June 10,  you will find a post about crab fishermen from New Brunswick who want to sell their catch to a company near Corner Brook.  The problem is that federal regulations limit where the fishermen can sell their catch. The policy is rooted in the sort of local protectionism that lay behind opposition in some quarters to European free trade.

Thursday’s post (June 17) was about remarks by Quebec’s energy minister about offshore oil and gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Pierre Arcand argued that Quebec had better sort out an agreement with the federal government over jurisdiction for the offshore resources.

Old Harry was sitting there waiting for development and Newfoundland and Labrador,  Arcand said,  was ahead of Quebec.  The result could be that Newfoundland and Labrador would  wind up reaping huge benefits from the Old Harry field.  Quebec, meanwhile, would be left behind. 

Neither of those stories turned up in the local conventional media, at least, not as far as your humble e-scribbler can find. They are readily available.  You can find them online.  There are also media monitoring companies who can track stories based on key words you give them.

Yet, for some reason, these sorts of stories just don’ turn up in local news. It’s not just these stories that are tangentially related to big issues in the province  There’s a big lawsuit going on in Quebec right now.  It could have major repercussions for the provincial energy corporation not just for Muskrat Falls but for Churchill Falls as well.

Try and find any local media coverage of it.

Go on.

See what you can find.

What you can find – as with this google search result – are local stories that feature politicians dismissing the lawsuit as no big deal at all.

But what about any coverage of the court presentations themselves?  A summary of Quebec’s argument?  How about Nalcor’s defence?


Not in the conventional media, anyway.

People can come up with whatever explanation they want for this phenomenon. It’s not new. What’s peculiar is that it survives despite the much wider access people have to information these days. And it’s not like the reporters have this information but keep it to themselves.  More often than not, they don’t have it either.  They don’t pass it on.

If the reporters don;t have the information, they also can’t put questions to politicians based on the new information.  Instead they rely on whatever they get from the official briefings of one kind or another.

You can’t form an alternative point of view if you only have one source of information. Truth be told, you can’t even form an honest, accurate opinion at all if you only have one source of information. Lawyers and doctors have this idea called informed consent.  It means – in essence – that you can only agree to something if you have all the relevant information. The same thing applies in politics.  People can’t really support something if they don’t have all the information they should have.

Think about that when you consider the latest poll results from Corporate Research Associates about Muskrat Falls.  CRA only asked people if they supported the project or not.  The gang at CRA  used their balls-up of a question that gives you only two extreme positive or extreme negative choices. In the news release CRA issued, they also included two little snippets of demographic information:  “support is higher among younger residents and those with higher household income levels.”

No numbers.

Just those vague statements.

And no others, either.

They didn’t break down the question across any other demographics, either.

It wasn’t really a very informative news release anyway, but notice that CRA didn’t look for a rather obvious piece of information. They never bothered to find out what people know about the project.  In fact,  they have never publicly released any information about public knowledge of the project.  Odds are they have never checked it.

That’s a really crucial thing about public support for any government project. Support or opposition is one thing.  But knowledge is something else. CRA could easily research knowledge levels.  They could ask about the cost of the project. They could ask about the revenue sources.  They could ask about what Emera gets in the deal.

Simple factual questions based on factual information.

Then compare the answers with the facts.

That would tell you an awful lot about the higher income folks and the kids who apparently are loving up da Falls.

Your humble e-scribbler would go out on a limb here and venture that most people in the province have a very low level of knowledge about the project.   That’s not a very thin limb, by the way.  One thing they wouldn’t be able to tell you is the impact of the project on their electricity bills.  Nalcor hasn’t just provided a very limited amount of information about future prices, they’ve run from notion faster than Gil Bennett can run from a Quebec superior court order to give evidence.

So what exactly do you get from a CRA poll that shows that something between 60 and 70 percent of the people in the province support the project and between 30 and 40% oppose it?

Not much really.

It’s like the Liberal poll that showed people supported the idea of cutting the number of politicians in the House seeing as how the the government was having a hard time and they would lay off public servants.

Would they be quite as agreeable to the idea if they knew what it meant for their representation in the House?  Would the folks in Marystown or lots of places in rural Newfoundland be quite so happy with the cuts if they knew there’d be fewer politicians representing them?

How about if they knew the government didn’t actually cut any government jobs?  They didn’t, really. They announced they will theoretically cut jobs if they need to.  Just like they might not hike the sales tax if the oil comes back.

Would they be quite as happy to let their representation suffer the only real chop if they knew government borrowed $2.0 billion rather than make cuts to government spending?

The deficit this year was $2.0 billion, incidentally.  Not $1.0 billion.  Well, it was actually both.  It all depends on how you count.  Government counts two ways.  In the version that says the deficit is only $1.0 billion, the accounting rules classify capital spending as an “investment”.  Thus, it treats the pavement as an asset of the same value as the loan you borrowed to buy the pavement. 

The accounting rules aren’t wrong but they can be deceptive, if you don’t understand them or you don’t look at the whole picture. To see the whole financial picture you have to look at the cash statements and know the difference between the two.  Once you understand that little point about “investments” by the way, you can now see why the politicians call their spending investments. It also explains why Muskrat supporters like Paul Oram always talk about the great asset we get with out $8.3 billion of spending.  They just pretend it isn’t really debt because that’s what the financial statements seem to say.

Even though they have more information than the rest of us,  politicians don’t necessarily understand it all, either.