07 March 2018

No room for dissent? No time for silence. #nlpoli

The controversy about The Rooms' recent request for proposals is not about Muskrat Falls.

Maybe someone at The Rooms or within the provincial government thought that was the problem when Des Sullivan raised concerns about it.  After all, Des is well known as a critic of Muskrat Falls.  That might explain why Dean Brinton, The Rooms' chief executive,  issued a very short statement that apologized for using Muskrat Falls as an example when explaining the Crown corporation's policy about conflict of interest for advertising agencies responding to the proposal request.

Let us assume that Brinton made a really superficial mistake because otherwise  his response is insulting and condescending.  Any reasonable personal understood our ought to have understood that Sullivan was concerned about the implication that critics of the provincial government could not bid on government work.

Brinton didn't deal with that at all.

Nor did the minister to whom Brinton's corporation reports.  Christopher Mitchelmore used the same talking points as Brinton this week both in the House of Assembly and on Twitter.

But frankly,  neither Sullivan nor former senior public servant Dave Vardy have struck at the central problem with the way The Rooms looks at conflict of interest with its contractors.

The Rooms considers that any activity that is out of line with current plans, policies, or activities at any provincial government department, agency,  or Crown corporation is a conflict with the central interest of The Rooms itself.   Even though The Rooms has absolutely nothing to do with Muskrat Falls, except at the eventual custodian of Nalcor's corporate records,  The Rooms corporation considers Muskrat Falls to be within The Rooms' core line of business.

Conflict of interest is usually something one would define as being related to the core activities of  any organization.  That's why it has never been unusual for the provincial government and its agencies to avoid any situation where - for example - the company doing advertising for the nurses' union was not also doing work for treasury board or a hospital or regional health authority at the same time.  There's an obvious - nakedly obvious -  conflict there, especially when it comes to collective bargaining.

Same thing would apply to The Rooms.

But why would The Rooms care if the company doing advertising work to change cannabis policy also handled advertising for the provincial art gallery?

Doesn't make sense, does it?

Sure, you can make a few jokes about modern art and mind altering substances but beyond that there's nothing in what The Rooms does that is tied to cannabis policy.

Here's the wording from The Rooms as to what constitutes a conflict of interest:
It would be a conflict of interest for The Rooms to work with an AOR [agency of record] that represented a lobby group protesting Muskrat Falls, or a group or industry actively and/or openly working in conflict against the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
"In conflict against" the provincial government.

Exercising normal democratic values, in other words.

Or lobbying to make a change.

Basically,  if you don't like what is there and want to change it,  then you are "in conflict."

Heck,  if you don't like a proposed change then you are in conflict.

You can see how quickly this becomes ludicrous.

Brinton said something else in his statement worth noting.

He went out of his way to emphasise that The Rooms is set up so that it will be "at arms' length" from the government itself.  As such,  the corporation has a "significant degree of flexibility and autonomy."  Well, that doesn't go along with the notion that the corporation is so concerned to be an agency of the government that it will consider an attack on its tiniest part to be a conflict of interest with The Rooms itself.

It's precisely because of that inconsistency that I asked two cabinet ministers via Twitter last week if the provincial government applied the same interpretation of conflict of interest.  Neither answered the question despite it being put directly at least twice.

That's why people should worry.

You see, if the whole government is following this sweeping a definition of conflict of interest,  any activity that would be legitimate elsewhere is hampered.  The government policy would make it impossible for a company like the one that got The Rooms contract to do anything at all for anyone who wants to influence public policy.

Not fight against it in a partisan way but just respectfully disagree.  Just exercise your democratic right to try and change something.  Advocacy groups,  like say the ones trying to improve mental health services or get support for ex-convicts trying to straighten out,  are all swept up in the definition of people involved actively in a disagreement based on principles.

The chilling effect is not the one on the advertising people but on the rest of the province.  It is felt by the people looking for help with getting posters done up but where the printing company has a government contract and cannot be associated with anyone who is,  as The Rooms put it,  in some sort of disagreement with another part of government in another part of the province.

Indigenous people.

Women's groups.


If the government conflict of interest policy is so broadly defined as The Rooms would have it,  then government would be using its financial might to suppress dissent.  Government would be hiring every consultant in town and, in the process, denying their services to people just trying to be heard amid the din of summits and twitter messages and by-invitation only consultations. Might not have been the intention but it damn well would be the result.  We have seen it before in this province, very recently.  No reason to think it isn't the same now. After all, the folks at The Rooms would not have stated their view so confidently if they didn't think it was in line with government policy.

Lest you think this is an exaggeration,  just consider how frantically people have tried to avoid the simple answer to the question about whether The Rooms policy applies everywhere in government.  If it didn't apply, then Chris Mitchelmore or Sherry Gambin-Walsh or the Premier himself could have easily said so.

But they didn't.

And that's why no one should let this issue drop until the people in power give straight answers to simple questions.