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Election law creates 'cone of silence'

NDP, bureaucrats interpret act too closely: experts

The premier's office has closed the door on information during the current byelection in The Pas.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The premier's office has closed the door on information during the current byelection in The Pas.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2015 (1173 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba has one of the most restrictive laws in Canada that prohibits the government and its agencies from releasing even the most banal information.

Analysts say the legislated gag order on government advertising during the current byelection restricts the NDP from showing it can govern, a month after a divisive leadership battle.

Due to the advertising blackout, the government has issued only four news releases in the past week: one on cautious driving, two on the spring flood watch, and an announcement the restriction to spread manure on fields had been lifted.

The law is so restrictive, the government can't even post comments on Twitter.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2015 (1173 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba has one of the most restrictive laws in Canada that prohibits the government and its agencies from releasing even the most banal information.

Analysts say the legislated gag order on government advertising during the current byelection restricts the NDP from showing it can govern, a month after a divisive leadership battle.

Due to the advertising blackout, the government has issued only four news releases in the past week: one on cautious driving, two on the spring flood watch, and an announcement the restriction to spread manure on fields had been lifted.

The law is so restrictive, the government can't even post comments on Twitter.

Other provinces, such Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, have no such law.

Saskatchewan comes closest to the Manitoba Election Finances Act. That province prohibits government ministries from publishing information in the constituency in which a byelection is held.

The difference is that Manitoba's law prevents the government from talking about itself in the entire province.

It also restricts Crown agencies, from Manitoba Hydro to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, from discussing their work, however trivial or non-political.

For example, the government couldn't answer when conservation officers will start enforcing the smoking ban on provincial park beaches.

The exception is for an advertisement or a publication that is required by law or required at that time, such as the issuance of a government tender; or if it relates to public health or safety, such as flood outlooks.

The ban started March 20 when Premier Greg Selinger called the byelection for The Pas for April 21. Selinger waited almost a year to call the byelection.

Political author Chris Adams said he believes the government is being too conservative in its interpretation of the law.

"I think there's a sense of skittishness in the bureaucracy right now," Adams said.

"I would think if I'm a mid-level manager and I've been asked to give information, and I received a stern memo saying 'Do not do this during a byelection,' I would feel not as an NDP supporter, but just as somebody who's feeling the culture of government right now, I would default to the careful position."

The act was introduced in 1983 by former NDP premier Howard Pawley to make election campaign financing more democratic. It was rewritten by the NDP in 2012.

The ban on government advertising during a byelection period remains intact.

"It's black-letter law," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba. "That's one of the problems with it."

"It's meant to have a certain amount of precision, but on the other hand, I don't think the spirit of the law is such that you can't ever communicate about anything," he said.

Thomas and Adams added the act's strict interpretation further undermines the government's credibility.

"They are exceedingly jittery about what the law allows," Thomas said. "This trickles down to the staff, and they will block the freedom-of-information process."

One reason for that skittishness is that the NDP has been found to have violated the advertising ban three times in the past few years, including an earlier version of the act. The three violations were the results of complaints from the Progressive Conservatives.

There is no penalty other than embarrassment.

While Elections Manitoba is responsible for the act, spokeswoman Alison Mitchell said it does not advise government on how to interpret the act. Nor does the government seek the advice of Elections Manitoba.

Manitoba election commissioner Bill Bowles deals with complaints.

The NDP's last violation was during the 2014 byelections in Morris and Arthur-Virden, when it advertised a gathering at the legislative building to mark the 98th anniversary of women's suffrage.

Bowles declined to be interviewed.

Adams said what's damaging the NDP is that the ban, however well-intentioned, prevents the government from legitimately discussing its activities.

"During the leadership race, there was a whole lot of non-decision-making going on, where decisions were being deferred, meetings with ministers were being put on hold," he said. "I think this is part of this work-culture problem that's nagging at the government right now."

Adams said the three violations of the advertising ban had more to do with ribbon-cutting events, not the release of basic information such as cancer statistics or yoga programs.

"It is unfair to cut ribbons during an election, but to not provide health-related information or program-related information seems to be... overly careful," he said.

The government is releasing cabinet orders and new legislative regulations almost daily, but it can't directly answer media questions about them.

"I don't think when they drafted the law they intended a complete cone of silence on government," Thomas said. "Presumably, straightforward explanations, factual explanations, shouldn't be disallowed."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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