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Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
Free Press
Politician, govern thyself
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Politician, govern thyself

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”
— Captain Jack Sparrow

It is with some regret that I start this newsletter with a quote from Jack Sparrow, a character played by an actor who I find particularly unsavoury. (Google “Johnny Depp” and “abuse” and you’ll see what I mean.) But when you read the rest of this newsletter, you’ll realize that old Capt. Jack nailed the sentiment I want to pass on about Manitoba’s preposterous election blackout law.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

Once upon a time (back in the 2000s), there was an NDP premier (Gary Doer) who wanted to change the way people provided financial support to political parties and candidates. So, he introduced a proposed law that would dramatically lower the amounts that individuals could donate in any given year, in a bid to control the influence of mega donations on politics and politicians.

Unfortunately, the NDP’s plan ran into headwinds from the opposition Progressive Conservatives, who saw the move to cap individual donations as a direct shot at their fundraising model. Tories, at that time, relied more heavily on big donors; the NDP, on the other hand, was already reliant on greater numbers of smaller donations.

Former Manitoba premier Gary Doer (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press Archives)

So, the Tories threatened to block all legislation with procedural mischief unless the NDP agreed to include a provision to black out all government announcements and communication 90 days before a vote. The Tories wanted a mechanism to curb what they felt was an NDP tendency to flood pre-election periods with good-news announcements. And, history will show, the NDP relented.

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Years later, we are left to wonder about the wisdom of that decision.

Successive NDP and PC governments have taken turns ignoring the spirit of the blackout provisions, using them instead as a shield to keep negative news under wraps during the period right before general elections and byelections.

And in those instances where someone has made a complaint and a governing party has been found guilty of violating the law, there have been no consequences because — wait for it — the law doesn’t include any real penalties for breaching the blackout.

This year’s Fort Whyte byelection is a case in point. Despite general agreement that the blackout provisions allow for the government to announce anything that is of an essential nature, Premier Heather Stefanson has used the law to avoid having to provide updates on things like the diagnostic and surgical procedures task force. A scheduled update was cancelled, and Stefanson’s government cited the blackout

Clearly, the growing backlog of surgical and diagnostic procedures is a key public health issue. Although announcing a shiny new program in a pre-vote period to alleviate the backlog might be considered unfair by opposition parties, people on the wait lists need to know if they have any chance of getting the health care that they need. No matter; the blackout prevailed.

Oddly, it didn’t prevent Stefanson from participating in good-news announcements. Slightly more than a week before the Fort Whyte byelection, Stefanson appeared at a news conference where WestJet was announcing a restored summer flight schedule.  Stefanson denied she broke any blackout laws but denial was broadly denounced as disingenuous. And when you look at the law, it really was disingenuous.

When asked about it in a scrum with reporters at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport, the premier said she was not in breach of the byelection blackout. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Did Stefanson actually use the blackout to avoid having to update a wait list task force that has been widely criticized for its work? Consider that just this morning, Doctors Manitoba announced the backlog of surgical and diagnostic procedures reached more than 167,000, which is 6,000 more than the previous month.

So, we can be sure that back in early March, when the Stefanson government used the blackout law to avoid doing an update, they didn’t have any good news to impart. Instead of preventing the government from making good-news announcements, Stefanson is using the blackout to shield her government from having to make bad-news announcements.

Sigh.

Particularly frustrating is that despite the fact the law is vague and useless, and has been repeatedly used by both the NDP and Tories to manipulate pre-election news, no governing party has the intestinal fortitude to change the law in a substantive way.

The Tories did commission a report with recommendations on improving the rules around government advertising during election periods. It was delivered in the spring of 2019. The next year, after a snap election call by former premier Brian Pallister, the Tories proposed legislation that clarified the rules and shortened the blackout period to 60 days.

That law was passed but, based on the Stefanson government’s performance in this byelection, it hasn’t done anything to change behaviour. Less of a fix, and more of a charade.

This becomes yet another example of how lawmakers have trouble making fair and effective laws that govern the behaviour of lawmakers. Which is one of the main reasons why a lot of people no longer vote.

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