Time to lift mischief-minded blackout

The diabolical darkness has descended once again.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/06/2018 (1562 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The diabolical darkness has descended once again.

We are barely a week removed from the longest day of the year, and yet Manitobans are in the grips of a blackout, of the sort that is noteworthy more for its lack of logic than for any actual diminution of daylight.

There’s a provincial byelection coming in the St. Boniface constituency, which means government communication has been put under wraps until the July 17 vote takes place.

No matter that an issue of public interest has absolutely nothing — thematically, logistically or geographically — to do with the byelection or the riding in which it’s taking place; any inquiries about matters even peripherally connected to government will be met with silence.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen
Last week’s release of a troubling report outlining a sharp increase in opioid-related overdose deaths — one every three days in Manitoba last year — fairly begged for a provincial response to a spiralling national crisis.

Instead, the Free Press story describing the report included this: “A spokesman for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said he was unable to comment on the matter Tuesday, given the media blackout rules triggered by the St. Boniface byelection set for July 17.”

It is, in a word, ridiculous. And it needs to be dealt with.

The culprit is Section 92 of the Election Financing Act, which stipulates that during the lead-up to a vote, “a government department or Crown agency must not advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities.”

The intention, clearly, is to prevent governments from gaining electoral advantage by making popular announcements immediately before an election.

The reality, however, is that in addition to preventing governments from making such mischievous but potentially vote-productive announcements, Section 92’s broad application has also allowed governments — and all the various arms-length agencies they control — to avoid having to comment in any way on anything.

Section 92 also forces the muting of voices whose only intention is to provide information of a public-service nature.

For example, during a blackout period, CancerCare Manitoba would be prohibited from issuing press releases reminding Manitobans it’s important to make use of the freely available ColonCheck program that could offer early detection of a deadly but — if caught sufficiently early — effectively treatable disease.

It’s clear that both the government and the Opposition are fully aware of the frivolous manner in which Section 92 is currently being invoked; in May 2017, during the run-up to a byelection in Point Douglas, Mr. Goertzen posted a black square on his Twitter feed with the cheeky observation that he had just finished “a tremendously productive day. However, due to by-election blackout rules, this is all I can show you.”

TWITTER Minister of Health, Seniors and Active Living Kelvin Goertzen comments on the media blackout imposed recently because of the Point Douglas byelection.

As noted by Free Press columnist Dan Lett last year, both the ruling Progressive Conservatives and the Opposition New Democrats seem happy to continue the pointless Section 92 charade.

But recent history shows that each, while in opposition, has erupted in outrage when the ruling party used the statute to avoid — albeit temporarily — public accountability for government actions.

With the end of the current legislative session and the arrival of Manitoba politics’ summer recess, the Pallister government has essentially reached the midpoint of its mandate.

The next provincial election is two years away; the autumn resumption of government business offers the best possible opportunity for two parties that actually agree on the stupidity of Section 92’s subversion to take action to eliminate its irksome misapplication.

Working together with a rare shared sense of purpose, they should act in a timely manner to lift the fatuous fog.

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