December 10, 2019

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Minister's spin evades accountability for Lifeflight decisions

Editorial

"The op-ed speaks for itself."

That was the reply sent to the Free Press this week in response to several requests for an interview with provincial Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, in the wake of publication of an opinion column in which the minister defended the Pallister government’s issuance last year of a request for proposal (RFP) to privatize Manitoba’s Lifeflight air ambulance service.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES <p />

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler

In the column, which was posted on the Progressive Conservative caucus website and published in at least one local newspaper, credited author Mr. Schuler said the RFP for air-ambulance privatization is intended "to build a better, safer air ambulance service for northern Manitoba."

The 647-word commentary also noted that if the private sector cannot provide service that improves on the current model, the province will not proceed.

The Free Press received the op-ed submission, but opted not to publish it.

In addition to reiterating the province’s position on air-ambulance privatization, the op-ed included comments by the writer that inflamed tensions between the government and the 16 physicians who staff air-ambulance flights. Mr. Schuler stated in the column that the province has met multiple times with the doctors involved and has addressed their principal concerns by hiring two new pilots and accelerating scheduled maintenance on one of the province’s jets.

Immediately upon the op-ed’s publication, the president of Doctors Manitoba issued a three-page response that said, in part, the two pilots have not yet been hired and the aircraft in question has not been sent for repairs as stated in Mr. Schuler’s column.

Dr. Shannon Prud’homme also said Lifeflight’s February schedule currently has nearly 30 shifts that do not have a pilot: "Trying to fill a schedule in such an uncertain environment beyond a few days when it is riddled with gaps in pilot and plane availability is concerning."

Which, of course, would make it very useful for reporters covering the issue to be able to ask the minister direct questions about what has and has not been accomplished in relation to the concerns that have prompted air-ambulance doctors to threaten to withhold their services unless the issues are addressed.

However, because "the op-ed speaks for itself," Mr. Schuler was kept under wraps.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen did offer a general response to questions about how long the RFP for Lifeflight has dragged on (since last March), but the author of the incendiary op-ed was not made available to media.

In addition to escalating the dispute in a manner which, according to Ms. Prud’homme, "place(s) a measurable chill on the ability to retain and recruit physicians and other professions to Lifeflight," the distribution of the opinion column by Mr. Schuler stands as the latest example of the provincial government’s inclination to skirt public accountability by refusing to answer publicly for its actions.

Rather than having its elected members face the media and provide direct answers to direct questions, the government of Premier Brian Pallister prefers to disseminate press releases, issue prepared statements and distribute minister-penned opinion columns that are carefully spun in a manner intended to allow the legislators whose names are attached to avoid the uncomfortable but necessary experience of in-person public scrutiny.

It’s a deliberate subversion of democratic tradition which, quite frankly, speaks for itself.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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