March 28, 2020

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Stupid law on government information hurts voters

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press FILES</p><p>Wait-time info for Winnipeg hospitals was provided to reporters by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority by telephone on Friday night, while requests for written figures were denied.</p>

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press FILES

Wait-time info for Winnipeg hospitals was provided to reporters by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority by telephone on Friday night, while requests for written figures were denied.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/8/2019 (211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Reporters were settling into their long weekend on Friday night when the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority decided to hold a conference call to release wait-time information for Winnipeg hospitals, after refusing for several weeks to make it public out of a fear of perverting the election process.

It was Kafkaesque to say the least. WRHA CEO Réal Cloutier said he could only read the wait-time numbers for emergency and urgent care centres over the phone; the authority apparently received advice from the government that it could not provide it in written form, only verbal.

So, for nearly 30 minutes, Cloutier read out average wait times for roughly a dozen facilities to a handful of journalists who had the misfortune of reading their email hours after the workday had ended. He refused to send the information in any written form. "Bizarre" doesn’t quite capture the atmosphere.

And what was it that the WRHA was trying to keep from voters? Wait times across Winnipeg’s network of emergency departments and urgent care centres are up slightly year over year, from 4.11 hours (90th percentile) in 2018 to 4.47 hours in 2019.

But there’s more. The WRHA only reversed course and released the information after being publicly taunted earlier this week by Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, who demanded the data be released. He clearly believed the numbers were positive and would help him deflect criticism from other parties that have accused him of trying to wreck health care.

Guess what? Pallister’s instincts were off. The numbers are not flattering. Cue the howls from the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens.

It was the perfectly absurd end to an absurd week in which bureaucrats took turns twisting themselves into semantic pretzels as they tried to figure out what they could and couldn’t say during the election campaign.

While the WRHA was busy looking for excuses to keep publicly available information away from the voting public, other government departments were far more bold about what they thought they could and could not say during an election.

For example, Manitoba Health this week published a comprehensive update on the PC government’s health system transformation initiative, a move that is almost certainly a violation of Elections Finance Act provisions that limit government communication.

The report, published online on Aug. 29, contains information on everything from the restructuring of Winnipeg hospitals to further consolidation of support services (such as food and laundry) to updates on contract talks with health-care unions.

It would be hard to say the report is definitively positive for the Pallister government. However, it is certainly not negative and could be used by Pallister as evidence of all the work he has done in three years to "fix" health care. And that makes it ineligible to be released by government. The NDP has already indicated it will file an official complaint with the commissioner of elections.

The timing of this information mayhem is unfortunate.

This is a campaign where health care is the consensus pick as the No. 1 voter issue. And what has this campaign wrought? One government department releasing information it shouldn’t have, and another refusing to release information it should have.

Voters can be forgiven for wondering: what the heck is going on?

You can blame the Election Finances Act and the legal provisions that prevent a government from publishing information during a campaign.

Provincial and federal bureaucracies in this country have long ceased to publish information during an election campaign that could be used to support an incumbent government. In Manitoba, that prohibition is extended to the pre-writ period, as well. However, the rules of engagement are fuzzy and poorly constructed.

A government agency may not issue a news release or publish a report during the writ period that could in any way serve the interests of the incumbent government. However, citizens or third parties, including news media, may request information and government entities are legally allowed to release it.

It’s a murky enough scenario that it’s hardly surprising there are abuses, both of commission and omission.

Particularly maddening is the approach taken by the WRHA. Normally one of the most transparent entities in government, the WRHA has tied itself up in procedural knots trying to maintain an element of "neutrality." But in doing so, it has done a disservice to voters.

The WRHA is a bottleneck for the most important information on the health-care system. When it refuses to provide information, it creates an information deficit that puts voters at an extreme disadvantage. If one party makes a health-care pledge, journalists should (on behalf of voters) be able to get information that puts that pledge into factual context. The WRHA’s self-imposed gag order made that impossible.

All this mayhem should come as no surprise. The communications blackout in provincial law has long been debated and assailed. Most of the criticism comes from parties in opposition; once in power, there is, of course, less impetus to change anything.

Thus, we are trapped in an endless cycle of information deprivation right at a time when we need good, objective information on which to base voting decisions.

While we can debate who benefits from a stupid law such as this — governing or opposition parties — there should be no debate about the fact it is the voter who is the big loser.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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