Byelection in The Pas cuts off government information for Manitobans
Expect rush of government announcements once The Pas byelection muzzle lifted
A government media blackout has frustrated journalists and impacted information getting out to Manitobans during The Pas byelection campaign.
The Election Financing Act restricts government advertising during elections and byelections, and that means for weeks, interviews and information from elected officials and key government agencies such as the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority are being withheld.
According to the act, "a government department or Crown agency must not advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities," during the campaign period ahead of a vote.
The act says nothing about responding to questions from the public and media, but that's what's been happening -- agencies are repeatedly blocking Manitoba journalists.
Recently, a CBC journalist asked the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for access to an expert to react to a study about hockey helmets. The journalist wanted to speak to someone who worked at Winnipeg's Pan Am Concussion Clinic about a study that was done at Virginia Tech.
A communications specialist at the WRHA said in an e-mail, "It is our responsibility to ensure whatever we publish (which includes responding to media requests) during this period does not violate the legislation and that it is allowable under the exemptions."
"Unfortunately," she went on, "It has been determined this is captured by the restrictions in place under the Elections Finances Act and that it does not meet the exemptions afforded to us under the law."
Legislation meant to prevent government influence
The act was established to ensure the governing party and its agencies didn't use their platforms to tout projects or sway voters during a campaign.
But, it's hard to imagine how a concussion expert talking about an American study that highlighted medical information about helmet failure was in any way tied to the Manitoba NDP or could help get them get re-elected in The Pas.
The WRHA also denied interviews on the return of seniors to the Golden Links Lodge. The seniors had been out of the personal care home for about a year due to flooding. A CBC journalist asked for an interview from the WRHA about the facility and its preparedness to re-open.
In another case, the Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba denied an interview about a new process that affected the number of liquor license suspensions.
And in another, the Addictions Foundation refused to give answers, statistics or an interview on a story CBC did about solvent sniffing in Winnipeg's downtown.
Zebra mussels, housing project also no-go zones
The list goes on and on and includes more than just government agencies.
The department of Conservation and Water Stewardship declined a CBC interview on zebra mussels. The department said the expert couldn't talk because there is pending legislation to increase the penalties for transporting zebra mussels.
You may think this is an insular problem only journalists are running into. It's not.
Organizations that need to go ahead with projects and meet with government officials would be similarly blocked.
Bruce McManus, the co-chair of the Wolseley Residents Association sub-committe on the old Grace Hospital redevelopment, said the byelection "played a role" in delaying a meeting with Manitoba Housing.
The group was looking for a meeting with the department to talk about how to redevelop the old Grace Hospital site.
"[A Manitoba Housing official] suggested we best wait until after the byelection," McManus said.
"I did inquire because no one seemed to understand what the criteria is that applied to co-ordinating with the public prior to the byelection," he said. "I think I would like a bit more certainty rather than uncertainty surrounding these issues."
To be fair, McManus said the delayed meeting time worked for his organization, and they have no bones to pick with the government.
Exceptions made for family of murdered woman, Wheat Board
To also be fair, some interviews with elected officials did go ahead. The justice minister spoke with CBC News about the family of a murder victim who was denied funeral costs because of a criminal past.
In another case, the Premier and agriculture minister made themselves available to react to the sale of the CWB (formerly known as the Canadian Wheat Board) to an American and Saudi company.
At that press event, a reporter asked Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, "What's the difference between you coming out and talking today about the wheat board?"
"Again, I'm responding to questions from the media on a decision that was made elsewhere. We're not making a government announcement today. We're responding to questions on a very important issue, and we're putting our historical position on the record," Selinger told reporters.
This statement implies that the long list of unanswered media requests were unimportant, or if they were answered, those instances would constitute "government announcements."
What seems like overly cautious behaviour could be due to Elections Manitoba slapping the NDP on the wrists this fall.
Elections Manitoba said it was wrong the department of Family Services advertised and published information commemorating the 98th anniversary of women's suffrage in Manitoba, during byelections in Morris and Arthur-Virden in January.
On Tuesday, voters in The Pas head to the polls, and the blackout will be over.
What will likely follow is a rush of government announcements, as the Selinger government ramps up towards the provincial budget tabling on April 30.
After a month of quiet ministers and agencies, there's likely more than a few things to say.
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