Nova Scotia

Political scientists say Nova Scotia's COVID-19 communications approach is problematic

Two Nova Scotia political scientists say Premier Stephen McNeil's restrictive approach to taking questions from reporters limits the ability to analyze the government's response to COVID-19.

Tom Urbaniak says fulsome and sustained exchanges about policy decisions and approaches now lacking

Premier Stephen McNeil's office rejected a request from reporters to return to in-person briefings. There's no indication of when that will happen. (Communications Nova Scotia)

In the last two weeks, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has made successive announcements about the reopening of the province following a shutdown in response to COVID-19.

Gathering limits have been substantially increased and restrictions have been eased. Businesses are largely operating again, in keeping with public health guidelines, and the Atlantic bubble is slated to begin this week, with McNeil eyeing a reopening of Nova Scotia to the rest of the country sometime in July.

One restriction the premier has not been willing to lift, so far, is the limit on how many questions reporters can ask him and how. Following cabinet meetings or COVID-19 updates, the premier is only available by conference call, which are triaged by a government communications staffer and limited to one question and a follow-up per media organization. Those availabilities are time limited, so not every reporter gets to ask a question.

On Friday, the premier's office rejected a request from members of the Nova Scotia legislature press gallery to resume in-person briefings and availability, the customary approach prior to March. No explanation was provided for the decision, despite reporters pledging to wear masks and practise physical distancing.

'I have no idea where many of you have been'

During a COVID-19 briefing later that day, McNeil suggested in response to questioning by reporters about the decision that his desire to maintain the teleconference approach was at least partially motivated by trying to preserve his health and safety.

"I have no idea where many of you have been [or who you've had] contact with," he said, the same day the province announced its 17th straight day without an active case of COVID-19 and one day after he attended a flag raising ceremony outside Province House with about 20 people — reporters were not informed of the event until after it ended.

It also is a means for the premier to control how he's presented.

"I'm able to get my message out to Nova Scotians," McNeil said of the news conferences, which are broadcast online in real time.

Getting to see him interact with reporters gives the public "a new perspective on the role of being the premier of the province and the many challenges we have to deal with on a daily basis," he said.

Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak said he has fewer concerns about the decision by the premier to keep his availability on the phone than he does with how the government in recent months has limited the ability to have fulsome and sustained exchanges about policy decisions and approaches.

Lacks meaningful engagement, says prof

Along with the public health response to COVID-19, the government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to try to help the economy, all without any type of sustained discussion or debate.

The opportunity for reporters to ask the premier just two questions periodically has the appearance of transparency and does provide some information, but Urbaniak said it lacks the ability for meaningful engagement.

McNeil attended a ceremony outside Province House on June 25, 2020, where he helped raise the Pride flag. (Communications Nova Scotia)

"What we're missing out on is the real exchange," he said.

That lack of exchange is why Urbaniak believes it is also problematic that legislative committees, particularly the public accounts and health committees, have been shut down by the government. The premier has said they will return sometime in the fall.

"It would be wonderful for the public to witness some of this dialogue about what is the thinking, what are some of the calculations that are going into the reopening plan, for instance," said Urbaniak.

A format on the government's terms

Dalhousie University political scientist Katherine Fierlbeck said as the danger of the first wave of COVID-19 recedes, the need for government accountability has to be brought back into balance. Right now, that doesn't seem to be happening, she said.

With a majority government, high approval rating and committees shut down, the Liberals are in the driver's seat, said Fierlbeck. It's a tricky position for opposition MLAs, because they don't want to risk being perceived as being political at a time of emergency.

In that situation, Fierlbeck argues the role of reporters becomes more important because there is no one else to ask questions and explore policy decisions. For that reason, it's concerning how constrained reporters are by rules imposed by the government, she said.

Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak said the opportunity for reporters to ask the premier just two questions periodically has the appearance of transparency, but said it lacks the ability for meaningful engagement. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"They're answering questions on their own terms. It's only at certain times, when they are completely prepared. They essentially pick who asks the questions."

Fierlbeck compared limiting a reporter to two questions to try to explore what's happening right now with a parent being limited to two questions to try to find out what's happening with their teenage child.

"The two questions you get are just setting parameters of the discussion. And then there has to be a give and take so that you can figure out the person's position," she said.

"So this two-question rule is almost window dressing to just get to the point of defining an area that should be investigated in more depth, and then it's dropped."

Accountability not a high public priority right now

Fierlbeck said the question shouldn't be whether the premier has the political runway to continue this approach, but rather why the government would want to.

"The answer is, because they can," she said.

"The question about accountability only becomes relevant when you are threatened by something that is hidden."

That means that if the public doesn't feel it's disadvantaged by that situation, they aren't likely to make much noise by it, particularly at a time when people are trying to grasp whatever form of positivity they can after three very difficult months, said Fierlbeck.

It's not uncommon for governments to take advantage of such situations, she said.

"It just becomes a question of democratic citizenship. Now that people are worried about homeschooling and elder care and getting a job, democratic accountability is, understandably, just not that high up on their list of priorities."

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