Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Government's mixed messaging remains after the gas tanks refilled

What we saw the government do during the gas shortage was an all-too-obvious scramble to appear to be doing something, even in the absence of any actual authority, writes CBC political analyst Graham Steele.

In the face of an unanticipated crisis, the government really doesn't know what to do, writes Steele

In the very process of trying to reassure Nova Scotians that it's doing something, the government acknowledges that future gasoline shortages are possible, says Graham Steele. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)

What a mess.

A whole province ran out of gasoline. It was all anybody was talking about.

Inevitably, the cry went up to the provincial government: "Do something!"

I've written about this phenomenon before, in the very different context of the Dalhousie dentistry scandal and the more familiar context of gasoline pricing.

When the hue and cry goes up, it's very hard for any government to resist jumping into action.

The problem is that, as often as not, they really don't know what to do.

So they start making things up, and that's when they're dangerous.

Suspicion and misinformation

The McNeil government's task would be much easier if there weren't already a great deal of suspicion and misinformation around gasoline sales.

The price regulation system, re-introduced by the Progressive Conservative government in 2005, is actually quite transparent.  That's why the CBC, for example, can make a pretty fair prediction of what the weekly price is going to be.

Despite the transparency, there is no end of criticism. Plenty of people believe the price at the pumps should vary more or less precisely with the price of crude oil.

It doesn't, so allegations fly: incompetence, collusion, gouging.

The Liberals fuelled this cynicism when they were in Opposition. They panned the role of government and lauded the power of the free market.

Now that they're in government, they've done an about-face.

That's fair enough. Being in government forces you to take a more nuanced look at issues that seemed so simple from the cozy armchairs of opposition.

But now they're fighting the very cynicism they used to stoke.

Field day

The cynics definitely had a field day this past weekend.

The gasoline shortage happened at exactly the same time there was a sharp drop in the price.

Imperial Oil, which is essentially Nova Scotia's sole supplier of gasoline, was silent.

There were conflicting and confusing explanations about what exactly was going on.

In this environment, the government had to be at the top of its communications game. The messages had to be clear, effective and repeated.

What we saw instead was an all-too-obvious scramble to appear to be doing something, even in the absence of any actual authority.

Not the government's fault

First up was Service Nova Scotia minister Mark Furey, who issued a rare evening news release on Monday.

One would expect an evening news release to contain urgent new information, but all the news release said, essentially, was that the gasoline shortage wasn't the government's fault.

Municipal Affairs Minister Zach Churchill says his department is considering giving Halifax the ability to set multiple commercial tax rates. (CBC)

According to the release, the government recognized that the gas shortage was "concerning, disappointing and frustrating" for Nova Scotians, but "Government does not regulate supply. Oil companies are responsible for supply management."

That's a respectable message, though difficult to deliver amidst shouts of "Do something!"

So Furey couldn't resist going further, and he hinted that the government would consider supply regulation if it had to. What? How? When? No answers, because Furey almost surely didn't know himself.

Emergency responders

By Wednesday, another minister arrived on the scene.

Zach Churchill is the minister for the emergency management office (EMO). He called a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

In a narrow sense, you can see why EMO would be very concerned.  A fuel shortage could knock emergency responders, like police, fire and ambulance, off the road.

That's why the review announced by Churchill will, according to his news release, "look for solutions to ensure that emergency providers are able to deliver services to Nova Scotians without interruption."

That's fine, as far as it goes, but Churchill's comments during the news conference ranged well beyond securing a fuel supply for emergency responders, and therefore outside any authority he actually has under his governing legislation.

Mixed messages

The gasoline shortage is over, but the government's mixed messaging remains.

Who's the responsible minister, Furey or Churchill?

Does the government have a role in managing or regulating fuel supply, or doesn't it?

Will the review look at the whole supply issue, or only a narrow part of it?

How can the government be sure that price regulation wasn't a factor, before the review has even started?

In the face of an unanticipated crisis, the government really doesn't know what to do.  In the very process of trying to reassure Nova Scotians that it's doing something, it acknowledges that future gasoline shortages are possible.

And that is the biggest mixed message of all.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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