‘Byelection blackout’ takes ‘ridiculous’ turn
‘Arguably over-restrictive’ law overshadows Order of Manitoba celebration
HE Progressive Conservative government is looking at “tweaking” the province’s Election Financing Act because of provisions forbidding government promotion and advertising during elections being interpreted too broadly — sometimes to ridiculous effect.
On Thursday, an event at the Manitoba legislative building to honour 12 inductees into the Order of Manitoba took a bizarre turn when media were prevented from photographing the group together with Premier Brian Pallister. Such photos are a regular feature of such non-partisan events.
The master of ceremonies at the event cited the “byelection blackout” as the reason news photographers and videographers could not record the premier smiling with the group of accomplished Manitobans. The byelection to fill the seat vacated by former premier Greg Selinger, who resigned earlier this year, will be held Tuesday.
Members of the Order of Manitoba are selected by an independent panel — not by the government of the day.
Chisholm Pothier, the premier’s director of communications, said the current law is “arguably over-restrictive in attempting to achieve a legitimate goal of fairness” in elections and byelections.
While the law is aimed at preventing promotional activities, it does not prohibit communicating matters related to public health or safety, Pothier noted in an email in response to queries by the Free Press.
“However, I think there is a general consensus that it is awkward and could stand some tweaking. We have started a process to review, and will be introducing amendments to the law when the process is finished, expected in 2019,” he said. The government began the process before the byelection call, he added.
Christopher Adams, a political scientist at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, called the decision to bar the media from photographing the Order of Manitoba inductees with the premier “ridiculous.”
“The spirit of the legislation was to
Tprevent the government and the governing party from influencing an election by making announcements on certain matters that would be to the benefit of the governing party,” he said.
Pallister was simply doing his job in attending the event and posing with the group afterwards, Adams said. The fact TV cameras and newspaper photographers couldn’t take a group shot was a “missed opportunity” for the inductees, he said.
A Free Press photographer was told to leave, after he approached the premier and some honourees. He got his shot anyway: a beaming Pallister, standing between musician Robb Nash and West Broadway Youth Outreach executive director Ken Opaleke.
Over the years, successive governments have cited the Election Financing Act for not responding to some media questions.
Soon after the St. Boniface byelection was called, several government spokespeople admitted they weren’t sure how much information they were allowed to divulge to reporters during the blackout period.
During the provincial and federal health ministers meeting in Winnipeg last month, a spokeswoman gave media printed copies of a statement responding to concerns from people rallying in front of the Fort Garry Hotel for funds to help those with spinal muscular atrophy. The spokeswoman said she was not sure whether the government was allowed to email responses to reporters at the time.
That same week, another spokesperson said Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen could not respond to questions about results of a Probe Research poll on safe-injection sites. But after the story ran in the Free Press, Goertzen provided statements to other media saying “decisions on addictions programs and treatment are made based on evidence and the best allocation of available resources, not on polls.”
This past week, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) told the Free Press it could not post new board of director meeting agendas or the minutes of board meetings until after the blackout period.
“That’s crazy,” said retired University of Manitoba political science professor Paul Thomas, when told of the WRHA’s position. “This is factual information on the operation of government.”
Thomas said public servants can become overly cautious when the rules are not clear enough on what types of information can or cannot be divulged. They’re afraid they will be criticized or their political masters will be angry with them and it might damage their careers, he said.
Thomas said the section of the act pertaining to advertising and promotion during elections and byelections needs to be rewritten to more clearly reflect its intent.
“There’s ambiguity there. It needs to be clarified. You don’t want the routine operations of government to come to a halt,” he said.
The photo that shouldn’t be? Premier Brian Pallister (centre) poses with Order of Manitoba inductees Robb Nash (left), a musician, and Ken Opaleke, executive director of West Broadway Youth Outreach, following a ceremony at the legislative building on Thursday. The photographer was asked to leave shortly after because of ‘byelection blackout’ rules.