‘By­elec­tion black­out’ takes ‘ridicu­lous’ turn

‘Ar­guably over-re­stric­tive’ law over­shad­ows Or­der of Man­i­toba cel­e­bra­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - LARRY KUSCH larry.kusch@freep­ress.mb.ca

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.

TREVOR HA­GAN / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

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.

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