In a previous life Premier Dennis King was a spin doctor, a paid hired gun who managed political events to best public advantage for government or party. He’s good at it. His government, not so much.
There is a place in politics for communication strategies. Government needs to explain policies and issues to the public. Over the last 20 years, however, reliance on so-called communication experts has increased exponentially. It’s gotten to the point where communication staff have a significant, and often negative impact, on government policy development.
If communication specialists were around 50 years ago, they likely would have advised Premier Alex Campbell not to proceed with the merger of St. Dunstan’s University and Prince of Wales College to form UPEI. The argument would go that it would stir up a hornet’s nest of sectarian opposition.
We can be thankful that Alex Campbell had the courage to do what was right.
Same for the development plan. It turned the Island on its ear. Communication advice would likely conclude the pace of change to be too quick and dramatic, especially for rural Islanders.
Campbell was right.
As risk analysis becomes more entrenched in policy development, bold leadership is often the victim - despite the very dramatic issues our Island faces.
The King administration has relied more on style than substance since its April 23rd election, not a huge surprise given the intense campaign schedule of both a leadership contest and provincial election.
But three months into office, Islanders are still waiting for the premier to release Mandate Letters for each of his departments. These are vital documents that establish key priorities for the ministry and minster. It makes both accountable to the public and informs both the public service and general public of key legislative and policy initiatives. There are departments that the public still has little idea what the primary focus is.
Tories are following the administrative road map established by the previous Liberal government, with no dramatic variance for its own priorities. But King did make specific promises that resonated, such as to dramatically improve delivery of mental health services and a commitment to enforce not only the letter of the Lands Protection Act, but the spirit as well.
Now both promises are examples of communication failures on the part of the bureaucracy and minister.
James Aylward expressed surprise that 1,000 Islanders referred to a psychiatrist had not seen one. Health PEI has no idea how many were treated by other health care professionals. He offered a political response in promising to add five psychiatrists, if we can’t fill the existing provincial allotment of 15.
But the unanswered question is how was PEI’s new Minister of Health surprised by such a staggering failure to provide reasonable and timely access to treatment?
Every new minister is briefed on major issues within their portfolio. Yet, at no time since assuming office did anyone think it important to brief the minister on the state of psychiatric referrals. If they had it would not have come as a surprise to the minister.
Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson should have known better than to suggest an Irving company was not in violation of the Lands Protection Act. Many companies and families skirt ownership rules within the act. Thompson knows it. The Tories know it. It’s why PCs campaigned on enforcing the spirit of the law.
Thompson’s ministry fed him a weak argument and bad messaging. As a new minister, Thompson parroted what he was told. So did veteran MLA Brad Trivers when he initially refused to support a private members bill updating PEI’s carbon reduction goals. After criticism, the minister of environment quickly backtracked.
It’s still early days, but already you hear background muttering from Tory insiders that communication considerations are making it more difficult to bring forward needed change. The problem will only manifest if strategies offered have more to do with entrenched bureaucratic thinking than PC policy.
At some point in time, Premier Dennis King needs to put substance behind his political rhetoric. Spin and leadership do not always mix.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at email@example.com