Martha Wickett, Salmon Arm Observer

COLUMN: Public servants should serve us

A cynic might conclude that the government is trying to limit any bad news prior to election day.

As Alice through the Looking Glass would say: Things are getting “curioser and curioser.”

Here in the Shuswap, Mother Nature has been highlighting her power recently, with a crack on the highway in Kault Hill, with landslides and flooding in Sunnybrae, Silver Creek and Eagle Bay.

As journalists, we report on such events, attempting to provide the public with timely, accurate information. Unfortunately, access to government has become increasingly restricted in B.C. over the past decade or so.

That lack of access appears to have risen to an absurd level during this election period. Journalists working in this newspaper and its sister papers have been unable to get information on current events from various ministries – Transportation and Infrastructure; Forestry, Land and Natural Resource Operations and Health, for instance.

Communications staff say that because of the ‘interregnum period’ – that time between when the writ is dropped and voting takes place – they can’t comment to media. As one communications staffer explained: “During this time as public servants, our obligation is to remain impartial, and what that means is we can’t offer commentary, analysis or comment, really anything related to that, with the exception of public health and emergencies…”

Elections BC reports there is nothing in the Elections Act governing this, but suggested speaking to the Government Communications and Public Engagement Ministry, which has its own rules. A ministry spokesperson confirmed there is no formal written policy, but the duty of public servants is to remain impartial.

Bearing all this in mind, a cynic might conclude that the past government is trying to limit any potential bad news prior to the election.

Because our country is widely acclaimed as a democracy, it would make sense that public access to the ministries that do the work our tax dollars pay for, would be unfettered – or, at most, private only in rare circumstances. In dictatorships, it’s not a coincidence that one of the first things leaders often do is shoot the messenger.

It used to be that a journalist could call a B.C. ministry, outline the topic of their request and ask to speak with a ministry staff person or, if warranted, the minister in charge. Within the next few hours a human being with hands-on knowledge of the issue would call back, answering by phone any and all questions.

That access has now dwindled about 98 per cent of the time to a PR person who doesn’t wish to be named as the source of the information, and who wants only written email questions. Then, the pat answers come back via email, with no possibility of an exchange of unscripted responses or follow-up questions that a telephone conversation can generate.

It is in the interest of the electorate, not just the media, that this secrecy is stopped before it escalates further.

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