H1N1, issues management and disaster response

Would it surprise you, gentle reader, that every morning (early morning!) a senior staffer from each ministry gathers with their peers from other ministries at Langevin to discuss the issues of the day and what fallout — both actual and political — may come from events that have either happened or may transpire?

If this doesn’t surprise you, it may indeed shock you (ok, it probably won’t) that issues management has a greater concern about political fallout and much of this focus is centred upon not so much the opposition’s line of attack on an issue but the media’s distillation of what the government of the day is doing about it?

Let’s put this in perspective and consider a real failure in this approach as it informs not simply the shuffling of public funds, but of a nation’s emergency response to potential disasters.

Remember H1N1?

Back in the fall it was all the rage. Bodybags sent to native reserves, an opposition raising a five-alarm fire for the government’s vaccines on order to the President of the Liberal Party describing H1N1 as “Harper’s Katrina”.

And one of the shallowest measures and glibly tangible critiques of the government? A comparison of spending on those “clandestinely partisan” (critics say) ads telling Canadians that — good-golly-gosh — the economy is going to get better and that government is leading the way, with the government effort on those “sneeze in your arm, not on your hands, you yob” adverts.

Here is a Liberal blogger’s summary of her party’s critique of the whole episode,

After being publicly embarrassed by the media, the Harper Conservatives have said they will act on H1N1 television advertising. After the CP report on the government’s spending five times more on its economic action plan ads than H1N1 preparation loudly made the rounds Sunday afternoon, the Conservatives started the damage control Sunday night. It’s not a tough concept to grasp, after all. Nobody likes a government spending money in its own interest to the detriment of a major public health issue

Issues management kicks into high gear! Bruce Cheadle of the Canadian Press, a wire reporter turned impassioned advocated for the commercially unbalanced, did indeed take a swipe at the governing party over their ‘too blue’ and ‘too Harper’ website on the Economic Action Plan and found that spending on economic ebullience was taking precedence over pandemic placation.

I remarked on this fallacy at the time,

Another criticism highlighted in the CP story is that the latest round of Economic Action Plan ads cost the government $5 million compared to $2 million spent on H1N1 ads.

Here are two issues that have a psychological component.

For economic stimulus, a large part of its purpose and success is affecting consumer confidence. As for H1N1, handwashing and vaccine readiness helps but fueling hysteria does not.

Now that we’ve had a chance to see the virulent dust clear, we have word that the government…over-reacted?,

The federal government spent $37-million on advertising and other communications around the H1N1 flu pandemic, more than it devoted to anti-viral drugs or managing the outbreak combined, according to newly divulged cost figures.

A prominent critic of government response to H1N1 said much of that ad blitz came after the epidemic had peaked, urging Canadians to get flu shots at a time when they were virtually pointless.

“If it’s well spent for a legitimate medical emergency, that’s fine,” said Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, who has repeatedly argued that public-health agencies over-reacted to the pandemic.

“It was the persistence of the immunization program, the persistence of the advertising after the outbreak had passed that really I find most offensive.”

Digging up a Liberal press release,

Last week, the House of Commons adopted a Liberal motion calling for the allocation of the $400 million in pandemic response funds to help the provinces deliver vaccines to Canadians, plus additional planning support, and the diversion of partisan Economic Action Plan advertising funding towards a large-scale H1N1 awareness campaign.

Dr. Schabas’ position is alluded to without specific reference to his actual view in the press release dated November 10th of last year. The Liberals advocated for a massive diversion of funds into an awareness campaign “as Canadians grow increasingly concerned that they won’t be vaccinated until well after the peak of the H1N1 flu”.

Our mothers always said that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but Schabas is actually criticizing the over-response and wasted spending on H1N1 advertising! Misallocation of H1N1 funds, needled into the wrong place, could have had a disastrous effect.

I’d argue that this is a way in which politics and media sensationalism hurts good and measured public policy informed by the most pressing facts. Issues management became a reaction to political fallout at the expense of a good and measured response. To be sure, the worst case scenario would have been if for some reason the politics had skewed the response in the other direction and the event had been much more pronounced.

How do we safeguard our consideration of real and informed concern when it faces an unhelpfully loud and very present sensationalism motivated by unrelated selfish considerations?

A real issue to manage. Unfortunately, it’s apolitical.

Speech from the Throne, what to expect

The Governor General will deliver the speech from the Throne today in the Senate outlining the government agenda for the 3rd session of the 40th Parliament.

The main focus of the throne speech will be the economy, jobs and growth. Out of the 6,000 word throne speech, the entire first half will focus on what the government has done with respect to the economy and what it plans to do moving forward. This economic agenda section of the throne speech will be split into three parts:

  • the government’s move into completing phase II of the economic action plan, including what the government has done to respond to the global economic crisis. Will also focus on government’s perceived strength among Canadians in building infrastructure and will outline plan for longer term infrastructure (including skills investment and R&D)

  • plan for recovery phase, deficit reduction and fiscal balance. Key themes will include winding down stimulus as economy recovers, restraining federal spending overall and protecting provincial transfers that protect Canadians (including healthcare transfers — government will emphasize that they will not balance budget by cutting healthcare transfers)
  • ensure the continued growth of the Canadian economy. The government will recognize that the private sector has to grow and continue to grow. Government will outline longterm plan for economic growth (including investments listed above). Government seeks to outline a key difference between it and the opposition whereas it seeks to help, not hurt, the private sector. The government will want to contrast itself with Liberals who have said that they would raise taxes and spend on huge projects including national daycare and highspeed rail. Economy remains a top priority of Canadians and the government’s throne speech will reflect a plan to address those concerns.

The second half of the throne speech will focus on the rest of government priorities which are not primarily focused on the economy and jobs.

The three sections of the second half will be “Making Canada the best place for families”, “Standing up for those who helped build Canada”, and “Strengthening a united Canada in a changing world”.

The families section will focus on the government’s plan to make sure that families live in a safe and secure country. Sub-themes include the classic tough-on-crime agenda and making communities safe. On a broader level, this includes national security.

The second section on standing up for those that helped build Canada will address seniors, aboriginals, veterans and will re-emphasize end to combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011 looking forward to a long term plan of reconstruction efforts.

Strengthening a united Canada in a changing world will address the environment, northern sovereignty, foreign affairs, immigration and refugee reform and democratic reform.

The throne speech will provide a broad outline of the government’s plan for the next session of Parliament while the budget will fill in the details.

George Smitherman dismisses federal Liberals on claims of Tory infrastructure skew

A little birdie told me that George Smitherman, Ontario’s infrastructure minister, just dismissed federal Liberal claims that infrastructure dollars are disproportionately going to Tory ridings in Ontario. He told reporters, “you can slice and dice the numbers any way you want” and he went on to emphasize that the programs are balanced.

UDPATE: Here’s the video from Citytv.

Citytv:

“The [federal Liberals] draw conclusions based on the analysis that they’ve done,” deputy premier George Smitherman countered Thursday outside Queen’s Park.

But, he continued, they only looked at the Recreational Infrastructure Canada (Rinc) program. While that would indicate that Conservative ridings received more cash than Liberal holdings, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Rinc program was open to not-for-profits and municipalities, he explained.

“So the fact that there are 450 municipalities, many of them small, meant that there were more requests in the mix for smaller communities.

“I think that’s why you see it’s a little more distributed towards rural Ontario and by coincidence, that happens to be where Conservatives represent the ridings.”

Toronto scored big when other initiatives were considered, Smitherman argued.

“The knowledge infrastructure program, which is for post-secondary education, you’ll see that Toronto actually comes out with a higher degree of investment than its proportion of population…I’m pretty confident that there’s going to be a very equitable regional distribution once we’ve completed the allocation of all those dollars.”

Some background on the cheques. A Conservative MP writes, and the political impact is measured.

Received in my inbox this afternoon from a Conservative Member of Parliament (published with permission):

Thanks for the email, [name withheld]! MPs and anyone else are always welcome to send tips.

This issue is a bit of a tricky one when measuring political impact. Yes, Stephen Harper ran on accountability with respect to public money going to public interests. And while he hasn’t allowed public money to be funneled into the pockets of his friends — unlike the Liberals — the Grits are crying foul that partisanship is too closely linked with government.

And yes, they do have a point. On one cheque. Yes, that cheque; the one handed out by Gerald Keddy.

However, I think the Liberals have overplayed their hand. Having made a small crack with Keddy, they’re trying to ram through 181 other “examples” of cheques which actually pass the sniff test.

Stephen Harper or MPs may have signed the cheques, but they have done so in their respective roles as the Prime Minister and as MPs — not as Conservative candidates.

And therein lies perhaps my biggest disagreement with wire reporter turned opinion maker Bruce Cheadle. The CP reporter argues that the Prime Minister is a partisan entity. In his story about the Economic Action Plan website, Cheadle argued that Harper’s mere image connotes “Conservative Party of Canada”. I would suggest that the office of the Prime Minister (and its occupant) supersede partisanship and he his first and foremost the Prime Minister of Canada (and therefore an agent of the government). Likewise, Members of Parliament act in the same capacity: as government representatives.

Again, the only lapse was the logo on that one cheque.

If we are to take Cheadle’s argument further, the Prime Minister’s presence at international gatherings such as the G20 and the G8 are merely expensive Conservative Party photo ops. Further we’d presume from Mr. Cheadle that Members of Parliament have no official role at all, they are merely hucksters for their own party brand. While this may be the opinion of some, it is not the constitutionally-outlined fact.

The Liberals did score a bit of a coup last night when they were able to wedge that one cheque to make an argument for their 181 cheque slideshow on the CBC’s National. Yet, some reporters are taking note. This cheque affair reeks of opportunism; Keddy’s of course, but also by the Liberals who not only mastered the process of taxpayer-backed partisanship, but now also make a 181 photo mountain out of a 1 photo molehill.

As we all throw mud at each other in our Ottawa sandbox we occasionally look up to see how we’ve done in the eyes of Canadians. So, how does this show play out on Main Street? Canadians will be disappointed in Keddy’s lapse to be sure. The Liberal partisans may become a bit more partisan. And the conservative ideologues never loved fiscal stimulus anyway. But Liberal partisans and conservative ideologues represent a minority of Canadians. As for the 99.99% of Canadians that don’t think of politics more than 7 seconds a week, how do they feel about the issue?

Their perceptions of Stephen Harper and of Michael Ignatieff matter most. Let’s take Ignatieff out of the equation because he’s removed himself from jockeying on this issue. For Stephen Harper, this incident takes a bit of the shine off of the “accountability” image he won upon in 2006. However, for those that listen to the Liberal complaint that the Conservatives aren’t doing enough to stimulate the economy — that the money isn’t getting out of the door fast enough — the Liberals are banking on the sustained outrage of Canadians over one bad cheque, while hoping that Canadians ignore that Conservatives are satisfying any complaint of sluggish stimuli demonstrated by those other 181 cheques.

This is will be difficult as the Liberals have created a slideshow. After all, wouldn’t it be terrible for Conservative electoral chances if every local paper printed up their local MP’s photo with a big cheque with a headline that read: “SCANDAL: local MP spends your money on you in your community”?

Stop the Presses! Website changes!

Today’s non-story from the breathless Ottawa press comes from Bruce Cheadle of Canadian Press who writes this National Newswatch headlining story,

“Harper photos removed from government website”

The background from this story is that the opposition has been complaining about the nature of the government’s advertising of their “Economic Action Plan” and have described the website of the plan as overtly partisan describing “Harper’s government” and taglines allegedly promoting the longevity of the government, “we can’t stop now”.

In this frame, Mr. Cheadle determines that the Economic Action Plan website is missing 20 photos of the Prime Minister. The Action Plan website contains about 34,500 pages. And, the significance of 20 “removed” photos? According to Cheadle, this may show a reaction to criticism and an acknowledgement of a guilty “Harper government” partisan conscience.

This website here at stephentaylor.ca, and many websites created after 2003 change on a regular basis. When I write a new post on this blog, content appears on the top and then drops off the bottom and is archived. I do not remove the content, but the website changes.

But goodness, 20 photos are suddenly not visible in the same way as the day before? This must be indicative of a vast conspiratorial government cover-up.

On the main homepage of the Economic Action Plan there is a timeline of “real actions” which features a series of photos that link to news stories about the government’s economic stimulus under the plan. One presumes Cheadle is talking about this timeline slideshow because the Prime Minister is still visible in 75% of the photos under the “Action plan highlights” section which dominates the top third of the homepage. Further, photos on press releases and other pages seem to remain in place.

As for the timeline, these photos link to news releases describing the stimulus underway. This timeline updates, ahem, over time and when new content becomes available — or is highlighted — old content is archived. In fact, a Google search shows 421 news releases available on the Action Plan website. Since a showcase of 421 news releases wouldn’t in fact be a “showcase”, a select number is highlighted. The controversy here is that this timeline has changed over time. Does the showcase timeline today reflect less of Stephen Harper’s happy face? Possibly. But fret not, tomorrow we may see more of it!

And to top it all off, a late breaking update of the wire story shows us that the bureaucrats (non-political staff) at PCO deny that the PM’s pictures were removed! (The conspiracy goes deep…)

Monday evening, the same PCO spokeswoman called The Canadian Press with a single talking point that can in no way be reconciled with the altered appearance of the site:

“We have not removed any pictures of the PM,” said Myriam Massabki.

“Single talking point” and “can in no way be reconciled”? Sounds like it’s the government of Canada’s word against Bruce Cheadle, amateur web surfer. In fairness, I’m glad Cheadle updated the story to include the quote even though he shows us that he doesn’t believe a word of it.

The point? The site changed because that’s what sites do over time. Content was not removed, it is still available on the government’s server. In fact, all of the non-removed Action Plan news releases (with pictures) can be viewed here.

You can judge for yourself:
Here is Economic Action plan as it appears today
Here is the same site as cached by Google on September 16th

Finally, let’s consider what this is all about. The criticism is that Prime Minister is a partisan advertisement for the implementation of government policy. Isn’t this argument absurd?

ASIDE: Another criticism highlighted in the CP story is that the latest round of Economic Action Plan ads cost the government $5 million compared to $2 million spent on H1N1 ads.

Here are two issues that have a psychological component.

For economic stimulus, a large part of its purpose and success is affecting consumer confidence. As for H1N1, handwashing and vaccine readiness helps but fueling hysteria does not.

UPDATE 7:43pm: The Prime Minister’s office has just put out the following,

ACTION PLAN WEBSITE: CORRECTING THE RECORD

Canadian Press reporter Bruce Cheadle has falsely reported that photographs of the Prime Minister have been removed from www.actionplan.gc.ca .

These reports are not true. Here are the facts:

* No photographs of the Prime Minister have been removed from the Action Plan website;

* Canadians have a right to know where and how the Government’s stimulus is being spent, and the Action Plan website helps provide this accountability;

* In addition, the website contains important information for Canadians on certain stimulus measures like the Home Renovation Tax Credit that are only available for a limited time.

Will Professor Ignatieff make us go to summer school?

At the moment, the Prime Minister and Michael Ignatieff are meeting to discuss infrastructure funding, possible changes to EI eligibility and, as we’re quite sure, engaging in rational discourse.

Last week, the government released its second report on the status of the Economic Action Plan and Ignatieff told reporters that it was too serious to grade the government, yet he stated that it had “failed” yet Canadians “don’t want an election right now”. What is the state of our system? A student fails the course but gets a pass because the parents have already planned the summer vacation? And to torture the metaphor a little more, I ask, is Michael Ignatieff really advocating that while failing Conservatives, he allow Canadians qualify for a fully paid sabbatical after six weeks of work? The 45 day work year, set to be defended by Liberals on an election trail near you, surely will not cause a stampede of voters to the ballot box. This really cannot be Ignatieff’s plan.

So what is really going on here? Flashback one year to the hapless Stephane Dion going into the summer, the Prime Minister’s neutered foe who rubber-stamped every piece of legislation by heading up the abstaining opposition. There is chatter around town that Michael Ignatieff is following Dion in his indecisiveness, however, this may instead represent an element of political narcissism for professor Ignatieff. The shovels are in the ground, the money is leaving the federal treasury to build infrastructure projects all over this country and Michael Ignatieff tells everyone to wait; Iggy has an important decision to make. To threaten to plunge the country into its fourth election in five years (with a $1.2 Billion tab) just so the media doesn’t frame him as the second coming of Stephane shows that he wants to know that his opinion – whatever he finds it to be – is relevant. As for his pensive pondering, he spent enough time in university seminars musing about the prolix and banal, yet as he transitions from the theoretical to applied, Dr. Ignatieff is showing that he is finding it difficult to both suck and blow.

In his press conference yesterday, Ignatieff used soft words such as “replace confrontation with cooperation”, “we cannot allow ourselves to act irresponsibly”, “if the government needs to sit a little longer, so be it” , “the Liberal party accepts the need for deficit spending in tough times”, “we want to make parliament work for all Canadians”, “I just want to give a sign to the Prime Minister that I’m a reasonable person. If he has employment proposals that he wants to bring forward, he needs a little more time, let’s not let the arbitrary deadline of Friday the be the all and end all. Let’s keep this serene and calm and business-like” Do these sound like bellicose words? So, why the drama Dr. Ignatieff?

He supported the Conservative budget earlier this year, he voted for the Conservative changes to EI. The Conservative government is spending billions of dollars in an effort to stimulate the economy. Why is this about him?

Michael Ignatieff knows that Canadians want him to allow Parliament to work, but he pauses to let us all know that it will only do so after he’s scowled at our exams.