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.

Historic vote to scrap the long gun registry

I was in the gallery of the House of Commons yesterday to vote on C-391. Members from
opposition parties voted to support Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner’s legislation to scrap the long gun registry.

Fulfilling a longterm election promise, Conservative members voted unanimously to sink the long criticized program which has been referred to by caucus members as a “billion dollar boondoggle”.

Friendly betting went on between Conservative staff and Conservative members earlier in the day on the outcome of the vote. From passing by two votes to fifteen votes, everyone bet on it to pass. However, there was still tension as the known opposition votes needed to pass the legislation still counted Heopner’s bill short by one or two votes.

In the end, the legislation passed with applause for Hoeppner and Garry Breitkreuz, who shepherded the issue through its latest legislative test. Applause also for Independent libertarian-minded Quebec MP Andre Arthur who showed up for the vote despite being ill over the past two years. It was conveyed to me that fellow Quebec libertarian Maxime Bernier encouraged him to make the vote.

Another MP Claude Guimont, afflicted with H1N1 influenza also made the vote. It was reported earlier that the Tories faced criticism for refusing to pair Guimont’s vote. Given the unwhipped vote, allowing members to vote their minds rather than that of their leader, and given the uncertainty of the outcome, nobody from any political party offered to pair their vote.

The vote sent the bill to committee 164-137, prompting one member from a coterie of gun control advocates sitting in the opposite gallery to show her white ribbon (commemorating the 1989 shootings at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal) to perhaps shame members of the opposition benches that voted with Conservative members.

Among the activists was Wendy Cuckier, often the face of gun control in the Canadian media. After the vote she scrummed with reporters in the Commons foyer. She complained of a new style of politics, an “American style” of approaching legislation. She suggested that, in the future, the government may on matters such as same-sex marriage and abortion introduce legislation as Private Members Business as they’ve done with the Gun Registry to allow MPs to vote their conscience. The danger in this, she suggested was that leaders would have less control over their parties and that the government could “pick off” opposition MPs by lobbying them heavily within their own ridings by spending dollars on persuation via advertising. She remarked that this is the style of politics that happens south of the border.

Keith Martin was among the few Liberal members that voted against the registry. He noted that while the organization of police chiefs is against the abolishment of the registry, rank and file police officers are for it. He explained that he voted for the bill because he wants to broaden the discussion by sending it committee.

Candice Hoepner noted in her scrum that today marked only one step along the path to dismantling the gun registry. She emphasized that it was important that the issue was put to a free vote. Hoeppner noted that while she is against the registry, she is still in favour of licensing for gun owners. On the registry’s supposed intent, Heoppner explained that the registry did little to stop criminals. As for the changes the legislation may face in committee, she suggested that one cannot change the intent of the bill at this stage. And as the bill faces a vote in the Senate, Heopner expressed her hope that the unelected senators be especially mindful of the wishes of Canadians.

Wayne Easter also scrummed in the foyer. Easter was Solicitor General under Chretien and held the office while his portfolio responsibilities included oversight of the long gun registry program. Easter was one of the only front bench Liberal MPs that voted for Hoepner’s PMB. Easter explained that the system isn’t working as it was intended and that there is strong opposition to the long gun registry in rural committees, perhaps including the one that Easter represents on Prince Edward Island. He suggested that it is the Prime Minister that is to blame for the weakening of gun control. In fact, many Liberals had suggested that the Prime Minister dodged a long held campaign promise of scrapping the registry and that he should have directed legislation on this issue to introduced as a government bill.

While Easter was among the Liberal caucus that got the registry up and running, he suggested that there is always room for improvement to the system. It is unknown if he meant improvement via dismantling. Easter stated that he voted to represent the interests of his constituents, many of which include farmers and hunters — two constituent groups firmly against the program. Easter stated when asked that he was, and still is, very upset about the advocacy Conservatives members conducted in his riding. At one point this week he even suggested that it may change his vote.

Hedy Fry remarked that the vote is essentially meaningless as her leader voted to continue the registry. Therefore, she suggested, when the Liberals retake power, they’d reverse any action on the registry taken by the Conservatives.

NDP staffers suggested to me that the legislation may never see royal assent because of delays at committees, in the Senate and a future election that will drop it off of the order paper. They noted that the legislation split along an urban and rural divide in both the NDP and Liberal parties. An NDP strategist also added that gun control lobby groups largely sat on their hands as Conservatives organized on this issue.

The bill now faces discussion and study in committee where it is likely to face testimony by lobby groups both for and against the scrapping of the gun registry. Opposition members are likely to express an intent to “study” the legislation by calling a number of witnesses. Ironically, delay may increase likelihood of the bill passing through the Senate as 2010 will see appointment of additional senators to the Upper Chamber. Conservatives are effectively sailing through votes in the now and 2010 the Senate will tip further to the right. For the time being, however, delayed passage of a bill to dismantle the gun registry by the Upper Chamber will only act to bolster Conservative fundraising on two hated issues: the gun registry and the unelected Senate.

A response to Alf Apps’ politicization of H1N1

Alf Apps made the news for emailing this disgraceful letter to a wide distribution list within the Liberal Party. He has been roundly criticized for suggesting that H1N1 may be Prime Minister Harper’s “Hurricane Katrina” and that “Canadians are entitled to wonder if they are being victimized by some clinical cost-benefit analysis premised on the theory that expense could be avoided if demand for the vaccine were suppressed and access to immunization for most was made well nigh impossible.”

I’ve put together the following video as a critique on Apps’ disgusting words. H1N1 is not a game and all parties ought to be working together to ensure supply and manage fears. It is wholly irresponsible to cause panic thus jamming lines with low priority Canadians at the expense of those who need the rationed vaccine first. This is not an issue upon which Apps’ and a handful of Liberals should be scoring cheap political points. When faced with great situations, we ought to have government accountability yes, but we must be wary of those that would unnecessarily stoke fear to drive a partisan agenda.

Let’s get back to work shall we? This video is a admonition of the politicization of H1N1 and only an admonition of the politicization of H1N1. I believe that most Liberals want to help steer Canada through this potential crisis with minimized turbulence. I agree with Brian Lilley’s take on the recent dialogue on H1N1 on Parliament Hill; Ignatieff has been rational and responsible on this issue while members of his caucus and party have not.

UPDATE: Here’s part of a CTV report by Graham Richardson that aired last night that should interest Mr. Apps.

Again, let’s move forward shall we?

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.

Stockwell Day interview

It’s been a summer of swine and seals in the office of the International Trade Minister, Stockwell Day. Colloquially, H1N1 is called swine flu and it’s been causing some trade sniffles for Canada as we’ve been affected by cases in almost every region, while other countries are taking it as an excuse for trade protectionism. Another file on Day’s desk is the EU decision to ban the marketing of seal goods. I had a chance to chat with the Trade Minister on these topics and briefly on the topic of free trade.