When ‘open dialogue’ means ‘no comment’

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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How do you know when something stinks in politics? Perhaps the best way is when the politicians involved start blustering that “there’s nothing to see here” and “it’s time to move on.”

Well, it isn’t.

Last week, federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea made it clear that she wasn’t going to be talking to CBC’s “Fisheries Broadcast” about the recent cuts to shrimp quotas. To her, the issue is over and done with.

Here’s how the CBC reported her refusal: “Shea officially declined a request to spell out the quota rationale on CBC Radio’s ‘Fisheries Broadcast.’ Instead, a spokeswoman said the fisheries minister ‘has explained her position in the House of Commons and also in a letter in The Telegram.’”

Well, let’s go back to that letter to the editor.

It started out: “I would like to address some of the points raised in a Telegram editorial on northern shrimp quotas, which appeared to have been drafted with little research into actual facts.”

After that, it did not address a single point about “actual facts” that were supposedly in error.

Instead, it drifted off into the usual platitudes: “Since 2008, I have had the good fortune to visit many Newfoundland and Labrador rural communities. As a result I understand that the inshore fishery is both a way of life and the economic backbone of towns struggling with significant challenges.” Blah, blah, “tough decisions” blah, blah, blah.

Shea’s letter, to put it bluntly, was a sham.

What the editorial said, by the way, is that the FFAW should take the fisheries minister to court. (The editorial was one I wrote, so I know it pretty well. Fisheries union head Earle McCurdy has already pointed out Shea most likely didn’t write her own letter.)

Why a court case? To obtain answers under oath about the process behind the decision, because this minister has already been caught in another court action overruling her own science officials — right up to the assistant deputy minister — to benefit specific commercial interests.

After all, this is the same minister who decided that vessels from her own province — P.E.I. — deserved offshore shrimp quota off Newfoundland.

This is what the editorial said: “Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has already demonstrated that she’s not above overruling her own staff to make decisions that can fly in the face of conservation. A British Columbia court caught her doing exactly that in that province’s herring fishery, a ministerial decision that she probably believed would never come to light, thanks to gag orders on fisheries scientists. But caught she was, using a quick scribble with a pen to overrule the reasoned decision of several levels of her own department, right up to the most senior science bureaucrats.

“It would be interesting to look at the machinations behind this decision as well. … The FFAW has lots of nerve and enough in the way of financial resources to be able to sweat the minister in the courts for the real reasons behind the shrimp quota cut. Is it lobbying by offshore licence holders? Is it a case of Shea putting the interests of her home province of Prince Edward Island above adjacency to the fishery?

“You could simply ask the federal government why it chose to go this way — but past experience shows you might not get anything close to the truth. It took court-ordered access to documents to find that out in B.C.”

The judge in the B.C. court ruled in February that Shea’s decision was “not science-based, but in effect a statement: ‘there is a conservation concern here, but if the fishery is to be opened, take less.’ … It seems to me once the minister and the DFO depart from science-based assessments, the integrity of fisheries management system is harmed.”

Herring fishermen who paid licence fees for a fishery that never was — and never should have been — are now asking for $6 million in compensation for gearing-up costs.

Shea did not address those issues at all — instead, she simply devolved into puffery about stakeholders and consultation in her shrimp quota decision. Nothing to see here, folks, just move on.

Here’s another excerpt from Shea’s “actual facts” letter: “Quota decisions are never easy and science must be respected. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians understand that well, and the vast majority of the stakeholders I met with before making this decision agreed on the need for catch reductions.”

That is, of course, why noted fisheries scientist Gail Shea overruled the scientists.

Haven’t had enough Shea-buttering yet?

Try this.

“Having been raised in a fishing community, I understand the impact this decline in the shrimp stock is having. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can be assured that moving forward I will continue to have an open dialogue with fishermen and all stakeholders as we adapt to change.”

That “open dialogue,”of course, is exactly why Shea is refusing all interviews.

“Open dialogue,” apparently, means Shea writes what she wants and answers no questions.

You want open dialogue and actual facts with this minister?

Subpoena her gagged science staff. Otherwise, good luck getting at the truth.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC Radio, House of Commons, DFO

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, B.C., British Columbia Prince Edward Island

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