Monday, June 15, 2009

The Tide of Public Discourse

If there is a dominant trend at the Telegram these days (aside from the proliferation of emotive, human-interest stories on the front page), it's the reaction against criticism of the Williams regime.

Like Russell Wangersky, Peter Jackson wants to play "devil's advocate" and chide those who blow problems "out of proportion."

Jackson starts with an overstatement: "Here's a thought. Is it possible Ross Wiseman is not the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history? The idea goes against the overwhelming tide of public discourse lately."

Exaggerating the opposite position (i.e., setting up the proverbial straw man) draws on one of the most common logical fallacies.

In Jackson's case, he caricatures the debate over Wiseman's tenure by opening with two extreme assertions that misrepresent the public debate, giving the false impression that,
A) People critical of Wiseman believe that he is "the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history."
B) Belief in A is part of an "overwhelming tide of public disourse lately."

With his straw man neatly set up, Jackson chides the reader to "give the man his due," since Wiseman is not causing the problems at Health, which is not really in a state of crisis anyways but rather "still chugging along, wheels intact." "Cancer tests notwithstanding," Jackson claims, "most of the problems in health care boil down to a perpetual lack of funds."

It's hard to know where to start. First, if the extensive reporting by the CBC has demonstrated anything, it's that the problems are not all due to a lack of funds. Ineffective management -- including poor communication and inept leadership -- has led to poor morale among physicians. If anything, the media's focus on the Cameron Inquiry has obscured the larger problems beyond oncology. The recent exodus of specialists in a number of critical areas is, pace Jackson, evidence of systemic crisis in the system. Ask the NLMA, and they will tell you that it's not all about money.

Second, the only person I know who is publicly stating that Wiseman is the "the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history" is Jackson. In an earlier post, I called Wiseman the "most incompetent member of cabinet," and other blogs have made similar claims. I suspect that Wiseman is trying his best, and chances are that he's a nice enough fellow who is out of his depth; but that's not good enough for the Health portfolio. I'm not sure what hospital Jackson has been visiting lately, but anyone who has a loved one needing heart surgery can tell you just how bad things are.

Third, just where is this "overwhelming tide of public discourse"? Where is the avalanche of public criticism of the Williams government? Where are the marchers and the protesters? Where are the devastating debates in the House of Assembly? Where is the large Official Opposition waiting to take power? Where are the newspaper columnists rallying public opinion against the provincial government? Where are even the low poll numbers?

Most of the sustained criticism of Williams has been restricted to a handful of blogs and the online comments sections of the CBC. Hardly an overwhelming tide. The latest CRAPoll showed that Williams still enjoys strong popular support. The House of Assembly, which sits as infrequently as possible, is now closed.

If Jackson wants to be an apologist for Danny Williams and Ross Wiseman, so be it. But he should be honest about his agenda and not hide behind some phamtom tide of public discourse.

When journalists believe that Danny Williams, of all people, needs protection from public criticism, you know that we're living through strange days indeed. Joey Smallwood faced Ray Guy. Brian Peckford faced the Sunday Express. Danny Williams faces...well, I leave that for you to determine. For those of you who like to blame everything on the internet, check this out in today's Slate.

And for those of you who, like Jackson, believe that the problems at Eastern Health are, "the price we pay for universal health care," keep in mind that the U.S. pays far more per capita on health care than we do, yet tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance and the U.S. has a lower life expectancy rate than Canada. If money were the only probem, then the US would have the world's best health care system.

Definitely Not Ray Guy Update:

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