This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The Missive” on Nov. 19, 2021. Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/ or access background info and special content with a paid subscription.
Civil servants were holding their collective breath this week as a CBC investigative team released secret recordings of meetings held between Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and her team at Alberta Health.
The bombshell story revealed an exasperated and cynical Dr. Hinshaw talking about her “uphill battle” with the UPC Cabinet and Premier Jason Kenney. In some very candid exchanges with her team, Dr. Hinshaw spoke sarcastically about her level of influence, while publicly stating repeatedly that her recommendations were being taken seriously. Notably, she has refused to share her recommendations publicly, so we aren’t able to judge that for ourselves.
For those in the civil service, this is a nightmare scenario – comments on tape, context missing and the inevitable consequences. For all of us, it’s a shocking revelation about the internal dynamics of the pandemic response.
As the story broke, social media quickly began triangulating on the side of the whistleblower or on the side of Dr. Hinshaw or on the side of the government. The resulting chaotic debate on Twitter ultimately benefitted the government. As the pro-whistleblowers and the pro-Hinshaw faction began arguing amongst themselves, some of the heat was off the government.
Civil servants know that releasing confidential information to the media is a violation of every code of conduct and releasing secret recordings is beyond the pale. No one does this unless they have serious concerns involving a life and death situation. Yet, in the middle of a pandemic, this is where we are.
Whistleblowers have been around forever, but in modern times, some version of this activity has been acknowledged since the 19th century. There are various legal protections in place but in many cases, whistleblowers suffer negative consequences. They may end up experiencing significant physical or emotional harm as a result. Again, no one takes whistleblowing lightly.
So, the ethical argument about whistleblowing and secret recordings will rage on. But, meanwhile, the distraction from the matter at hand, will benefit those whose antics are revealed in the recordings – namely the Premier and Cabinet.
One seriously concerning bit of information from the recording was a request from Health Minister Tyler Shandro that Dr. Hinshaw inform his office of any planned enforcement before proceeding.
The team’s legal advisor then said, “”Under no circumstance will AHS check with the political minister’s office before undertaking an enforcement action under the Public Health Act.”
In the recordings, Dr. Hinshaw explained that she needed to verify with Shandro’s office, but she thought “they don’t want us to enforce anything. [They] just want us to educate, and no enforcement.”
Um…what?!? You heard that right. If that isn’t political interference, I’m not sure what would be.
Apparently Minister Shandro’s office was “mad that AHS has enforced things like no shaving in barber shops.” Good to know once again that the government is taking time to worry about men unable to get a shave.
During a subsequent news conference, Premier Kenney singled out hair salons, emphasizing the lack of evidence of transmission (even though the government doesn’t have a functioning contact tracing system in place – so how could they know?). The Cabinet seems weirdly obsessed with personal grooming these days.
Through this all, drawing parallels with the Trump White House seems obvious. The Trump administration has been an ongoing series of leaks and whistleblowers, including the most questionable type, those involving national security.
The UCP government’s actions revealed recently are, of course, not at the level of Trump’s and yet – here we have information that a Cabinet Minister requested notification before any enforcement was carried out. That’s a direct matter of the law, and interference with the law.
Allison Stanger, author of “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump” writes that it is fair to question the morality of whistleblowers but there is a line that is crossed when governments are possibly breaking the law.
“Once these unique depredations of the Trump presidency end—I would argue that the illegal leaking that is occurring in response to the Trump presidency will obviously need to end as well… But until the immediate danger has passed, it makes sense, regardless of your political affiliation, to focus on the shocking substance of the information being revealed rather than the questionable means by which that information is coming to light, and to do what we can to put the rule of law back on track.”
Stanger also reminds us that leaking and whistleblowing often reflects a deep distrust of the chain of command – and is a harbinger worth noting. In an Alberta government known to be top-down and in a situation this critical, the mere fact of secret recordings and anonymous sources should be solemnly considered. And, if the history of whistleblowing tells us anything, it’s the information revealed is often the tip of the iceberg.
Dr. Hinshaw emphasized that trust has been broken and she couldn’t be more right. Trust has been broken – the public’s trust in the government and in the Chief Medical Officer of Health.
It was also broken before this leak even saw the light of day – those recordings were a sign of internal distrust building behind-the-scenes.
And trust will likely be broken again unless the government gets its act together.
Jody MacPherson is a professional communicator, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and an appreciator of clouds.