Questions about family ties fair game … when relevant

Wayne
Wayne Young
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A recent dustup in the provincial legislature involving questions about family members of MLAs and senior government officials left some hard feelings on both sides of the house.

At one point, the exchange got so heated Speaker Carolyn Bertram invited members to “take this discussion outside the rail” as she attempted to allow Education Minister Alan McIsaac to answer a question.

The debate involved a group of parents from Miscouche and concerns they have about their school’s principal. Facing repeated questions from the Opposition, McIsaac patiently explained all accusations against the principal are being investigated and as soon as all the facts are gathered, action will be taken if necessary.

Opposition House leader James Aylward started the fireworks when, quoting from an April 6 letter from the concerned parents, he said the principal allegedly asked, “Do you know who my brother is?” He asked McIsaac if the principal has a brother in his department.

According to Hansard, the official record of the legislative assembly, Premier Robert Ghiz was the next voice. “Do you have a wife working in government?”

After McIsaac’s repeated attempts to answer the initial question were interrupted by Opposition leader Steven Myers, Bertram finally had enough.

“Sit down, minister,” she told McIsaac. “Honourable members, you can take this discussion outside the rail at some point, but we’re listening to the honourable minister of Education and Early Childhood Development at this time.”

McIsaac later confirmed the principal’s brother, deputy Education Minister Sandy MacDonald, recused himself as soon as the matter was brought to his attention in early April, and that a senior director was appointed to handle the case for the department.

McIsaac later confirmed the principal’s brother, deputy Education Minister Sandy MacDonald, recused himself as soon as the matter was brought to his attention in early April, and that a senior director was appointed to handle the case for the department.

As for family ties, the Opposition had every right to inquire about the deputy minister’s possible involvement in a controversy surrounding one of his brothers. In his position, he would clearly have been in a conflict of interest had he been involved in the case. Legislators learned he was never involved, information relevant to the debate. But the question was fair and it deserved an answer.

Not so with the premier’s off-the-cuff remark to Aylward. Clearly, his wife’s employment status had no place in this debate. The premier later explained he was simply trying to point out that many people in the legislature are related to someone who works in government.

Ghiz’s comment may have been gratuitous, but Opposition leader Steven Myers’ response was way over the top. He saw it as a threat against the future employment of Aylward’s wife who does work in the civil service and as an attempt to discourage the Opposition member from continuing to bring up the principal’s family ties.

“I totally took it as he was either going to make life difficult for her or fire her,” he said in an interview after the session. “And that’s not acceptable.”

The Opposition has been aggressive in its questioning of individual ministers the entire session but on this occasion, Myers missed the mark. Ghiz’s impromptu question was uncalled for, but it was certainly not a threat. Unfortunately, both men got caught up in the theatre of question period and were distracted from the actual debate.

With thousands of Islanders employed at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government, it’s inevitable that some of them will be closely related to MLAs, cabinet ministers or senior bureaucrats. It happens everywhere but in a province of 140,000 people, the possibility of conflict here is magnified.

Family ties can and should be raised in the house, but only when and if they’re relevant to the debate. Rather than theatrical buildups, direct questions and straight-forward answers would ensure the matter is swiftly dealt with and, if there’s a logical explanation as there was in this case, that no time is wasted on the matter.

This is, however, question period a bit of a misnomer when it comes to the notion of a clear question getting a direct answer.

Still, members on both sides of the house should try to resist the temptation of scoring political points at the expense of family members not directly involved in the debate.

In this case, the deputy minister was fair game, but Aylward’s wife was certainly not.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

Organizations: Holland College

Geographic location: Miscouche, Charlottetown

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