Governing by Photo-op

It is quite common for politicians to seek public recognition whenever they see themselves doing something particularly appealing to voters - thus the endless photo-ops and self congratulatory press releases being spun out by Communications PEI.  But these days the messaging has taken on an oddly partisan tone.

Last week the Liberal Party of PEI sent a tweet extolling a “$3 million investment from our Liberal team” for new mental health supports in public schools, and the Minister of Transportation recently shared on Facebook a picture of six Liberal Ministers (that’s over half of cabinet) holding up a novelty cheque for $1 million at the Prince County Hospital Foundation fundraiser and calling it a “donation”.  Obviously these are both great initiatives, but in neither case was the Liberal team actually paying for these investments or donations. It is public money being used for public services.

So why do politicians try so hard to take credit with fancy photo-ops and funding announcements?  Well, first of all it allows them to use public money to promote themselves through press releases, ads etc.  This is easy enough to address, and in the fall I will be introducing legislation to make it harder for politicians to use public funds for advertisements that serve partisan purposes.

Another reason is that some politicians believe Island voters can be fooled into thinking they should be beholden to Ministers for doing their jobs.  I suspect they are wrong in this belief. Islanders are much smarter than that, and they can’t be bought with their own tax dollars.

It’s easy to dismiss this as the usual partisan games all parties play, however, there can also be a much darker consequence when politicians become addicted to looking good for the camera. When governing by photo-op becomes the norm, Ministers can start to make policy decisions based not on what is in the best interest of all Islanders but by what will make the best picture.  How else to explain the long standing neglect of issues that don’t lend themselves easily to a photo-op, such as the chronic understaffing of Kings County Hospital, the neglect of mental health services until it became a crisis, the failure of Family and Human Services to keep social assistance rates in line with basic costs, or the appalling condition of the Prince County Correctional Centre?  It is hard to turn citizens who are living in their cars or children who are dying from addictions into an attractive photo-op, so it’s tempting to “invest” or “donate” public money in more camera-friendly projects.

We will never get politicians to completely give up their attachment to ribbon cuttings, novelty cheques, and giant roadway signs, but whenever we see this self-promotion, we should stop and give ourselves a pat on the back for providing public money for public services.  We should also never let the endless stream of good news stories distract us from our obligation to demand that government uses public money, the resources gathered from you and me, to protect our most vulnerable citizens, even when a camera isn’t at the ready.