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BC Politics

Breaking a Media Blackout, Education Minister Hurt the Deal

His public chatter jeopardizes negotiations at a critical juncture.

Bill Tieleman 26 Aug

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"It's good to shut up sometimes." -- French mime Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

Education Minister Peter Fassbender knows his reading, writing and arithmetic.

And Fassbender knows that last week he flagrantly broke an agreement by both sides in the teachers' strike to observe a media blackout so bargaining would take place at the negotiating table, not via press release.

What Fassbender may not know or care about is that he has seriously hurt the chances of B.C. students getting back to classes on Sept. 2 by jeopardizing negotiations at a critical juncture, with veteran mediator Vince Ready finally considering joining the talks.

Fassbender is not only education minister; he is also a trained professional communicator, an ex-senior executive at DDB Canada (formerly Palmer Jarvis), one of the country's biggest marketing and communications firms.

Then there is this crystal clear joint statement issued Aug. 14 by the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association: "The parties agreed that they will not engage in public discussion pending further discussions with Mr. Ready."

But there he was Thursday making the rounds with multiple media outlets, talking not only about bargaining issues but actually provoking the BCTF and launching a new $350,000 website that furthers the government's bargaining position.

Before that, Fassbender was criticizing BCTF leaders for attending a membership meeting in Kamloops, saying they should be at the table even though no talks were scheduled.

What 'blackout' means

Let's completely rule out the possibility that Fassbender made an inadvertent mistake in violating the media blackout.

Furthermore -- and I say this as a communications consultant working with unions and a former B.C. Federation of Labour communications director -- nobody in labour relations misunderstands the meaning of the words "media blackout."

For example, here's what the University of New Brunswick posted about a media blackout during negotiations there earlier this year:

"This blackout includes communications via traditional and social media channels and e-communications including this website. We will continue to work toward providing answers to submitted questions and reply once the blackout is lifted," UNB's administration wrote.

The BC Liberal government approach also damaged the fragile relationship between BCTF president Jim Iker and Fassbender-appointed BCPSEA negotiator Peter Cameron just when establishing some trust is most needed.

Cameron, a veteran at bargaining from both the employer and union side of the table, has been put in a terrible position because now Iker must doubt his ability to deliver on what he says in talks -- a critical element in reaching agreement. And both sides acknowledge that the two chief negotiators have been talking privately.

If Cameron's bosses don't honour his word, why would the BCTF believe him, no matter how sincere?

Intentional tactic

But the smartest people in Christy Clark's office think they know better than those with decades of experience.

Only a professional communicator like Fassbender could keep a straight face while delivering lines like this to CKNW's Michael Smyth on Thursday: "I am absolutely respecting the media blackout on details of negotiations."

Fassbender's excuse -- that he has an obligation as minister to talk to media despite the blackout in order to inform parents -- is misleading in the extreme, because Fassbender is the employer spokesperson, the guy who Cameron reports to.

Nothing Fassbender said Friday was new. The government's positions on all issues, including the crazy "pay the parents $40 a day" for kids not going to school scheme, have been public for weeks.

Make no mistake: Fassbender doing interviews wasn't his decision. It was clearly made in the office of Premier Christy Clark.

The premier and her advisors sent Fassbender out to break the media blackout with an intentional plan to either scuttle the talks or, more likely, further demoralize teachers who want to get back to their classrooms.

That dubious tactic will likely backfire, because now whatever happens in negotiations, parents will rightly see the government as having played chicken with their kids' education.

Risking the strike continuing into mid-October is more evidence that the government's real target is teachers and their union, not reaching a negotiated agreement so school starts on time.

It's a no class approach.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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