Kudos to Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley for hosting regular press conferences ever since he was appointed premier last May.
At sessions held every few weeks — often flanked by other ministers and senior public officers — Dr. Wheatley has opened the floor to journalists who have rightly been permitted to ask any questions they wish.
Often, he has had to field probing — and occasionally inappropriate — queries. But by and large, he has kept his cool and avoided the tired tactics employed by certain predecessors who bullied journalists or dodged their requests. Instead, when he hasn’t known an answer, he has admitted as much and agreed to follow up. And although his follow-up record is not perfect, he appears to be trying.
For the premier, such openness is doubtlessly time-consuming and occasionally frustrating. But it greatly improves government transparency by giving journalists a chance to ask the questions the public has every right to know the answers to. This, in turn, keeps the community informed and helps the media hold leaders accountable.
We also firmly believe that openness strengthens Dr. Wheatley’s own position in the public eye — particularly after the damning Commission of Inquiry report shone new light on so much governing that had initially occurred in secret.
In recent decades, previous premiers and chief ministers have frequently promised to hold regular press conferences. But after a few sessions, they typically slid back into unavailability.
We hope Dr. Wheatley’s streak will be different and signal a lasting change. We also hope that other elected leaders, including opposition members, will follow his example by hosting regular briefings of their own.
Members of the media, meanwhile, must redouble their efforts to operate fairly and professionally at all press conferences. To that end, they should ask well-researched questions of public interest, and they should avoid the risk of spreading rumours by repeating hearsay that they cannot back up with hard evidence.
To make the most of the press conferences, everyone must be at the top of their game.
Even then, however, the briefings aren’t everything. Government still has a long way to go in meeting even minimum transparency standards. For instance, we continue to struggle to get records that should be public, including basic contracts illustrating how government has spent taxpayers’ money.
The government, then, should also move forward quickly on complementary transparency measures. To that end, it should start by tackling a freedom-of-information law — a promise that unfortunately disappeared from last month’s Speech from the Throne after appearing off and on in several previous years’ Throne speeches.
Legislators should also remove the onerous restrictions on viewing the Register of Interests, making it fully public as promised.
The ongoing COI reforms have boosted transparency in some respects, and press conferences are a big step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.