Yang needed after the Yin

Donham's aggressive approach contrasts to what's gone before

Cape Breton Post
Saturday, June 28, 2003


A chastised but unbowed Parker Donham can find comfort in knowing that his turn in the town pillory this week proves his skill as a keyboard provocateur has lost noth ing in the 19-month layoff from advocacy journalism. The leaked private memo he wrote to Sydney-Victoria Liberal MP Mark Eyking runs only 332 words - less than half the length of the weekly newspaper column Donham wrote for years - but it generated front-page headlines in the province, much bureaucratic flapping, and calls for his head.

Damn, he's still got the touch!
Of course, provocative style is not generally prized in flakdom. Donham, in his contract work as spokesman for the provincial Crown entity Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has taken up the more proactive branch of communications consultancy, which involves lobbying and strategizing well beyond the scope of cautious public statements vetted by nail-biting bureaucrats.

It is a higher risk game, as reaction to the Post's disclosure of the memo showed this week. But in this critical phase of the cleanup saga Donham finds himself in a vitally important public role, challenging what might be called the JAG culture.

Officials of the Joint Action Group and Environment Canada took particular exception to Donham's charge that they "promote" unrealistic expectations in the community as well as "a Cadillac cleanup solution of dubious feasibility and affordability" The promoting, as opposed to permitting, would be hard to prove.

But let's try the point another way. Let us say that JAG, by its very nature and because of the culture it has evolved, is unable to discipline public expectations or even to persuade the public to confront in any realistic way the very notion of tough trade-offs. This is a less confrontational way of stating the problem than Donham expresses in his broadside. But the implication is no less damning. It would lead to the judgment that the whole JAG process, in summary has been a failure.

Consider the products of the JAG process in recent months. Contract consultants produced the list of 10 cleanup options, but that could have been done without JAG - or at least with a much abbreviated and simplified form of public participation. But perhaps JAG's more crucial assignment this spring - indeed, throughout its six years - was to bring some kind of focused, engaged public feedback into the mix.

Yet it is hard to see where the workbook exercise, the showpiece of engagement, accomplished anything that could not have been done better though more conventional public consultation methods such as focus groups and the like.

JAG chairman Dan Fraser recently remarked that "it's really a personal choice as to which option is more acceptable than another one." Yes, that's about what it's come down to at the end of the JAG exercise but the question we're left with is whether such facile, open-ended public feedback is of any probative value at all as governments consider spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rid Sydney of its dirty obsession.

JAG-versus-Donham shows us the yin-and-yang of cleanup mobilization, a passive-receptive attitude towards the question of community acceptance versus a "political job of selling a solution," as the Donham memo puts it. Whether the yin has helped at all, or perhaps even hurt, remains a matter for debate. But clearly we need some yang to move us on from here.