Fan Mail

Writers of opinion pieces want to stimulate debate on policy issues, but they need to develop a thick skin. Readers may have differing views, often strongly held.

It is neither necessary nor desirable to be needlessly provocative. But if a piece does not receive any reaction it is likely that the thinking was muddled, the writing poor, or the topic just uninteresting.

So a writer is generally grateful for comments both pro and con. The only exceptions are from those relentlessly cynical individuals who, instead of debating the issue that is being presented, would rather attribute dark motives to the writer.

Some of the most energetic comments have come from government.

Even though much of what I said was complimentary, former Finance minister Steele did not like my take on public sector pensions:

“I was disappointed to read that Bill Black is, again, spreading misinformation about the Public Service Superannuation Plan….I have an obligation to ensure that my public comments about the Plan are measured and accurate. Bill does not operate under the same constraints.”

Upon examination we actually had very few differences on facts. This turned out to be a debate about whether my use of the word “bailout” was appropriate, a point on which reasonable people can differ.

An energy department official likewise took exception to my choice of words: “Bill was at it again with his last column. We have not declared a moratorium on fracking. No companies have asked to frack for shale gas…”

That is because the province had said no applications would be accepted for at least two years while more studies were completed. Most people would find that the word “moratorium” fits.

Another official did not like my take on staffing numbers: “Bill Black’s column today is completely inaccurate. The government has indeed reduced the civil service, which is exactly the opposite of what he contends. We will be seeking a correction and publication of accurate information.” That official was looking at projected allowable staffing while I was looking at current actual compared to the commitment made in the NDP government’s first budget. Actual staffing is the number of civil servants that taxpayers pay for. It has gone up. No correction was necessary.

In each case the problem is that officials confuse spin with facts, or fail to distinguish between aspiration and achievement.

Several teachers who retired prior to Aug 1, 2006 have taken exception to the suggestion that their right to indexation should become subject to the plan’s finances being healthy, as is the case for all those retiring after that date. This has led to a number of civilized and thoughtful exchanges with them.

My suggestion that provincial funding for universities should create a slight tilt in favour of locally focused research provoked an incendiary reaction. Some were so stimulated that they appear to have stopped reading near the top of the article, because their comments criticized positions I had not taken.

A no less incensed comment came from another reader:

“Big thanks to Bill Black for making me mad and sad with this article. Yes, yes, Bill, enough with the study and consultation already let’s get to work pumping those carcinogens into the ground to extract some gas. … Natural gas all the way! Forget about any sort of development that might be sustainable and earth friendly, um, like organic farming, ecoforestry, value added forestry products, help for landowners wishing to construct solar arrays or microhydro projects …, IT, other technology, marketing the province as a haven for retiring baby boomers, tourism, finding ways to promote and develop the province’s creative class… bah… forget all that and let’s frack! and fill the province with mink farms and salmon pens while we’re at it! Yes!”

Although she is greatly exaggerating my views, at least the writer is criticizing positions I actually hold. She and I have differing ideas about how the rural areas of the province can survive and prosper, and the ability of regulation to be effective in protecting the environment.

Thick skin or not it is nice to receive encouragement:

“Another fine column, on fracking, in today’s Herald. I thought your observation that any risk is far different than manageable risk was useful.”

“Great article in yesterday’s Herald regarding the importance of rural Nova Scotia when it comes to contributing to our prosperity.”

“Excellent column regarding Scotia Surgery as well as your common-sense ideas.”

And then there was this interesting exchange with an acquaintance in Lunenburg.

“Bill I want you to know that when I go south I only look at two things in the online newspaper, and one of them is your opinion piece.”

“Thanks,” said I. “What is the other one?”

“The obituaries.”

Merry Christmas.


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