Editor’s Note: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental. No politicians were harmed in the writing of this column.
STONE ENTERED the bar with a stride that matched his mood; a purposeful and bad attitude path that carved its way between tables, challenging anyone to make eye contact. It was a good time, for those who knew him and recognized the look, to pick up their phone and respond to an imagined text.
Well known in town, Harry Stone or simply Stone to most who knew him, was the senior political journalist for the City Times. He had gone straight from university to the Paper and over the next 31 years, listened, learned, and worked his way up through the ranks.
During the early years, his natural skills, and tenacious perseverance had quickly caught the attention of assignment editors and it was only a matter of time before City Hall was Stone’s beat. From there and as more senior colleagues grudgingly predicted, it wouldn’t be long before he was covering the legislature.
Stone would only admit to the closest of friends, if for that matter he had any close friends, that he loved the newspaper business. So much so, that despite numerous awards and countless attempts by other media outlets to lure him to the better paying ‘news as entertainment’ side of the business, he remained, as many now quietly called him, the dragon slayer of the legislature.
Certainly, there would come a time when his long relationship with the keyboard would come to an end, but not now. Not yet. Not when there were people like the woman waiting at the far corner table of the lounge. Waiting with a slight smile, that suggested a misguided confidence in her ability to change the developing narrative concerning her boss, Jacob Anderson, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources.
She was Cynthia Fraust, a self-absorbed ministry, media liaison officer with a preference for the formal use of her name and title unless, of course, she needed something from you. Then it was Cynthia. Or if the need was truly urgent, the ‘Oh, don’t be so formal, please just call me Cindy’ was deployed; falsely suggesting a special and rare friendship status.
Stone, however, enjoyed the efficiency of last names and most times simply called her Fraust.
As he approached her table, Ms. Fraust rose with a practiced smile and an extended hand. “Well, if it isn’t the irrepressible legend of the legislature, and my favourite, although cynical scribe, Harry Stone. Thanks so much for coming and please, have a seat.”
Taking out his well-used and battle-scarred recorder and placing it and a file folder on the table, Stone sank into the offered Chair.
Fraust, eyeing the recorder with a look of displeasure she didn’t bother hiding and a smile that barely made it to her eyes, continued somewhat good-naturedly asking, “Is it true what they say in the press gallery about you? That you still use a typewriter?”
Not wasting the effort of returning her insincere smile, Stone simply paused for a beat before lying, “Yes.”
She began, “But how do you still find typewriter ribbons…” before realising she was being had, and quickly changed the subject while pointing at the recorder. “And speaking of technology, I was hoping this would be an off-the-record chat.”
Stone, ignoring the question, turned on his recorder and began. “So, your text said you had something important to discuss. Would it have anything to do with your Minister’s sponsorship of the proposed drilling and exploration amendment to the Parks Act? That small tweak to the Act” he added while rolling his eyes, “DOHR Energy has endlessly lobbied for. The one that would allow for drilling and exploration in the Grasslands Provincial Park?”
“Such a mind reader Harry. Your ex once said you had an irritating knack for knowing what people were going to say before they said it.”
“Which ex, Fraust? I’ve had a few and if we’re going to quote an ex, it would be good to know which one.”
“Oh Stone, stop with the Ms. Fraust. We’ve known each other for a long time, so let’s stick with Cindy, okay?”
Not waiting for an acknowledgement, she moved on. “Now, back to the business at hand as yes, you’re right about Minister Anderson and his proposed amendment. And by the way, and for the second time,” she chided, “can you turn off that damn recorder?”
Once again, ignoring her request, Stone asked, “Does this mean you want to be my unidentified but highly placed source within the government? You know, tell me the good stuff. Maybe even the truth,” he goaded.
Irritated with the direction the conversation was taking, Fraust tried regrouping and began, “Stone, I’m here as a friend…” but he cut her off in midsentence.
“You are not my friend nor I yours.” He firmly reminded her. “You are here to deflect, redirect and avoid answering the questions. I am here to keep asking until you do. So, let’s cut through the b.s. What can you tell me and in return, what do you want to know?”
She desperately searched for a way to pivot this conversation without showing her frustration or those first early feelings of fear. But the recorder remained on, and Stone remained relentless.
He knows everything, she quietly worried to herself.
“I understand your position but we both know,” he calmly suggested, “that for a government desperate to convince voters they’ve seen the light and now believe in climate change, Minister Anderson is a liability.
“Be honest,” he nudged, “if it wasn’t for his access to the deep pockets of key supporters, Anderson would be a backbencher.”
He was right but she couldn’t say that. Ever!
“Look, Fraust!” he said more sharply than intended. “According to my sources, Anderson’s proposal has some in caucus very worried. They see opening the ecologically sensitive grasslands to exploration as a massive step backwards for this Government. Yet the Minister is proposing an open season on drilling rights. Is the government’s all-new eco-friendly branding nothing more than that? A brand without substance?”
She had to say something. She couldn’t let Stone continue down this road unchecked.
“But the Minister has promised strict oversight,” she countered. “Guidelines to protect the grasslands will be the most stringent of any jurisdiction.”
Stoned watched as she began to get into her practiced talking-point rhythm and was expecting the next, ‘trust us, we care’ approach.
“Minister Anderson has guaranteed that he and his Ministry will not give the oil and gas sector any quarter or spare any expense when it comes to ensuring the environment is protected. We truly care!” she declared.
“Speaking of expense,” challenged Stone. “Is it true the Minister has recommended, and the government has agreed, to provide the DORH Energy consortium with $645 million in direct exploration subsidies and tax credits?”
The poker face held fast as Fraust chided and deflected. “Do you have any idea how much the Province will make in oil and gas royalties? And the number of new, high-paying jobs will be staggering. This is a win, win investment, not a giveaway.”
“But Fraust, where will Government find the money for the immediate financial obligations of this corporate handout you’ve just indirectly confirmed? The royalty windfall you talk about is at least a decade away, but the expense begins immediately.
“And before you answer with the standard bureaucratic voodoo economics session, let me tell you what I’m hearing about the payment plan.”
Laying a hand on the file folder for emphasis, he continued. “First there are no Crown Corporation operating surpluses left for the government to skim. With that well dried up, I’m told the money to pay DOHR will come out of a reduction in benefit payments and support programs at Social Services, a 15% across-the-board cut to the Ministry of Environment and the disbanding of the investigative and enforcement division at the climate action committee. And I hear you are even willing to take on the unions and will introduce a government-wide hiring freeze and nothing more than a COLA adjustment, once current agreements expire.”
Until moments ago, she had been confident the details he had just recited were the government’s little secret; a confidence, he noted, that was now in shambles.
In a way, he felt sorry for her but not enough to stop him from continuing. “I’ve also learned through sources within the consortium that Anderson will be appointed to the DOHR Board. Once, that is, he announces he will not be seeking re-election.”
Stone pushed the file folder across the table. “These are copies of internal emails at DOHR. They describe in detail, what are supposed to be privileged Cabinet discussions on how government would pay for the subsidy package. They also include information on Anderson’s eventual appointment to their Board.
“Can you comment?” he asked.
It was a stunning revelation with implications that reached all the way to the top.
“My sources are solid, the contents,” nodding towards the still untouched folder in front of her, “have been verified and our lawyers, who seem to check everything we write these days, have given a thumbs up to my story.”
After a few more moments and a realization that this day would likely not end well, Fraust sighed, and then quietly asked, “Can you tell me when?”
“The story drops tomorrow morning both online and in the paper. I’ve still got a couple of hours to include a comment from Anderson. He’s ignored, as you know, every request for an interview so far. Do you think he’ll get back to me before deadline?”
“Thank you,” she replied without answering his question, and gathering her bag and coat, explained, “I guess I’d better get back to the office as I sense an all-nighter is in the works.”
Stone nodded his understanding and, watching her walk through the lounge, wondered who would be the first to find themselves under the bus.
An hour later and back at his office, Stone felt his cell announce an incoming text.
After reading the message, he picked up the office phone, dialled his editor, explained the text and both quickly agreed on how to proceed.
Thirty minutes later and using the privacy of the boardroom for the agreed upon call, his phone rang. “Good afternoon, Premier,” he answered.
Fifteen minutes after the call began and, on the way back to his desk, Stone stopped by his editor’s office, gave a thumbs up and said, “It’s our exclusive. So far,” he added.
Given the government’s reputation for leaks, both agreed the safe bet was not to wait for the morning edition but to go with the story now.
Stone rewrote the lead to reflect the changes and at 4:45 that afternoon, the online version was first to break the news, and began…
In a stunning and unexpected reversal, Premier Angela Turner announced that her Government was withdrawing the controversial amendment to legislation that would have allowed for oil and gas exploration in the Grasslands Provincial Park.
In its place, new legislation would be brought forward that would, in the Premier’s words, “Forever protect the very unique qualities and the special status of this park.”
In making the announcement, Premier Turner confirmed that she had accepted Mr. Anderson’s resignation from Cabinet.
The City Times had been investigating the Minister’s involvement with DOHR, the company leading the effort to remove exploration restrictions in the park, and Premier Turner confirmed an RCMP investigation of that relationship was now underway.
Anderson, known for his party leadership aspirations, was not immediately available for comment but sources within…
Bill McQuarrie is a former magazine publisher, photojournalist and entrepreneur. Semi-retired and now living in Port McNeill, you can follow him on Instagram #mcriderbc or reach him at email@example.com.