Monday, 21 December 2015

DISINGENUOUS OR DUMB (OR BOTH): EARLY DAYS OF THE NEW LIBERAL GOVERNMENT

Perhaps, it is too early to begin any assessment of the new Liberal Administration. While there have been no obvious faux pas, as in the first moments after Paul Davis’ Swearing-In ceremony, the Liberals’ transition from Official Opposition status has not been flawless.

It was a sound idea for the new Minister of Justice, Andrew Parsons, to announce the Government would proceed with inquiries into the Don Dunphy shooting, the Burton Winters case, and the Humber Valley Paving affair. 

Yet the reservations the Minister stated regarding their cost, and the resources available to conduct them, seemed ill-suited to their gravitas. Indeed, the cost of all three inquiries likely would not equate with cost overruns at Muskrat Falls for a single hour.

Had not the Minister weighed the paramountcy of these long held commitments against the arbitrary and possibly corrupt decisions of the previous administration?

The Premier, as do many people, must have thought that a politicians’ knowledge is absorbed through a process known as osmosis. Given the Province’s dire fiscal situation, I thought he would stay mum until he had fully digested our fiscal status.

Instead, he was telling VOCM “there are a number of challenges fiscally, but “it's not a crisis” and added “… I’ve said for quite some time we have an extremely strong balance sheets that will guide us as we actually get to the future...” unintelligible comments which leave me to wonder if I should be more assured about the now or the hereafter.

At around the same time, Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was tiptoeing through an interview with CBC’s Anthony Germain, as the disarming and skilful questioner exposed a newbie whose incomplete digestion of her brief was all too evident.

If the new kids on the block have been too busy playing politics to learn the boring details of budgets, debt and deficits, they should at least, initially, ‘close the front door’, to  use a familiar double entendre.

I would further suggest that the Finance Minister let the bureaucrats write the Fall fiscal Update, without political edits: take Christmas to let some of this stuff simmer. Bring in some former finance officials who have been through “the deficit wars”, who can talk sensibly about the realities the province faces.

They could benefit from “un-conflicted” assessments of our financial status, and by discussing options.

Both the Premier and the Minister would do well to choose people who wouldn’t pay them a compliment if their lives depended on it.

The discussions would afford them the opportunity to internalize the fiscal issues and develop a facility for speaking with the media and the public competently, coherently, using context, perspective, and detail, in a way that will demonstrate they have been working hard and that they understand the decisions to which they are party.

Another irksome matter was the “Mandate Letters”. Perhaps, there was no great political damage done, but an opportunity surely was missed.

Anyone familiar with government styled prose would recognize these letters were hastily drafted by bureaucrats, likely in Executive Council, who borrowed from legislation, standards of behaviour expected of every Minister, not just this crew, and having gleaned the sparse policy commitments contained in the Liberal Red Book. The Letters did not even offer the pretense of a cogent mission statement.

Worse, they lacked a specificity that normally matures in consequence of the voters’ feedback mechanism, the election campaign, and their demands for real change.

Of particular note is the Mandate Letter of the Department of Natural Resources in which the government commits that “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians must be the primary beneficiaries of the Muskrat Falls project” when, given spiralling cost overruns, they can only be assured of paying the highest cost per KWh in Canada for electricity.

The nebulous words “opening the books on Muskrat Falls” are so unspecific that they, frankly, seem as insincere as the Tory commitment to oversight.   

This is what has been offered after three years of acrimony over one of the most unwise megaprojects in the history of the province and, likely, Canada, too.

The Letter does not even contain the nod that the project is a financial and logistical mess; one that also threatens the public purse.

Reference to the sham oversight committee and instructions to the Minister to replace it, had clearly never entered the mind of the drafter, let alone the politicos who inspired it.

Even the more widely understood issue of DARKNL and the litany of incompetence enumerated by Liberty Consultants, for the PUB, received no address.

Similarly, the Mandate Letter for the Department of Environment and Conservation offered no reference to faulty dam break studies or to matters of public safety in relation to the North Spur. 

And, if other examples are required, the Minister of Transportation and Works was not asked to review the senior personnel of the Department, or the lax and deficient mechanisms of project management, which afforded serious breaches of public safety at two St. John’s Schools and the loss of several million dollars at a third school, all of which cry out for examination.     

We might also ask why the Mandate Letters omit any plans Ball might have to reverse the degradation of the institutions and the processes of government; something which began under Danny Williams and continued to decline under his successors.

It is fine for the local Liberals to emulate Justin, but those Mandate Letters did not warrant the signature of a First Minister; certainly not any Premier who had thought deeply how he might meet public expectations, or one presumably determined to establish benchmarks early, for the government’s performance.

That this grist got a pass by the Premier’s staffers is mind-boggling.

The Mandate Letters ought to have contained enough new ideas, policies, and direction that the media and the public would easily know what the new Administration stands for.

Potentially, they constituted a useful tool in which to set out the ideas, themes and context that might become the foundation of the Administration’s first and future Speeches from the Throne and Budgets, too.

Instead, what was on offer was so weak that, in this case, form was truly allowed to triumph over substance.  A full Term’s worth of sound thinking (possibly) was sacrificed as a weak PR exercise; a single instant of gratification, already forgotten.

The Letters confirm, nevertheless, that this is a group about whom the public should be wary. They appear to have brought little to the table; the fear is, that is exactly what was intended.

These are early days. But, we’ll soon see.

If they are smart and inexperienced, they will keep their inexperience to themselves.

Walking, rather than running, will help keep them from tripping up.

But if they have been disingenuous about their mandate they will stumble early; likely, even before the voters get a chance to pass judgement.


Before then, the financial crisis, the one that Ball denies, will knock them over.

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