Monday, 25 July 2016

IDEALISM BRINGS VIRTUE TO A NOBLE CALLING WRITES EDSEL BONNELL

GUEST POST WRITTEN BY EDSEL BONNELL

On June 13, the Telegram published a letter I had written under the heading: It takes a province to stabilize the economyIn that letter, I expressed the opinion that “we are facing a critical period for the next few years, and our MHAs are mistaken if they fall into the mindset that only they have the sole obligation, right, and expertise to solve the problem.” I added that “it can’t be done in four years. It may take four times four years, and even different colours of government.”  I also noted that “the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have indicated clearly that they also get it; they understand and recognize the need to tighten belts, cut back on programs and find more efficient ways to run essential elements, and they even realize they have to pay more taxes.” They just seek less draconian measures!

On June 18, the Telegram kindly published a sequel to the June 13 letter in response to readers who had asked for details on how the public could be involved in the economic crisis, under the heading: Involve the people in the process. I suggested a four-step process which called for a meeting of the minds (and bodies) of the Premier, the Opposition Leaders, and the Independent Member of the House of Assembly to establish a dedicated Task Force “which would focus solely on our fiscal and economic challenges in order to develop a long-term strategy for getting rid of our untenable burden of debt while nurturing reasonable (not “mega”) but steady economic growth.” 

The other three steps suggested a summer session of the House of Assembly, where members could discuss the economic challenge from the perspective of their own constituents; the establishment of a Task Force which would draw heavily on the resources of economic, business, labour, and social sector expertise which is readily available in this province through the public service, Memorial University, NGOs, and the private sector (secondments wherever possible!); and a process of consulting with the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and reporting back to them through the House of Assembly on a regular and timely basis.

Last Monday (July 18) Uncle Gnarley made a very generous reference to my letters and to my own modest contribution to the provincial Strategic Economic Planning process in the 1990s (I had the privilege of chairing the process, but I was dwarfed by the level of expertise around the table!).  Gnarley opined that while my current proposals were a serious attempt at offering a prescription for dealing with our economic crisis, my suggestions were “far too idealistic.”

Sadly, my old friend Gnarley may be right, if political pragmatism prevails.  I know that he, like myself, in years gone by has waded in the shallow murky waters of political campaigning with the ubiquitous but provocative calls by (well-meaning!) back-room gurus to ‘take the gloves off”,” hang tough”, “spin the message”, “get the message out”, “don’t break ranks”, and “stay the course”.  In the cut-and-thrust of legislative politics, the media moment is the objective, and the next election the long term goal. There’s not a lot of discussion in party caucuses of principles, people, or programs. The underlying passion is for power, either getting it (opposition) or keeping it (government). In this respect, we are by no means alone; it is a universal malaise and we only have to look south of our Canadian border at the moment to see it working in its infernal splendor.

So why am I so naive to be “idealistic”? Because I believe that we need to bring virtue to the noble calling of politics, which is held in disdain by electors not only here in NL, but around the world. It has become an epithet for greed, scandal, chicanery, obfuscation, nepotism, “spin-doctoring”, incompetence, and oppression. Who in his or her right mind would want to offer oneself for public service if the “returns on investment” were sleepless nights, constant abuse, and insults or threats to one’s family? The only answer, in the public mind, is to “line one’s pockets”. Nothing else makes sense.
           
There is an alternative. There is another paradigm. And while the pragmatists may scoff and jeer, I am proudly foolish enough to suggest political ethics, honesty, sincerity, openness, accountability, and civility as guiding lights for those who are brave enough to aspire to success in public service in the future.  And I am still naive enough to believe that the Members of the House of Assembly we elected last fall are concerned Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who will put their constituents first and foremost above the crack of the party whip in traditional politics. 

I believe they can work together in our current crisis to enlist the best brains we have (and we have a lot of them in this province; I’m sure the current Independent Appointments Commission could find them!) to develop a long term plan for economic stabilization and prospective growth with reasonable and proportionate fiscal restraints which may well extend beyond the mandates of current and even future governments.  

With this dedicated strategic plan in place, responsible to the House of Assembly (and the people who elected the members), the Government and Opposition Parties can get on with the job we expect them to do....deal with the everyday challenges and needs of the province and its electorate. And that is a full time job!
           
Unity of purpose is not a bizarre concept. It happens all the time in crises. And I submit that we are facing a socioeconomic crisis which will take the will and work of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to overcome. There are no “saviours”, no magic bullet. No “new parties”.  No time for hubris or parochialism. It is up to the current MHAs, our elected representatives district by district, to decide whether or not they can work together for their province outside of partisan interests. Or, risk being dismissed by their electors eventually for breach of faith. In other words, be celebrated as part of the recovery now or condemned as part of the repercussions later.  
 
“Idealistic”? I hope so!  If we don’t get some ideals and ethics back into politics, we are doomed anyway. I have seen too many principles fall to the sword of political pragmatism for far too long. And if all the above falls on deaf ears and my children and grandchildren (and yours, gentle reader!) are doomed to pay off the debts we have incurred (or worse!), at least I can take solace in the Greek proverb:  “Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

Thank you, Uncle Gnarley, for this opportunity to share my views and for all you have done, and will do, for Newfoundland and Labrador          
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Editor's Note:
Edsel Bonnell
Edsel Bonnell’s lengthy public and private sector experience spans careers in journalism, public relations, politics, and public service. His career in journalism began in 1953 as a reporter with The Telegram and he worked in radio and television, first for VOCM, and later for CJON (now NTV), and as a public affairs panellist with CBC Radio and CBC TV in St. John's.


As a Director of Newfoundland Public Relations Company Limited, he became Newfoundland's first full-time professional public relations consultant. Following many years in private business Bonnell, from 1989 to 1996, served with Premier Clyde Wells in the combined roles of Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor in the Premier's Office. He chaired the Strategic Economic Planning Group that developed the Province's Strategic Economic Plan in 1992, and the Strategic Social Planning Group (1992-1996). Following Premier Wells retirement as Premier he returned to private practice.

Edsel Bonnell is a celebrated Newfoundlander having been recognized both locally and nationally. His numerous awards include six national Awards of Excellence from the Canadian Public Relations Society.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know him best for having been awarded the Order of Canada in 2001, as a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal, and for having been awarded the Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has been an inspiring educator for decades most notably through the Gower Youth Band which he founded in 1973 and which he continues to serve as Conductor and Musical Director.

Edsel has served on a number of Boards and within community, church, and charitable organizations. His long standing dedication to the enhancement of the social, political, and cultural life of the province shows no sign of waning. He is truly an inspiration to every citizen.

I have known and respected Edsel Bonnell for a long time and I am very pleased he has offered his views at this time of crisis in our province both in the Telegram and here. I truly hope today’s article is just his first contribution to the Uncle Gnarley Blog.  


13 comments:

  1. He is beyond naive. This task force he suggests is reminiscent of the Premier's Advisory Council on the Economy during the Clyde Wells years and the Economic Recovery Commission. Neither served any successful purpose. Both provided an illusion as government grappled with difficult evonomic circumstances but yeilded no genuine results. Williams mirrored this with the Research and Development corporation with as little measureable success.

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  2. I think the last thing we need is another task force or think tank. The solution is not to create more bureaucracy or administration at a time when the public service is too large and compensated too highly for our means to raise the money to pay them. Government does not make money; its takes money from the public and redistributes that money for its own reasons. Now, it is obvious that even without the burden of Muskrat Falls, we are still $2.4 billion short in our treasury to pay our obligations to maintain government services. We need to reset the public service in this province. Not everything should be the responsibility of government to fix or bail out. That thinking is what got us here.

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    1. Who says it has to be "bureaucracy" or "administration"?

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  3. As to the Independent Appointments Commission: The site shows various Agencies etc where there are Boards and some positions needing to be filled. These each indicate the qualifications and experience that may be desirable. There is a link to where one can apply online. There is only one piece of information they ask: your name and address. Seems qualification need not be part of the initial application. Does this make sense...........

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  4. Edsel has presented a visionary process to put NL fiscal house in order. It is a laudable plan. It does not however deal with the cause of the ongoing crisis, a complete lack of transparency and accountability in even the largest capital project NL has undertaken.

    Democracy in NL is badly broken. When regulatory processes like the Public Utilities Board and Joint Review Panel are denied requested information needed to ensure the public treasury is protected, a boondoggle like Muskrat Falls ensues. It is already clear that MF was and is not needed. Years behind schedule and attempting to build the first dam on the planet built literally on shifting sands, the worst on this legacy vanity project for a political strongman is yet to come.

    I witnessed first hand cowed and intimidated civil servants unable to give honest testimony to the JRP. I watched a provincial employee testify on the record at the JRP that the Justice lawyer who kept a tight leash on the testimony of all provincial employees, informed him that giving evidence on the impacts on caribou from the MF project would cost him his job. He declined to testify.

    When the public treasury becomes the sole property of political strongmen, without public oversight or technical merit, your “democracy” descends to the level of a third world dictatorship. Does the need for transparency and accountability for the Muskrat Falls boondoggle not precede any visioning exercise?

    Without your civil service having the ability to speak truth to power how can a visioning exercise ever succeed? Without the contracts and spur engineering for MF being made public what distinguishes SNC Lavalin's work in NL from their practices in Libya or Bangladesh? Does it matter?

    When a member of the Order of Canada ignores the absolute democratic and political dysfunction that underlies the current political and economic crisis in NL, it goes beyond well meaning but irrelevant long term solutions. They are part of the problem.

    Ignoring the obvious but painful reality of a democracy in crisis (and a disempowered population's accelerating burden) can find no solution. It only gives comfort and abets the forces that have brought your province to the brink of fiscal and ecologic disaster.

    If you love Canadian democracy, transparency and accountability for the unfolding disaster in NL must be the first step in finding solutions. To look away and avoid confronting the painful reality will guarantee failure and render useless well meaning attempts at solutions.

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    1. Danny Williams wasn't a political strongman. He was a miniature sized dictator of the worst order, guaranteed success for his delusions by a huge majority government that would trample anything and anyone that disagreed with those delusions. We're paying for his egotistical trickery, big time!

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  5. "Does the need for transparency and accountability for the Muskrat Falls boondoggle not precede any visioning exercise?"

    My answer ---- YES!

    I have to agree Bruno.

    Shortly after Stan Marshall informed the public that there would be a 'full review' of the project, I called for a Muskrat full review process that would include transparency and public participation.

    What we got was an insult to the intelligence of NL citizens (and to democracy itself).

    Well said Bruno. Maurice Adams







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  6. Very well said and much needed. Thank you Bruno.

    John D Pippy

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  7. These MHA's will simply NOT get the job done that needs to be done. They've failed the citizens miserably and obtrusively already (in my opinion), by voting for a budget and austerity measures that cripple the future of our province's finances, as well as the current and future citizens of our province. Do none of them (except one independent), have a brain, a tongue, or a conscience??

    Moreover, they each failed miserably by refusing to exhibit any trace of the bespoke integrity, in order to cease, or at the very least drastically change the "Muskrat Falling" fiasco. Could it be that some form of organized crime has issued a personal threat to each one, or is it simply a threat to lose face and be thrown out of caucus and/or "the party", that mutes them all?

    It is entirely possible to teach a group of musicians to harmonize and play better together, and it's because they actually want to, and they benefit from doing so, (goals/dreams?). But this has never worked with politicians, because they don't want to and don't benefit (financially) from doing so.

    I respectfully ask Mr. Bonnell, (and his Bio/history does command some respect), what sudden ray of sunshine is expected to change the human nature in these MHA's?

    We CAN change our system, to prevent the future from being like the past. We CAN force our politicians to change our system, but NO amount of pleading, or blindly optimistic faith, will change anyone against their will, and there is plenty that must change, now.

    Hey I'm optimistic too, and we (desperately) need the elements that Mr. Bonnell speaks to, (political ethics, honesty, sincerity, openness, accountability, and civility). If those elements were present in the current assortment of MHA's, would they not have exhibited same by now?

    Unless/until we change the entire political system drastically, politics in NL will remain a complete screw-over for the public. It has to. It's human nature. Peter Austin

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  8. Mr. Bonnell, your article is inspirational, regardless of whether the people who have commented on your proposal think it naive and idealistic. What I take away is that without "unity of purpose", failure is a certainty.

    It is a well-worn adage that true leadership emerges in the crucible of adversity. Well, NL certainly has adversity and it is high time for NL's political leaders to step up. Mr. Bonnell eloquently makes the case that the traditional political model will not bring the desperately needed change to NL's fiscal situation. A fundamentally different approach is required and given the dire circumstances, it is time for ‘all hands on deck’ and pulling together. The good ship ‘partisan politics’ is sinking fast.

    This is not naïve idealism. This is a genuine recognition that you can change or have it thrust upon you. And based on everything I have read on this blog, NL is very close to having change thrust upon it. Mr. Bonnell proposes a plan designed to put aside political partisanship (at least to deal with the crisis) to respond to, and hopefully, head off NL’s demise. If the political elite in NL refuse to move off the paradigm that “[t]he underlying passion is for power”, they are very quickly going to find that the Federal government and/or the bond holders will be the only ones left with the power. It’s a fast ride to the bottom. Good luck maintaining those civil service pensions.

    I have not seen a more cogent proposal from anyone else to deal with the crisis and there is no more time for such navel gazing. Rather than simply throwing up our hands or throwing brickbats at this proposal, let’s embrace it. Given the imminent nightmare scenario about to befall the Province, does it hurt to try?

    Mr. Bonnell’s view is that there are many NLer capable of contributing to the solution who can be enlisted. Perhaps some of the naysayers on this blog can have a change of heart and decide that they too, can be part of the solution.

    Let’s see if there are any ‘real leaders’ who will emerge from NL’s crucible.

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    1. We have and are part of the solution! Hiding ones head in the sand about the cause of the problem, avoiding transparency in the contracts and engineering can NEVER find solutions.

      They are merely public relations if no one is uncomfortable with the questions posed, as George Orwell outlined. The pigs in your "Animal Farm" are wearing clothes and drinking. Some are clearly more equal than others in NL!

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  9. So you still don't see yourself as part of the solution. Most unfortunate. Easy to throw stones. Try something constructive such as suggested by Mr. Bonnell.

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    1. Your blindness and anonymity are self serving. I am part of the solution. I am not hiding like some.

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