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Thursday 7 March 2013

Gnarley's Theory of Political Devolution

Ring... Ring .. Ring...

I am a morning person. I enjoy the solitude.  The 2-3 hours before 8:00 is when I get my day’s work done.  It is odd to be interrupted before the sun rises. 
Ring... Ring... Ring...

 So who would be calling me at this hour? I picked up the phone.

 "Nav... it is good to see that your work ethic is as good as ever.  I am coming into town for the day.  Are you up for lunch"

It was odd for my old friend, Uncle Gnarley, to pay a visit during the week.  But it was an offer I could not resist. 

"Uncle Gnarley, it sounds like a capital idea, except I am up at the University for the day, for a training course, on leadership".

Well, then I will meet you at Papa's in Churchill Square.  I am in the mood for some Italian cooking.  I expect that you will be both hungry and feeling a little impotent, considering the subject of your course".
To not acknowledge the soft jab lobbed by my old friend, I simply replied "Very well then, let’s aim for 12:00"
It was five hours later when I walked into the restaurant.  It was quite even for a Monday.  To be honest it was a relief.  As my friend was was now on the list of "Known Critics"being seen with him, anywhere other than down the shore, was potentially career ending.  I discretely took the table in the corner. 

It was five minutes later the old economist entered the restaurant.  A book was lodged under his arm. 

"Hello, Nav... I must say you do look a little more like management material since the last time we met.  But, do not let that compliment go to your head.  You certainly have much to learn in your area of today's study.  Do you want a drink?"

"No, Uncle Gnarley, I have to be on peak performance, this afternoon"

The old man looked despot, clearly not pleased that he would be solo for the afternoon's session.  The waitress came up and asked for our drink order.

 "We are just tea toter's this afternoon.  My friend here will have sparkling water, and I will have a virgin scotch on the rocks".

Uncle Gnarley sensed the confusion in her eyes and said "Just neat, please".

With a look of great interest, he then asked, "Well, Nav, I am intrigued about this leadership course you are on.  Not purely for what this course would include, but why the hell would you be on it?  You are not exactly the alpha male of the group, now are you"? more a statement, perhaps, than a question.  His usual grin was difficult, as always, to interpret.

"Well, Uncle Gnarley, leadership training is a key element of any successful organization.  It is all part of the succession planning.  The what if a bus hits the boss type of analysis.  In today's labour market it is all about developing your talent, and planning for the future.  Leadership training is a critical part of that."

Uncle Gnarley muttered to himself, "I think it is time I sell the shares in your company, Nav."

"But, in all seriousness, I am intrigued about this concept of leadership training and succession planning.  It does make sense.  Back in business school, we used to say that it took two generations to build a business, and the third generation to ruin one.  When leadership is determined by who you know, and nepotism, rather than competency, you have a problem.  One just has to look at the current Government to see that."

With that last statement, my old friend had earned his lunch.  He had my interest peaked.  I had to ask, "What do you mean by that, Gnarley?"

"After the departure of Williams the PC party had a coronation of Dunderdale. One by one the internal challengers stepped aside. The only external challenger was deemed inappropriate and excluded by a technicality.  Now, only two years later, the anointed one looks to be, what the pundits refer to, as a lame duck premier.

In any other Westminster democracy the cabinet would be nervous, in these precarious times, and whispers of revolt would be heard in the halls of parliament.  However, after ten years of PC government there is no clear heir to Dunderdale.  Their talent pool is a mile wide and an inch deep."

Armed with the results of this morning's effective listening lecture, I prodded my old friend, "Why do you think it is like this Uncle Gnarley”?

"Nav... it is simple.  The current crop of politicians eat their best and brightest.  Their survival seems threatened by any upstart.  Under William's tenure, there was some relatively good talent which was forced out of the caucus.  Elizabeth Marshall, Loyola Sullivan, Tom Rideout, Trevor Taylor, Paul Shelly, and even the old Senator Fabian Manning, all left the nest.  Each of these people would be potential replacements for Dunderdale.  Several of them could have potentially been solid performers.

Neither Williams nor Dunderdale have been successful, or interested, in recruiting new talent into the House of Assembly.  It is a dangerous place in which that the PC Party find themselves.  But, it is also a dangerous place for the Province, as well.  A weak leader to be potentially replaced by an even weaker one!"

Uncle Gnarley was clearly building a great head of steam.  His hand was already up to request his second virgin scotch.  As always, I was impressed by my friend’s insight.  I thought of Smallwood recruiting Wells, Crosbie, and Roberts into the caucus. Strong persons of character; all were promised a chance to replace the old leader himself.  Although, they eventually contributed to his downfall, it would have been different if Smallwood had gotten out when he should have.  Would it be different if Crosbie had won that infamous leadership convention?
"Well, Uncle Gnarley, how does the system have to change?" 

 "Nav...  the more I think about how the Westminster parliamentary system has evolved, in Canada, I draw the conclusion that it has contributed partially to this leadership void in Newfoundland and Labrador.  It has to do with the centralization of power in the Premier's office, and the general weakening of cabinet.  The politician's progression, through an empowered cabinet, is meant to groom and weed out potential successors.  It is vital to succession planning and leadership development."

Every now and again the cantankerous old economist would surprise me with one of his profound statements. The jury was still deliberating on this one.  "Uncle Gnarley, can you please explain to me the difference, in Canada, compared to say... Britain?"

"You see, in Canada, once a leader is elected leader of a party it is very difficult to replace him or her. For the Conservative Party in Canada a non confidence vote for the leader requires 50% of the general party, at an annual conference.

But, in the old country, the members of parliament still maintain traditional levels of power, when it comes to non-confidence votes, in their leader.  For the Conservative Party, in Britain, it takes 15% of MP's to trigger a non confidence vote, with 50% of the sitting MP's required to overturn a leader. 

In Britain, there can be a non confidence vote at any time, and without losing the  government.  Leaders’ longevity is, therefore, dependent upon their ability to find consensus amongst the cabinet, and indeed, the entire caucus.  But, most importantly, a leader's survival is dependent upon respecting the principals and powers of cabinet. In Britain, the leader cannot ignore the caucus to the same extent that Canadian leaders can."

With that Uncle Gnarley sat back and smiled.  "You know, Nav, I think the British system also maintains a healthy balance of power in times when the Government maintains a very one sided majority.  Take for example the Blair majority of 1997.  Tony Blair enjoyed a strong majority for his labour government.  Much like in Newfoundland, the opposition was divided into two weak parties, with limited resources.  In this case, the natural check to Blair was not the opposition, rather it was his Finance Minister Gordon Brown.  The unhealthy state of competition in the House of Commons was replaced by the healthy opposition within the Labour Party itself.  It provided the checks and balances required for democracy to function!

Now no matter how much Blair may have wanted to ignore Mr. Brown he could not.  Brown had a great following within the Labour Party; one large enough to trigger an embarrassing non-confidence vote."

Now, this theory presented by the old economist, did seem to have merit.  But, it was still too abstract for me to fully digest.  Although it meant I would likely miss the first part of my afternoon's class, I asked the question, "How does this relate to Newfoundland politics?"

"Nav... it should be obvious to even the most casual observer.  In Newfoundland, we subscribe to the 'saviour' complex.

A strong leader, who runs a tight ship, can easily preside over a Cabinet with little power.  They can be largely ignored.  It is difficult for a party to oust a leader, even harder for the discontented Members of the House of Assembly.  Instead, they must follow the leader in the hope of getting a cabinet, or parliamentary secretary posting.  The checks and balances, provided within the party itself, are not effective"

With that, Gnarley paused to collect his thoughts.  He seemed to have his own moment of enlightenment.

"You see, Nav, if the MHA's and Cabinet had more influence and were capable of ousting a leader, they would naturally be shown more respect by that same leader.  This would help in what you refer to as succession planning and leadership development.  But, it would also allow more critical review of government policy".

It was as if the last six months of conversation were about to converge. 

"In the British model a piece of public policy, as unsound and divisive as Muskrat Falls, would never have happened.  The leader could not ignore the democratic process to the same extent as could Dunderdale.  Even with weak opposition parties, ambition and competence within the front bench of a Government, armed with the power of a non confidence motion in the leader, would have lead to a change in the plan; final consensus would have been reached."

Gnarley was in fine form and I was intrigued to hear more,  "Uncle Gnarley, what would have consensus looked like in this scenario?"

"Well, Nav...  I do not want to sound arrogant when I say that consensus would have likely resembled our modest proposal.

 Any reasonable political challenge of the Muskrat Falls plan would have resulted in a staged development.  Meeting our current energy shortfalls, but waiting until the current boom of resource projects were completed before building the dam.  It was so  obvious a solution, that it could not have been be ignored by any group of insightful and objective politicians. 

This modest proposal alone would have likely reduced the $1.6 billion deficit, in 2013, by hundreds of millions.  It would have lead to both a stronger balance sheet for the Province, and resulted in stronger polling for the PC Party."

With that conclusion, Gnarley took a strong drink.  "Nav... when you eat your young, your lineage will eventually die."

In response, I raised my hand and ordered two virgin scotches on the rocks.  My old friend was a more effective a teacher than any academic. 

 Editor's Note: This Post was written by "JM", the anonymous reseacher, writer and
presenter, to the PUB and in local Blogs, on the Muskrat Falls Project. JM has written a
number of earlier Uncle Gnarley pieces, including, most recently,   "The Great Revolutionary From the Shore".  His latest Paper is entitled: Muskrat Falls Revenue Stream: Fact or Fiction  - Des Sullivan