Thursday, 9 June 2016

THE REAL TRAGEDY OF THE BALL GOVERNMENT

Public anger over the Premier’s handling of the severance issue endures. Yet, it is the perversity of watching the Tory Opposition, engaging in filibuster as it dances on Dwight Ball’s political grave, that gives dimension to the Liberals’ ineptitude. In a world of slightly more skilful people, Ball should be making Davis squirm—the Tories having created our fiscal nightmare.

There is always a cost when the Government is thrown into disarray and the Premier is cannon fodder for dissent. That price is a worry, one distinct from the singular question of the Premier’s integrity.

As always, there are the political issues—e.g. how could he have been so na├»ve? But others that are more fundamental relate to the budgetary mess, and to a plethora of overdue policy changes needed to transform the processes of government. Chief among them are initiatives to at least slow economic decline as megaprojects wind down.

One of the threads of public outcry, following the imposition of the gas tax and the deficit levy, was that the Government failed to offer hope that the fiscal pain would lead to some resolution of our difficulties. It had not laid out a roadmap connecting spending retrenchment as a building block of a sustainable economy.

Photo Credit: CBC
When the Premier engages in deception, the public should always worry. But the truth is, it’s not just the Budget or Ed Martin’s severance that get people printing posters. A bigger motivation is the ineptitude characterizing the Liberals’ first six months in Office.

Manifested, since the November election, is an Administration unready and quite possibly unable to govern effectively. It may simply be the case that the Liberals lack the requisite intellectual heft and experience. Some certainly see Premier Ball as an obstacle to change. Of course, we can eventually get rid of a single Premier. We have already witnessed the unceremonious dumping of Dunderdale and Davis. The worry is that the next one may be an amateur, too.

A Premier in difficult times needs to step up to a crisis in ways that will uplift and even inspire a legitimately nervous and angry body politic. He must be empathetic to the effect that increased taxation will have on family budgets. But even more, he must demonstrate his readiness to deal with the burden by exhibiting a serious program of initiatives geared towards economic renewal.

Does the Premier think that the public is unaware of the wind-up of the very same megaprojects that so recently caused the economy to become white hot?  Are governance issues no longer matters of debate?

A Premier is a coach, an instructor, a leader. Premiers should inspire, guide, educate, argue, and even plead inside the Cabinet—and far moreso outside, with the broader constituency—to bring about meaningful change. 

A thoughtful leader will articulate the challenges we face, lay out solutions and seek consensus. At the end of the process the Premier, in concert with his Ministers, will have a plan. It will be comprehensible, sensible, and defensible.  He and his Ministers will sell it, and become unrelenting advocates of the whole deal—not just because it is necessary for a province in dire straits, but because it represents the best of who and what they are as politicians, and as a political party.

In the current political climate, such a description of the fundamental role of this new Government seems fanciful. If a larder of ideas or policy changes exists, it remains top secret. The six months of this Government’s new mandate has produced little more than an ill-conceived Budget.

It is not difficult, therefore, to understand why the Premier is a catalyst: a lightning rod for public dissent.

He is seen merely as one of the facilitators of a huge money grab by a failed former Nalcor CEO, a Premier wriggling out of responsibility for his missteps.

He governs without moral authority, a fact that is underscored by the sustainability of public protest. The public remembers only the broken promises that a deceptive election campaign has produced. Ball has earned no plaudits with which to counterbalance six months of bad judgement.

In place of a Premier offering reassurance and inspiration, the public is suspended in a political vacuum containing only negativism, anger and fear.

Political strategists must be asking their partners to tie them to their desks. The repetition of missed cues and opportunities would incite the laziest insider to put glue on the Premier’s chair for fear that he might rush out to the media in yet another unscripted moment.

Not all Premiers bring professional management skills to the job or are multi-talented; not all understand how ideas are translated into policy, either. Few manifest knowledge of how a large and complex bureaucracy functions, or how it is prone to skewer change and innovation.

Most Premiers—though not those of the past decade—know their limitations. They seek out people of expertise, in politics, policy and bureaucracy; individuals who help refine ideas, and generate new ones befitting the economic or social circumstance. They help work through the mounds of data and analysis. They save the Premier precious time, and help him make sound and timely decisions. This is an essential part of the arduous process of change and the relentless struggle against private agendas, whether of bureaucracy, business, or unions.

Once upon a time, prior to the election of Danny Williams, a Planning and Priorities (P&P) Committee, composed of senior members of Cabinet, held enormous influence. It offered judgement, and sometimes professional advice, depending upon Ministers’ expertise. The Committee would be called together in a crisis and on a regular basis.

Williams got rid of it choosing, instead, to aggregate power over public policy creation to himself.

One can easily imagine that the competence of the former Nalcor CEO would have been a prominent item on the P&P agenda. Muskrat Falls might not have occurred if an uncorrupted process of review had been permitted, and if capable Ministers had no fear of rebuke if they stared down the Premier. The severance issue, too, might have been handled differently.

No amount of analysis or argument is a certain safeguard against a cunning Premier’s hubris. But a skilful Premier will bulwark against failure with the best people he can find. 

This Premier could not so much as replace the senior bureaucratic incumbents in the key government departments of Finance, Natural Resources, and the Cabinet Office.

In short, the first six months of Ball Governance ought to have exhibited frenzied change. They were anything but.

First on the agenda ought to have been the remediation of the governance issues that gave the Tories a black eye. As the Muskrat saga continues to unfold, does anyone—including the Liberals—not understand the cost of secretive government?

David Vardy’s article entitled “Time To Take Control of Nalcor" contains a treasure trove of policy initiatives dealing with a crown corporation that has become a law unto itself. Do the Liberals not think that Nalcor’s mandate, energy legislation, oversight, or the corrupted processes that gave sanction to the Muskrat Falls project, should be refashioned?  Are we to sink into a veritable “quicksand” (to use Vardy’s word) otherwise known as Williams’ “energy warehouse”?

Where is the Government’s plan for the Marystown Shipyard? Is it so fearful of “big labour” that it would rather leave the facility dormant?

Does it have a plan for the Bull Arm Site? The Hebron production platform will be heading out a year from now. Is dormancy the only remedy?

What about the Husky GBS project in Argentia? What is the status of the benefits agreement if they fail to proceed?

Should we continue to invest in preparations for the Gull Island power pipe dream, as Nalcor persists in doing?
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Will Government continue to invest in equity stakes in the offshore, from which any return on investment is doubtful?

Of far less financial consequence, but critical to the integrity of government, where is the public inquiry into the Humber Valley Paving affair—that epitome of Tory cronyism? 

Those measures, taken together, are a mere sampling of the items that should be high on the government’s agenda—matters on which every report is overdue. Each serves a flagstaff: proof that Ball is a Premier not prepared to deal with even the normal demands of big government, let alone a full-blown financial crisis.

Who will step up if we get rid of Ball? The Finance Minister whose ties to the failed Muskrat Falls project are given comprehension with an almost goofy Budget? John Haggie, Andrew Parsons or Perry Trimper, none having distinguished themselves (at least not yet)?

Ball may think Government a pharmacy, the perfect default to a former career. But, alas, it is not a place where remedies are dispensed one at a time. Government, and the issues with which it must deal, are too complex and multifaceted to accommodate so much tedium.

Premier Ball is a worrisome problem. He can argue that the province won’t default.  But until he can offer change, even in its most minimal manifestation, the public will be tempted to give Paul Davis and the Tory Opposition credibility they don’t deserve.

That would be a tragedy all of us should want to avoid.