Dwight Ball’s appointment of lawyer Bern Coffey to the position of Clerk of the Executive Council at first seems another misstep. But it may actually be one of Ball’s better decisions.
It is true, as some have noted, that the appointment of a partisan to the position sets a dangerous precedent. Presumably the province intends to stay committed to the British model of public administration — in which partisan politics and the operation of government remain separate. Therefore we should regard the choice of Coffey as a “one-off” owing to his skills and history. Then, too, the Premier has confidence in him, which is fundamental. Taken together, these are sound reasons why Bern Coffey’s appointment will advance the public interest.
Coffey ran unsuccessfully as Leader of the Liberal Party. The Premier unwittingly denies he is a political appointment — because he has professional qualifications. But this is just another example of the Premier’s inability to use the truth to help bolster his own case. He should not be dismissive of partisans. Without them, his meagre 17% support would be a lot less.
Nevertheless, this is an occasion on which to cut Ball some slack.
It is no secret that the Premier is in a heap of political trouble — and that the province is an economic basket-case.
Almost a full year has been frittered away by the Liberals, who have failed to provide decisive intervention to halt the worst effects of a series of reckless decisions by the Tories.
Another key failing has been Ball’s inability to replace key senior public servants with those more capable. Now attention should shift not to bureaucrats having the “right” political pedigree but to finding talent befitting the enormity of the Government’s challenges.
Coffey will need to cast an eagle eye on the Department of Finance — long alienated from the Premier’s Office — and on Natural Resources, a Department reduced to “Cabinet courier” for Nalcor since the tenure of Danny Williams.
Then, there is Nalcor itself.
The pressing problems are well-known. One is Muskrat Falls. The other is the frightening deficit.
The urgency of our fiscal situation does not give the public time to find better political leadership or to define ways of strengthening our political institutions. Coffey may well help encourage a return to a less “leader-centric” executive branch, in which Cabinet committees play a stronger role in public policy development — a process vastly eroded under Williams. That should begin sooner rather than later. Still, the record suggests any progress from this Premier will be hard won. Dithering is a tough metric on which to assess any Government.
One should be mindful that Coffey is not the Premier’s Chief of Staff. He heads a very senior group of public servants who should care not a whit about the political fortunes of the Party in power. Their only concern ought to be the efficient and capable implementation of public policies and programs. Coffey’s main role is to help the Ball Administration define what that public policy agenda should be, and ensure that those responsible for its implementation are effective.
A capable team leader in the Office of the Cabinet Clerk, one with the Premier’s ear, is now inseparable from the issues which threaten our economic survival. Ball may have discovered that this fact, together with the survival of both his Administration and his own political career, are inextricably bound.
The problems plaguing the Muskrat Falls project are greater than most people realize. They are well beyond Stan Marshall’s ability to fix — too much time has gone by without even the most basic problems having been addressed, i.e. poor project management and low productivity. The next realistic cost plateau is $15 billion.
The decision by the Quebec Superior Court has already given Muskrat a stillborn legacy, following defeat of the Water Management Agreement. That outcome also hangs over everyone’s head, including the deniers and the unsuspecting.
Where does Bern Coffey fit into this narrative?
He has the capacity to help the Government deal decisively with Nalcor’s monopoly over Muskrat, in all of its sad manifestations. The secrecy surrounding the project must end. And it’s not just Muskrat: the Government must take back control over Nalcor before it breaks the Treasury — something that has been resisted for too long.
Bern Coffey is smart and insightful. He is one of a small handful who, from day one, did not drink Nalcor’s “Kool-Aid”.
When others stayed silent as Premier Dunderdale, coached by Nalcor, made a mockery of transparent government and sanctioned Muskrat anyway — abusing our institutions and the truth at every turn — Bern Coffey was one of the very few who devoted countless hours to reviewing legal documents and transcripts (and spoke publicly against it), as Nalcor bound the province to a destiny far worse than that represented by the Upper Churchill Contract. Those who spoke against Muskrat, including this blogger, were often speaking with the confidence of Coffey’s analysis.
Today, for the first time since Muskrat Falls was first mentioned by Danny Williams, there is someone in Confederation Building who actually understands the project: the crazy, the incorrect, and the contrived assumptions on which it is based — and the extent to which it threatens our economy and our society.
Bern Coffey was one of the handful of lawyers who warned the Government and Nalcor to seek a “declaratory judgment” in the Courts on the Water Management Agreement prior to sanctioning the project. They would not acknowledge his existence, let alone confirm that his earnest (and correct) opinion was better than one they had purchased.
Ball has appointed one of the original “naysayers” to the Clerk’s job. Coffey is, perhaps, less a fox in the henhouse than an eagle. He has been given a high perch from which to assess a worrisome landscape. It will help that he has an instinct for recognizing “bullshit” — a skill honed, perhaps, during his days as a public prosecutor.
Now, when Bern Coffey requests essential disclosures from Nalcor, VP Gil Bennett might be less smug — and quicker to respond.
There is one uproarious irony in Coffey’s appointment. He finds himself head of the “sham” Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee, a fraud committed on the public by former Premier Tom Marshall and operated by compliant public servants — a role, I might add, that has no fit within any public administration model, British or otherwise.
Its disbanding should be one of the easiest counsels he will have to offer the Premier.
Naturally, we will expect a lot more from him — including a rush to have Ball implement real oversight of the project, and order Nalcor to convene an expert-panel review of the safety of the North Spur remediation. That would be a good start.
Still Coffey, as the Clerk, can only give advice. Ball recently commented he still thinks it’s a good project. Quite plausibly Ball doesn’t want to hear him on Muskrat or on the deficit. He may only want a friendly ear.
It’s a stretch I know but - just possibly - the confidence Coffey inspires in the pharmacist Premier will constitute a long-awaited “EpiPen” for the dithering that, so far at least, has been Ball’s hallmark.