To start the New Year, it's always fun to look back on last year's work — if only to see what stories most attracted your interest. Below I have listed ten selections from 2016. Those choices are based entirely on the number of pageviews each claimed, according to the Google. There is just one caveat: I have not included stories posted during the past month, even though each attracted a large number of readers. I felt they were posted recently enough to be easily accessed.
My (admittedly incorrect) prediction that “Cathy Bennett’s Days in Finance are Numbered” (the Minister has outlasted reasonable constraints on the word "limited") garnered over 20,000 pageviews and the number one spot. Still, the post warrants further comment.
Finance is a key portfolio. And, for a long time, the Minister has been perceived by this blogger as a politician in a rather precarious — even tenuous — spot.
Cathy Bennett embodies not just her own claims to a superior level of business and political acumen, but also the enormous public expectations those claims have fuelled. In contrast, her performance tells a different story — one that has a context akin to myth vs reality.
The Minister has barely tackled the province's fiscal problems. Her Department has become little more than an administrative conclave performing rote functions as it is deprived of an essential strategic role that has always afforded senior Finance officials the right to push more air. Now the real centre of power is the Executive Council.
That's the place from which has emerged "The Way Forward" — the government's glossy propaganda piece that plans to get you eating more fruits and vegetables. It pretends to have a grasp on solutions to our fiscal nightmare with similar sleight of hand. Little wonder insiders say that, for much of the past year, Bennett has been a very isolated figure within the Ball Administration.
My analysis of Bennett's position was that if Ball didn’t push her out of the Finance portfolio, she might deal with her own isolation and ineffectiveness.
After all, why would a politician — ostensibly a savvy one — share the Premier’s well-earned reputation for dithering... and the ignominy of history for having failed to deal with the Province’s most difficult and deepening fiscal crisis? Where does the word "savvy" even fit?
Bennett's press conference — called just before the House of Assembly recessed before Christmas and a "by invitation only" meet directed to four specific female members of the media — has the markings of a final card played in advance of a cabinet shuffle. It is true that few male or female MHAs exude the Minister's confidence. Therefore, it must have struck all the media — female and male — a bit strange that a "senior" Minister was having difficulty putting a bunch of ignorant anonymous misfits on social media in their place.
Finance is inherently a powerful Ministry. But power applied in any context has a fleeting quality: use it or lose it.
Notwithstanding the expectations of Bennett already noted, her pedestal might have been given elevation had she telegraphed that she planned to act as a counterweight to any stray from the fiscal problem. She could even have marked her territory as including a decisive say over Nalcor's right to squander money on the Muskrat Falls project. She certainly would have needed to acknowledge that her early cheerleading on the project was ill-advised. But had the Minister persisted as a salesperson favouring fiscal common sense — and a plan to deal with a problem for which the only Tory plan was "hope" — she might have been regarded as a "Super-Minister".
In many ways Bennett was not unlike former CEO Ed Martin — exposing inexperience in a job far larger than that for which she is qualified. As a result, she could be seen playing footsie with a Premier incapable of assessing policy options and their consequences.
Just as poor as her performance in the policy arena was the Minister's lack of skill in power politics — she having failed to secure key support within cabinet and the caucus for deeper cuts. Essentially she remained content in her self-importance as her colleagues voiced concern about re-election — and their pensions.
In the end, she gave her blessing to a litany of unpopular budgetary options, including the gas tax, the special levy, and the libraries fiasco — earning her public enmity. She has left a huge deficit largely unattended and the debt growing rapidly. She has watched Ball sink into a political quagmire — without demonstrating she is one bit more capable.
When the Premier's politicos figured out Bennett had no easy "fix" for falling polls, they cut her and her Department of Finance out of discussions as to how the Administration might recapture the public's favour. Ball — not surprisingly, given his own failings — decided that the insincere (fake) "solutions" of PR types held more political currency than any offered by his Minister.
Ball had even managed to get the new Clerk of the Executive Council — a straight arrow — to assume the Chair of the (fake) Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee. Just before Christmas, the Telegram also reported the Premier saying that the Budget was "full of tough choices and painful cuts" when, in the context of the size of the problem, it contained anything but.
Clearly the Liberals, like the Tories, have eschewed the truth as having any usefulness except to assure bad polling.
In short, financial leadership has given way to amateur hour — to the kind of deception packaged by second-string players like Siobhan Coady. A "Super Minister" would have none of that. Indeed, ambitious political types can't expect their career to be graphed like a contrived Nalcor demand chart justifying sanction. The public isn't always that blind.
Good politicians take risks in their advance to a higher rung. Some even put principle over politics. But Bennett could never perform the calculus of John Crosbie or Clyde Wells — opposing an icon required real courage. Neither has she taken the foolhardy gambit of Leo Barry in the Peckfor years. Risk is the possibility of getting lost in the backbench. That, evidently, is too high a price, when ostentation is an acceptable alternative to real power.
A more clever Minister would have quit, leaving behind a serious financial plan with real ideas, one that she — and the public — might acknowledge, later, was a missed opportunity.
Of course, I should stop having those fanciful expectations of quite ordinary people — and wait for the Cabinet shuffle.
Now for some acknowledgements...
I especially want to thank David Vardy and James L. Gordon, P.Eng (Ret'd) for their frequent contributions to the Blog, acknowledge articles written by Cabot Martin, Ron Penney, and JM, and thank new contributors in 2016 including Phil Helwig, P. Eng. (Ret'd), Frank Wright, Karl Sullivan, Joe Schell, P. Eng. (Ret'd), Gabe Gregory, and Bernard Lahey.
I have many hopes for 2017. One is that this Blog will attract contributing female writers. Now that third-party contributions have become a mainstay of the Uncle Gnarley Blog, gender balance among the scribes is a vital next step.
The fiscal position of the Province and Muskrat Falls will continue to dominate the news (and this Blog) as will the machinations of the political parties.
Contributors and I will attempt to explain the events and the issues, give them serious analysis, suggest options where appropriate, and lay blame when expediency, stupidity, and wilful deception are offered as substitutes for the public interest.
Hopefully, we will play some small role in inspiring informed conversation.
On that note, here are the "Top Ten" Posts for 2016:
by A Concerned Newfoundlander and Professional Engineer
CBC by J.P Schell, P.Eng. (Retired)
by James L. Gordon, P.Eng. (Retired)
EXPERTS CONDUCT REVIEW by James L. Gordon, P.Eng. (Retired)
9. STOPPING THE PROJECT NOW: WEIGHING THE OPTIONS by David Vardy
by Frank Wright
The “Editor's Picks” listed below represent stories that didn't make it into the "most popular" category. They contain compelling content and (I think) deserve another look.
TOP TEN MUSKRAY MYTHS (PART I) by "JM"
OUR FISCAL FUTURE: DAVID VARDY'S IDEAS FOR CHANGE by David Vardy
IS IT POSSIBLE TO MAKE MUSKRAT RIGHT? by David Vardy
MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY DUE FOR AN OVERHAUL by Karl Sullivan
Happy New Year to everyone,