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Tuesday, 2 May 2017


The Bern Coffey debacle is mind-boggling. But it leaves two important facts exposed.

First, Ball approved the untenable arrangement with Coffey permitting him to continue his law practice. It is one thing to allow for a winding-up period, quite another for the Clerk of the Executive Council to be moonlighting - in a court of law where he would be obligated to argue against his employer.  

Second, just as the Government was taking some initiative to hold Nalcor to account, the brutally incompetent Crown Corporation has, again, been let off the hook as far as the MF Oversight Committee is concerned.

With Coffey’s intervention, the Committee had finally gotten two capable members. Likely, the appearance of three ‘naysayers’ on the Muskrat file was causing some people to sweat. Likely, Coffey was outed but he and Ball ought never to have afforded Nalcor - or the Opposition - that opportunity.

Now, the former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources under Dunderdale - who played messenger for Ed Martin, sending Nalcor's requisitions to Cabinet - is head of the Oversight Committee. Ball confirms, again, he is gutless.

Coffey has resigned. The truth is Ball should, too. He has demonstrated, time and again, he is not up to the job of Premier.

Bern Coffey was supposed to bring some order to the constant chaos which Ball divined. Instead, he has wound up adding to it.

Coffey can’t be excused for failing to understand that the Health Care Corporation and Nalcor are government – not some third party commercial interests. Any legal distinction afforded under the corporations act or having contrived administrative procedures to give the appearance of a Chinese wall, to which Coffey alluded, is nothing less than a fiction.

Coffey’s credentials are well-known. The timing of his appointment, following a disastrous run of decision-making by the Premier, offered hope he might help bring some sobriety to a government in perpetual political crisis.

A highly successful Crown Prosecutor, Counsel to the Cameron Inquiry on testing errors at Eastern Health, and private practitioner, Coffey’s credentials included – as a member of the 2041 Group – opposition to the Liberal Party’s endorsement of the Muskrat Falls project.

Indeed, Coffey loudly advised Nalcor CEO Ed Martin not to pursue the Muskrat Falls project without first obtaining judicial review of the Water Management Agreement. 

Nalcor’s subsequent loss in the Quebec Superior Court is testimony to Coffey’s legal and intellectual talents. It is confirmation that Nalcor intended to proceed with the project come hell or high water – which is sufficient proof that they need constant and uncompromising oversight - though a mass firing of the senior executive would be more beneficial.

Coffey should have known better. 

He should have known that both the Tories and the Liberals have done their best to degrade governance processes and administration. His job was to help put a stop to those practices.

He should have remembered from whence he came.

Partisan politics has a way of causing disqualification for senior public service roles.  In the tradition of the British civil service, partisans are mostly disqualified regardless of their personal achievements. Partisanship has corrosive influences. It affects objectivity and causes suspicion when the Government changes hands, leading to more firings and partisan hiring.

Coffey had run for and lost the Liberal leadership in 2011.

For that reason, his appointment was received with some disquiet, in part because Ball had already begun replacing some public service positions – including at the ADM level – with individuals having strong Liberal Party connections. The Liberals were behaving much as did the Tories.

Nevertheless, some, including this scribe, had concluded that Coffey might be the trusted confidante the Premier needed to find his backbone.   

That was wishful thinking. 

Coffey must have known that, as Clerk, he is a public policy coach charged with the effective operation of a large bureaucracy. He is also the government’s chief advisor.
The job does not allow spare time. There is no spare time for senior executives when the government is sane. There is even less time when it is irredeemably mired in dither, poor judgment, and financial crisis.

Neither can government afford divided loyalties. The Clerk of the Executive Council has no business contesting his employer on any level. The perception of conflict is simply unavoidable.

That Coffey is gone is necessary. But it is still unfortunate. Coffey would have seen first-hand the difficulty bringing Nalcor to heel – its record of deception, poor management, and his own inability, thus far, to countermand Nalcor’s unbridled arrogance and insouciance.

Now, Nalcor is back in charge. A chronically weak Premier presides. The Liberal Party gives him a vacant stare.

Public administration is, again, diminished.