I had assessed the province’s financial position and her first Budget. It was easy to see that the restraint measures she proposed — mostly increased taxation — were the work of a hapless political amateur delaying the axe-wielding necessitated by a widening fiscal chasm.
The exigencies of politics demanded execution at the start of the government’s term. Even if one cared not a whit about the province’s finances, delay bore far more political landmines than decision.Admittedly, the September piece had poorly assessed the importance of ego, partisanship and ambition over common sense. Still, in the circumstance, a savvy Minister of Finance should have presented an ill-equipped Premier the fiscal ultimatum commanded by a dreadful Tory legacy.
It is impossible to ignore the timing of Bennett’s departure. She was getting set to bring matters to a head with the public sector unions. Ball was having none of it. He would have his way less because he was Premier than due to the fact that the Minister had squandered the political cachet that accompanied her successive wins in Virginia Waters and her self-described business acumen.
Of course, very early on, Bennett showed her finance officials that she was even more comfortable ‘in the weeds’ than her Deputy Minister, who was never known, either, as a ‘big picture’ bureaucrat. Early on, too, she became quite alienated from the Premier’s Office. Unable to mend the rift, she ought to have judged the ‘writing on the wall’.
In short, Bennett became part of the government’s dysfunction.
In the ten-month period since the ‘Bennett’ post, events have only reinforced this appraisal.
Last year, I wrote: “Discounted… was an increasingly awakened public, following the imposition of the levy and Stan Marshall’s single outburst of truth — the “boondoggle” at Muskrat. Some of the Minister’s initiatives were plainly dumb — like closing community libraries to save pocket change — and the decision was reversed only after the political damage to the Liberal brand had been done.“A neophyte politician, over-confident — relying upon a shrewdness she did not actually possess — kept no bag of tricks in reserve…”
I added: “… Bennett lacked a steady hand. It is true that she was absent a First Minister capable of rescuing her from a financial “Plan” devoid of context let alone hope. But she willingly chose to go along with Ball’s “Hush Puppy” approach… accomplishing nothing more than... deference to dither.“A savvy Minister would have put her foot down at the start…”
Admittedly, it was a tough ‘no holds barred’ appraisal of a dilettante who had found herself Finance Minister. The problem was, she had acted no differently than did former Tory Finance Minister Ross Wiseman (except he didn’t piss off nearly as many people) to whose “Plan” she became glued.Besides, when an ambitious politician sticks by someone as god-awful as Ball, there is a price to be paid for such temerity.
Ten months after my original ‘Bennett’ post, where are we?
Even when 75% of the electorate were known to have wanted a Forensic Audit of Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls project she, having been both Board Member and Chair at critical stages, did not have the courage to join in the chorus — even if only to avoid the quiet McCarthyism now making the rounds.The Minister took the proper step to advance a settlement with the public sector unions by moving towards conciliation early. But the union leadership did an end run to the Premier’s Office and outsmarted her.
It was one thing to try and draw a line in the sand for them — a group ever ready to deny the province’s financial predicament — but she had failed to extract from Premier Ball, up front, a public record of his expectations from these negotiations.
The Premier watched as a failing Finance Minister went into the fifth month of the government’s second fiscal year. Only now has she discovered that Premier Dithers had no intention of taking the lashing which the Unions heads could mete out.
A gutless Premier hung Bennett out to dry — and she let him. Bennett must have known of his unwillingness to make a single important decision. More coy than savvy, Ball knew — unlike during the earliest months of her tenure — that she was a spent force in his Administration.Enter Tom Osborne.
Osborne was given the dream job of Speaker (his own admission) in 2015. Now, suddenly, he is a “great relationship builder,” according to the Premier.
In case no one recognizes those words as code to the public sector union leadership, they should try again.Premier Ball knows he has, at most, one more year before he resigns or is dumped by the Liberal Caucus. He feels emboldened to put off a Forensic Audit of the Muskrat Falls project on the same basis.
Ball’s reality does not include a prescient fiscal cliff. It requires no tough decisions, no rancor. His reality is about looking premier-ial, smiling and glad-handing, meetings and ceremony — all the soft stuff of politics.The hard decisions are those that tackle problems; leadership and hand-wringing are not symbiotic.
Osborne was not brought in to pick up where Bennett left off.Bennett would have known that the world price of oil is far lower than the benchmark on which her Budget numbers are predicated. The Canadian dollar has been on the rise, too. Her 2017 forecast is already in jeopardy.
Without the concessions she had budgeted from the public sector, she might have been girding for a battle royal in an effort just to break even.The conditions of Osborne’s appointment were set by the Premier. Having no Finance background, he can be expected to do Ball’s bidding — the deficit, and the assurance of an even larger one, be damned.
The abyss draws closer.Tom Osborne needs to resist the Premier’s dithering ways, else he will join Ross Wiseman, Cathy Bennett and a few earlier worthies — like Tom Marshall and Jerome Kennedy — who have earned the ignominious legacy of aiding and abetting the province’s financial downfall.
Osborne should know we will be watching how he handles his first test.