30 July 2008

Phoning it in

Education minister Joan Burke turned up this morning as the first caller on Open Line with Randy Simms.

She was calling from Stephenville, or "from the district" as Simms put it.

He made it sound like Burke was just back in her district for a visit.

After all, that's likely what you'd expect given that the department she runs is headquartered in St. John's. Being a minister is usually a busy life, even in the summer, what with the meetings related to cabinet and the meetings in the department and just being available to sign all those letters that have to be signed even in an age of computers and e-mail.

Thing is, Burke likely wasn't just stopping in for a visit.

And she likely isn't the only minister who tends to head back to the district during the times the House isn't in session.

Something keeps coming back to your humble e-scribbler about a comment Burke made having to do with ministerial expenses. There was a document establishing her primary residence, which, if memory serves, government officials expected would be in St. John's while she held Her Majesty's commission. The declaration was part of determining what set of expense rules from treasury board would apply.

Burke's comment stood out as she found that form a bit problematic, given her primary residence was in Stephenville. There was some mumbling criticism about the whole arrangement reflecting the "old boys club" of politics.

Now memories can be faulty, not the least of which being the one between the ears of your humble e-scribbler, so it's possible that wasn't exactly what was said.

The old boys club crack just stood out, though, because it was from straight out of left field. Why would it be surprising that an employer would expect you to live within easy commuting distance of the place where your job was located? There's something sexist in that?

Anyway, Tom Marshall is another minister not originally from the capital city who seems to spend a whack of time working from somewhere other than the Confederation Building.

Sit and think for a second and you could probably come up with a bunch of ministers who have offices and work responsibilities in the capital city but who seem to spend a huge amount of time not in the office.

Well, not in the main office. Marshall likely has a suite in the provincial government building in Corner Brook. Burke too, could likely scare up a bit of space in Stephenville.

John Hickey? Patty Pottle? Trevor Taylor? Tom Rideout when he was still a minister? Charlene Johnson? Kevin O'Brien?

These are just tossed out as possible examples because their districts are not within typical daily commuting distance of the metropolitan region.

Any of them keep two offices and work from home, home being somewhere other than within an easy commute of Sin Jawns?

This is not just a matter of some mouldy old rule after all. The cost of maintaining duplicate offices can be steep. Add to that the cost of having to grab a quickie flight at full fare from Stephenville - for argument sake - and then hopping back the same day just to do a media scrum.

Then there are the regular cabinet meetings and the committee meetings and all the rest.

Pretty soon, the cost of commuting like this would get to be a tidy sum.

Then there are the intangible costs. It would be much easier to meet and discuss some business face to face rather than do it by e-mail or over-the-phone. Ministers living in St. John's - where their main office is located - also have the chance to be more accessible to news media in a slow period during the summer. It gives all sorts of opportunities to increase the amount of information government provides to the public on its activities.

Well, that assumes government wants to give more information or that ministers are capable of doing more than parroting prepared lines, but let's just work on the assumption the current situation is an aberration in the great scheme of things.

Still it seemed a little odd that Burke was in St. John's for a 2:45 newser on Tuesday and then bright and early on Wednesday morning was safe on the west coast again.

Maybe it's just a misperception but then again, there have been too many references to some sort of dual office arrangement over the past couple of years to make it a case of being completely mistaken.

There's a subject for a little bit of investigative reporting.

In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to keep track of the number of cabinet ministers who are phoning in their media hits during times when the House is not in session.



Mark said...

I beg to differ.

I don't know the ins and outs of how ministers account for their spending, or from which budget they draw their expenses, per diems, etc. Maybe that is a worthwhile question.

But maybe the real shame is that a cabinet minister in this province cannot hold a press conference anywhere but St. John's and expect to get any substantial province-wide coverage.

In Burke's defence, she could have held her media availability in Stephenville. Or in nearby Corner Brook. But assuming she had, what provincial news outlets still have the capacity to cover the "hinterland" on a day's notice?

WJM said...

The Telegram and Star swap spit all the time, so that's no problem. CBC has a Corner Brook presence.


The bigger media question, however, is why it took the Globe and Mail, in the case of MUNgate, and Paul Wells of Macleans, in the slightly earlier case of the special ballot nonsense, to blow open domestic political stories (at least in so far as the "real" media are concerned.)

Forget St. John's vs. Corner Brook.

What about St. John's vs. Toronto and Ottawa?

Nancy Crozier said...

Perhaps Burke's "old boys' club" comment did not come out of left field at all, but merely reflected the fact that traditionally, male cabinet ministers could spend the bulk of their time in the capital - whether St. John's, another provincial capital, or Ottawa - while leaving wives in the riding to manage family life.

Women often cite concern over leaving their families as an obstacle to entering politics. I'm not saying that no male politician ever felt torn about leaving his family for most of the week, but let's face it: it usually was - and often still is - a different kettle of fish for men and women.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Thanks, all for the feedback.

You make a good point, Mark, except that Burke could have done her scrum from the west coast and had it covered by all the major media.

If there were some people missed - like say the CP correspondent - there have been telephones in Stephenville I think since sometime in the early part of the last century .

She could have skipped the scrum for a series of one on ones, including televisions shot in Corner Brook and either used on video or live by the two studios in St. John's. Unless things have changed in the last five minutes, all that capacity exists near Burke's home.

Cabinet ministers have done it before, especially when the Prem is out there for a retreat or something. It might have been that Burke was in town and just jetted out to S'ville right after to being a vacation.

It's just that she did an interview from S'ville just a week or so before on another subject. Put a couple of things together and I am thinking there might be some ministers who are aren't in the main office as much as used to be the case.

Nancy, thanks for raising what I figured would be a point someone might make.

The idea of having to locate permanently to the place where ones job is located is hardly anything to do with an old boys club nor is it unique to politics.

If I had a job with CONA head office in S'ville, I doubt very much they'd pay to have me work from St. John's if the job is based in S'ville. Likewise, my family likely wouldn't put up with me commuting. As a result - oh shock - we'd have to make the same sort of family decisions thousands of families have made in the province over the decades in all sorts of jobs situations as to whether someone takes a job at all or the family loads up the car and hikes to a new tenting ground.

Forty years ago, the situation you describe would have been commonplace since it was a dominant family organization in society - working male; female family caregiver.

By the 1970s that had started to shift. Women entered politics - and cabinet - and like many of their male counterparts, shifted the family into St. John's or environs if need be. That's the thing - not everyone left The Wife home to manage the kids while they blissfully trotted off to work the bachelor life in Sin Jawns.

Leaving families isn't mandatory. There are options and always have been. And for the record, there are lot more male politicians who found the separation from family too much to contemplate, let alone bear as people are willing to acknowledge. As a result they never entered politics, left politics prematurely or shifted the family.

Most of the week? Not so very long ago, a typical working stretch would have mean weeks of separation akin to what is going on with the remittance workers/gastarbiters today heading to Alberta for their three or four week stint.

So let's face it, there is now and always has been a myth about fish kettles.

And on another level, that situation I just described is no different than what goes on today. Families make choices and, except in the extraordinary situations like Alberta, commuting to a job in St. John's from Kippens would simply not be a viable option.

Now let's be clear too: I don't know if this is what we have here. I just find it interesting the amount of time cabinet ministers spend outside the capital. Based on a couple of things, I am surmising we have some commuting arrangement here.

On the other hand I don't accept carte blanche for a moment the notion that:

a. "the family" is a valid reason for such an arrangement, if it exists; and,

b. somehow women are affected differently from men by "family" issues and therefore that explains anything at all.

Nancy Crozier said...

Thanks, Ed, but with all due respect, I come from a political family, I know the life and its demands intimately, and I think it absolutely can be a valid reason for an arrangement such as the Minister has (the question of where one holds press conferences aside).

I didn't say that wives left at home were full-time homemakers; and anyway, women who worked outside the home still managed the bulk of family responsibilities. I also didn't say that male politicians enjoyed the separation.

I'm just acknowledging the fact that until recently it was often more acceptable for men to work far away from home than it was for women, for many reasons. And in some families today, it still is.

I don't believe the different kettles of fish is a myth at all, but we can just agree to disagree.

Edward G. Hollett said...


Before we get off on the wrong foot, let me say that I wasn't trying to misrepresent your point. In fact, I am glad you raised the issues. There are many more aspects of this issue - the personal cost of being in politics - that should be talked about publicly much more often.

Anyone involved in politics, either elected or unelected, will inevitably place a huge burden on personal relationships just by virtue of the time pressures of the job.

We'll have to agree to disagree that is more acceptable for men to commute to work than it is for women, if that's your point. I am not even sure it was more acceptable once.

What I prefer to focus on is that the emotional stress separations cause are no less for men than women in these situations. I know plenty of men who found it terribly painful to endure the separations and to be away from family at important times like birthdays and so forth.

(It's like the military, BTW. Too many of my friends in that predominantly male environment found it incredibly difficult to be away from home. It was more acceptable or less acceptable just ebacuse they were male. it was just the job and the job demands hit men and women alike.)

It's part of the stress of the job, if separations are necessary. Sometimes spouses or partners have established careers and it simply doesn't make sense to uproot the family and shift. What happens in those cases are personal decisions. That doesn't affect men in politics any better or any differently than it does women.

Steve Paikin has an excellent book on the personal toll politics demands. (The dark side)

Now don't get me wrong. I have a great deal of sympathy for personal situations and if Burke and some others are commuting there may well be good reason for it.

This is worth discussing in more detail for a bunch of reasons:

- appreciation of the job stress on politicians from the time demands;

- understanding the cost issues and the need to balance them off against the other issues that are both personal and job-related;

- considering fairness for all public servants. Not so long ago government came up with a hare-brained scheme to shift public servants around in the province and in the process caused a huge amount of personal disruption among public servants. It's one thing to have someone else tell you to move or deal with the consequences as opposed to knowing the job requirements before you get into the business.

- understanding how this administration works versus others. This sort of commuting I am suggesting may exist can have an impact on decision-making and who is actually in the leadership role both on the political side and the government administration side. Some people may think the minister is just there to answer to the House; the job demands much more than that if it is to be done properly.

This commuting thing is something I noticed a while ago and while I can't say definitively that it is occuring, I think it is work exploring.

Oh and for those who may have a tendency to misunderstand, this isn't to say that commuting is wrong or that it is a partisan thing. There are aspects of the job of being a politician and a cabinet minister more people need to appreciate.

If they did appreciate the dark side of politics, then maybe they wouldn't leap gleefully to the type of extremely simplistic, miserable, mean-spirited and completely vicious assault on cabinet ministers who have taken spouses along on overseas trips sometimes at public expense we've seen within the past five or so years.

We need to get beyond that gutter politics and take a serious look at an important issue. We need to figure out what is acceptable and what isn't. Only by discussing it fully can the public come to an informed conclusion.

Nancy Crozier said...

Thank you, Ed, for your cogent points on the personal demands of public life.

But perhaps I should clarify - when I said it was more acceptable that men work far from home than women, I meant it was generally more *socially* acceptable for a man to be away from his family than it was for a woman. I didn't mean I personally found it more acceptable.

Edward G. Hollett said...


I didn't think you felt that way and I gathered you meant socially acceptable which it might have been.

What fries me is the argument that essentially suggests women respond to these things differently from men and I hope I made that clear. It's just another version of the sexist idea that it is acceptable for men to be away from home but not women.

Basically, being somewhat familiar with the military, I know this sort of issue has cropped up increasingly there over the past couple of decades.

Soldiers and their families are affected by prolonged deployments and family separations. However, while they know that when they sign on, the military has recognised - not perfectly but at least they try - to provide a supportive environment. It's good for everyone.

I still scratch my head a bit though at the notions coming up about politicians, whether it is the suggestion that taking a spouse on a trip once in a while is sucking the public tit dry while commuting by air - if it occurs - is acceptable.

The core issues are the same, I would argue and require the same fundamental consideration. I also have some concern about the idea that having a cabinet not in the main office all the time takes us back to the old days when it was a part time job.

babe in boyland said...

nancy and ed: minister burke's "old boys' club" crack does indeed speak of a very different time and economic/employment culture. and it does seem to be more socially acceptable for men to do the big commute than for women. it is also sadly true that women are the "primary caregivers" for family, home and relationships and so it it harder in many ways for them to do the big commute. but that isn't fair or progressive - the minister should be part of changing that, not conforming to old norms. it is reasonable for employers to expect senior executives to live within a reasonable commute of their offices. and as (one of) her employer(s), i want the minister of education to report to work every day.

Edward G. Hollett said...


I wouldn't want to overstate the point I made about commuting to leave the impression the job wasn't getting done in the sense people weren't showing for work.

If what I suspect is going on actually occurs, some individuals would be showing up at an office near their home. They just don't attend at the actual office in the headquarters of the department.

The point I am really concerned about really goes beyond the social norms or the family imperatives and speaks to the message sent about what the job entails. Those are things which must be addressed.

It was and may well still be socially acceptable (or in some cases expected) for Dad to be away from home for extended periods but let me assure you it has serious repercussions.

The more I think about this, as a result of everyone's comments, the more I bear down on the implications for the job itself.

Not so very long ago we had a cabinet where it was acceptable to do the job of a minister plus maintain an active law practice, for example.

Essentially, that is saying the job of minister is a part-time one, which it isn't. I am not speaking of a minister without portfolio in which there are no departmental responsibilities. Those creatures haven't existed for years. I am speaking here of a minister of a line department who held down another job.

Part of the whole reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s was to get rid of that sort of thing both at the cabinet level and in the House. Proper salaries meant people didn't have to work two jobs to maintain a standard of living they'd had before, for example, and ministers had real jobs providing both administrative and policy direction.

Done properly it is not a job you could do by remote control from an office somewhere else on the planet nor is it one that could be done with a shortened work week or a two on/two off deal.

I could say somewhat facetiously that if Joan Burke has the time on her hands to replace the entire team put in place to hire a president and do it herself, then something is clearly wrong. There are so many issues that should come across her plate, she should trust her officials and others like the regents to sort out the details.

Her role in the process is toward the end, not in place of as she and her colleagues seem to think. That's something she evidently either doesn't understand or doesn't care about.

babe in boyland said...


no argument from me - children, relationships and families in general are better off when there is a present, engaged dad. best option, for sure. actually, present and engaged dad, mom, AND grandparent or other representative family is absolutely best. i'm not downplaying dads or the role the good ones play now and the less attentive ones should learn to play in future. alls i'm saying is that society had been organized so dads are not an absolute necessity - but they SHOULD BE.

that's part of the argument, too long and tedious for the blogging medium. whatever else is going on here, it is not enough for the minister of education to descry the structure of legislative and cabinet work as an "old boys' club". let's get around to defining how it SHOULD be, to accomodate women and single parent and gay and disabled MHAs. getting the job done should be #1, making sure it can be done without crippling and crucifying the families that end up involved because mom or dad or whoever is A caregiver is doing it. no job should do that, least of all the representation of our population for democratic government!