24 December 2008

Erasing the distinction, to our detriment

Used to be, not so long ago, that public servants were different from political staff.

The distinction was important as one served to keep a check on the other.

No longer.

According to CBC News, the premier has appointed a top “aide” – a term normally used to refer to political staff – as deputy minister of natural resources, a position at the top leadership level of the public service.

The distinction between the top echelons of the public service  - typically non-partisan permanent employees of government - and the political staff took a while to erase but in the decade since Brian Tobin really started to undermine the difference, the two have now fused together. 

The damage to government and the public service has yet to be calculated.

In some respects though we can already see it.

Only last spring,  Tom Rideout resigned in a dispute within cabinet over road work for his district.  The premier admitted that a senior member of his political staff oversaw the allocation of spending, ostensibly to ensure it was done fairly.  of course, the result was anything but  fair and impartial according to a set of standards applied transparently and equitably to all cases, irrespective of partisan, political considerations.

Not a single news outlet in the province reported that road paving was decided by political staff.

Instead, they parroted the premier’s characterisation of the situation as “normal” even though it was  - quite obviously - far from that.

Is it any wonder that government here and elsewhere continues to be unaccountable, when even news organizations that are usually pretty careful about their use of language can’t get the rights of things?

-srbp-

17 comments:

Peter L. Whittle said...

Ed:

Of all of the many misleading posts that you have generated over time this has to be the worst.

The individual appointed by the Premier as Deputy Minister of Natural resources is a non-partisan career civil servant not a political staffer as you suggest.

The individual is Robert Thompson who worked in various (always non-political roles) in the Wells, Tobin, Grimes and William's administration.

Thompson has been Deputy Minister of Tourism and Health. He was the provinces top civil servant as Clerk of the Council until he was tapped to be the provinces liaison for the Cameron Inquiry.

To suggest that he is a politcal staffer is a great disservice to an individual who has given his life to public service no matter who occupies the premiers chair.

Sleazy Ed, even for you! What is the point of this attack? To slight the CBC for referring to Thompson as an aide or to tarnish Thompson's impeccable reputation?

I have dealt with Robert Thompson as a director (when he was responible for the Resource Policy Committee of Cabinet) as an ADM, as Deputy Minister while I was employed as a political aide in liberal administrations ans as the Clerk of the Council when I was the Director of Policy and Operations with the Official Opposition. He has never been partisan or showed any traits except the professionalism one would expect from a career civil in the public service.

You got this one all wrong, perhaps you might consider doing the honorable thing and setting the record straight.

WJM said...

The premier admitted that a senior member of his political staff oversaw the allocation of spending, ostensibly to ensure it was done fairly

Actually, I think his phrase was to "take the politics out of it", or some very similar phrase.

Much the same as, in one press release, Danny Williams-Government is committed to Memorial University's autonomy, and in another, DW-G commits to academic freedom. And oh, lookie, they even pass resolutions on autonomy.

Words, in Danny Williams-Government's Dannystan, mean what He decrees them to mean.

No one ever says anything.

No one ever speaks up.

WJM said...

Reading comprehension problems, Peter?

Peter L. Whittle said...

Not at all Wally! Must be tough carrying the role of defender of the faith!

For one you will find plenty of criticism of the provincial governments interference with academic independence at Polemic and Paradox, you will also find plenty of criticism of the way road funding needs are determined as well.

Sorry, you self-assumed Messiahs do not have a monopoly on asking questions just on spinning your biased venom.

The distinction on the roles of aides - political or non-political is not at all a problem in the press release issued by Executive council.

Just because that distinction is not made in a media story does not mean all aides are political.

Little hard to try and throw this story up as evidence that Tobin and William's somehow have destroyed the integrity of the civil service.

As I recall the Well's Liberal's had a few glaring examples of interference in contracts, appointments and job interviews that the courts took exception to and that cost a few ministers a time out and the tax payers millions of dollars.

That would appear to me to be more of an issue than trying to turn the language in a news report into a post that might leave some to believe that the aide appointed to Natural Resources was partisan in some way.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Peter:

It's obvious you don't understand this post any more than you understood Star Lake.

WJM said...

Just because that distinction is not made in a media story does not mean all aides are political.

No, Peter, but - let me translate - what it does mean is that it is one more piece of evidence that the distinction between political and public-service staff has eroded, if the media who cover such matters are able to make such a basic error in terminology.

Awfully touchy on this subject, too, for some reason, aren't you?

And you have a lot of gall sarcastically calling ANYONE "defender of the faith".

Merry Christmas!

Edward G. Hollett said...

"Must be tough carrying the role of defender of the faith!"

You evidently have more experience than any one else I know in this regard, Peter since clearly you missed the thrust of the post entirely and took to the ramparts to protect whatever faith it is you espouse these days.

Robert Thompson is a public servant, a career public servant and a very good one. However that has nothing to do with the issue raised in the post.

CBC got it wrong by referring to him as an aide to the Premier, just as surely as you got it wrong by using the same incorrect construction (he is not an aide).

The use of language reflects the understanding people have of how the system works and how people relate to one another.

The more people erase the distinctions, the more people get it wrong - as you did - the more the internal system of checks and balances is eroded.

We wind up with a system which is, at its heart, dysfunctional.

When a genuine aide winds over scrutinising what ought to be managed impartially by the public service, then we have a problem.

When the media ignores that very issue - because they already assume everyone on the hill is the same? - then we have another problem.

If the system continues to erode as it has been eroding over the past decade, then career public servants may well find themselves subject to the whims of political aides who can't tell the different between Star Lake and Deer Lake. (Hint: One supplies power to a paper mill; the other never did.)
The rest of us will have to suffer the consequences.

Lonenewfwolf said...

nl politicos,

who was responsible for /or signed star lake anyway?

i'd love to know what happened around that. there's more than a few people interested in all this now, here and abroad.

Peter L. Whittle said...

Here we go again. Glad to see we agree on one thing, Robert Thompson is no politcal.

Again Ed, Star Lake power was fed into the Abitibi got some of it. It did not feed the mill directly. What is so hard to understand about that?

I guess it is like the two tier system of constituency allowances that you made up to defend your friends constituency travel formula last year.

Seriously. At issue here was the use of the word aide. Not all aides are political. I think it would have been better if the report had said that a career public servant, or the former clerk of the council was appointed as DM of Natural Resources.

Your the one that wanted to play with the distinction to make some political points at the expense of Robert Thompson.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Peter:

Star Lake was developed entirely in response to a request for proposals from NL Hydro.

It did not feed the Grand Falls mill directly or indirectly since the Grand Falls mill was self-sufficient in energy from ABH's own resources from the time of the expansions and improvements up to the point of the recent expropriation.

If you'd bother read the most recent study done on the province's forest resources - one commissioned by the current administration - you would not be going back to the claim that you've been trying to make on the expropriation bill on your own blog. You are wrong on Star Lake, simply factually and completely wrong.

In exactly the same way, you are simply factually and completely wrong on your comments on this post and any claims you've made about me and it.

I never said Robert Thompson was political. There was never any agreement or disagreement. You either completely missed the point or simply used your initial gross misrepresentnation to launch an attack.

How can we tell you were wrong? Instead of dealing with the substance of the discussion you take a personal dig using an old and - once again - invented claim on your part.

The news report would have been corrected if it had said anything you indicated.

It is not correct as it stands just as you were not correct initially to try calling him an aide merely to support your own gross misrepresentation of my post. No one has missed the point that at the end of it all, you've abandoned your initial position and are now agreeing with one of the points made in the original post.

Again, we know you are aware you made a gross misrepresentation from the start here since you finish your comment by accusing me of playing with words.

I did no such thing. Rather I made a clear and obvious point - which you misrepresented - that is also consistent with a series of posts I have made on the subject of governance and accountability within the public service (and related to news media coverage and the development of the current situation over the past decade).

The only one playing with words here would seem to be you. The purpose of the play would be to escape the fact the from the beginning of your comments, your argument was based entirely on your own gross misrepresentation of what I wrote.

Rather than continue to damage your own reputation, Peter, with these sorts of cheap personal shots, it would be far easier if you just owned up to a simple mistake and apologised.

Winston Smith said...

When "self-assumed Messiahs" gets thrown around on this blog, you know that Danspeak is alive and well.

The real question here is whether the erasure of the distinction between career public servants and political staffers is part of a specific, deliberate plan of Dangovt or a simply a byproduct of its authoritarianism.

It occurred to me over the holidays that Dangovt relies on three principal tools, which may help to provide an answer:

1) Branding, of the province and then specific agengies, which works to erase the past. This serves as a constant reminder that 2003 is Year One. Branding reaches from the very name of the province and its associated icon to popular speech patterns, e.g., ubiquitous tics such as "go forward" and "nothing could be further from the truth."

2) Creating and sustaining the personality cult, which entails both enhancing the leader and eliminating all rivals. This cult features endless repetition of the mantras of success and newness, and it relies on the icon of the Lone Hero, whose paternalistic responsibilities justify systemic bullying and vindictiveness. Thus the people are endlessly reminded that the leader is, as a wealthy businessman and lawyer, richer and smarter than anyone else. This is, of course, part of the branding process, but its scope and reach is such that it needs to be understood as a discete phenomenon.

3) Focusing obsessively on negotiating The Deal, which entails the quest for the Holy Grail of the Lower Churchill. This process feeds back to branding (e.g., Nalcor), as well as the personality cult, since everyone is told that it is his singular skills as a negotiator on which Dangovt depends. In Dangovt, governing isn't about governing, it's about deal-making.

These three processes produce a political culture marked by three principal features:

1) A constant sense of anticipation whereby we all wait for the Big One, the mother of all deals, which will take us to the promised land. (Notice, for instance, how little Dangovt even refers to diversification or the fishery, let alone do anything substantive in these areas). This anticipatory political culture skews public discourse away from quotidian issues, such as providing public services, and towards an obsession with the VOCM Event of the Day.

2) An insidious Manichaean world view (apologies to the actual Manichaeans) that sees everything in black/white and divides the world absolutely into friends/enemies. For the tricky question of "which is which" and "who is who," the subjects of Dangovt rely solely on Dangovt, which declares the new enemies of the people, and issues proclamations via VOCM rather than in the Legislature. This relies on a spurious logic (a world where actual ideology counts for nothing) that creates an ABC culture (which, conveniently enough, fosters a feedback loop to the branding and cult processes). By defining who/what is good/bad, Dangovt sets the political agenda and the terms of its media coverage. The results could be seen in CBC's coverage of the last election, which never failed to mention ABC, even when it was irrelevant to the riding in question.

3) A constant state of warfare. For Dangovt, it's not enough to create an anticipatory political culture that keeps the great unwashed at the edge of their Churchill Falls seats. It's not even enough to insist that the public and the media follow Dangovt down the rabbit hole of ABC logic. Because the need for total obedience is so powerful and the fear of dissent so pervasive, Dangovt needs new enemies: it needs not only constant enemies (both without and within), but new enemies, in order to feed the insatiable desire for gratification and domination. The constant state of warfare (whether it's against Harper, Manning, or Forward) creates a climate of fear that keeps the Doozers in line; however, it seems to be more of an end in itself rather than a means to an actual end. The very identity of Dangovt seems to be defined by bullying and conflict, which, as with everything else, feeds back to the branding process. I leave it to the professionals to determine whether this is a product of a personality disorder, but it is clearly a democracy disorder.

This is how we get to a world where Ed Hollett, of all people, gets called a self-assumed Messiah.

Peter L. Whittle said...

Winston:

I just wanted to thank you for your contribution to this discussion as I share a number of your opinions and disagree with some others.

Lets just be clear about one thing. I certainly do not see things as absolutes, nor black whites.

I for one can not speak to any coordonated communications plan by the current administration along the lines of which you speak but rest assured every administration, of every stripe has employed the skills of volunteers and paid political operatives to dominate the open lines, feed back lines, on-line polls in an attempt to influence popular opinion. For sure the current administration is doing it. Some may argue, judging by their political experience that they have perfected it!

I certainly despise coordinated partisan attempts to influence or derail public opinion. Firstly it creates a bandwagon approach; secondly, good people get vilified for daring to disagree with the administrations positions; and thirdly, we never really get to hear from voters on how they really feel.

The ABC logic as you speak to it seems to take black and white view of that issue. The very thing you condemn others for doing. Some people like myself are naturally ABC and would never vote conservative regardless of what the Premier suggested. Others may have railed against both Martin and Harper over equalization and offshore benefits but found on the whole supporting the Conservatives or the Liberals based on the entirety of their platform, not one issue was the proper way to vote. For example a number of my friends that assisted with a rally to protest the measures contained in the first Harper budget actually worked very hard for Conservative candidate Craig Westcott.

Somewhere along the way I have found myself drifting away from the rigid, disciplined, black and white restraints of party politics.

I have my own opinions, right or wrong, but they are mine. I look at individual issues and approach them from that perspective. I may praise the government on one issue and be critical on the next. That leaves me in a bit of a no mans land but that suits me fine right now.

It is the extremes and the hypocrisy that bothers me. Sometimes I fine myself getting sucked into that game for reason that have less to do with politics than personalities and that is truly a shame.

Blogs like the Bondpapers make an invaluable contribution but one just has to keep in mind that there are inherent biases in amongst the shadows and the word is best viewed in shades of grey.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Wow, Peter, you couldn't have missed Winston's point more completely if you systematically set out to do so.

Nor could you have also proven his points, whole, if you had tried.

That would be especially true given your veiled warning at the end about mysterious hidden agendas - another great myth the cult likes to propagate about everything except the cult and your own post a couple of days ago which hinted at the enemies of the state and then reaffirmed the cult of personality is alive and well and supporting the latest "Deal":

"I have confidence in at least one man who will stand up for all of us in this battle to come. Premier Danny Williams!"

The world is full of all sorts of colours and shades, including a fair bit of grey. Too bad you don't admit them into your monochromatic universe, one in which individuals are to be smeared personally in the manner favoured - coincidentally enough - by your hero du jour.

Perhaps you'd appreciate the hues there are if you spent less time sucking and "getting sucked" into the personalities of things (do people really care that much to read your own apologia for your online behaviour yet again?) and more time dealing with the substance of things.

Peter L. Whittle said...

ED:

But I do have faith in Danny Williams with regards to protecting our resources. That is not a cult of personality but the fact that I like his approach to natural resource ownership and benefits.

That does not mean I am happy with a bunch of other directions this government has taken. Again I say it is not black and white. I say I have faith in him on these files you call it a cult of personality. Seriously Ed, it is getting a little old, and that is what generates criticism and the personal exchanges that need not occur.

Will he do it alone no. Will he offer leadership and direction yes. What I have always detested about politics in this province is how the average person abdicates his or her personal responsibility to hold governments accountable. He is some bright, he knows what he is at, sure I trust him. Perhaps I am being a shade paradoxical but on a few files I like this governments direction and the Premiers gumption.

As for the premiers approach, that is debatable but I do find many of the faults you speak of in his approach are practiced by you.


Ed we sometimes need to stake stock. When it comes to you and I there appears to be a great deal of personal animosity that always seems to color the discussion. That is a shame and I wish it were not the case but it has become what it has become!

The personalities sometimes do get in the way of the substantial debate but we both have habit of bringing that out in each other.

Perhaps, as a New Years resolution I could show some restraint. Instead of looking for opportunities to turn the knife or twist a word, lets stick to the matters at hand.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Peter:

I trust you appreciate there is no doubt that you "like" Danny Williams' approach to "resource ownership and benefits."

However, in the process of expressing that point of view, you consistently use the frame which Winston described. It is not merely that you support him "on these files"; you do so using the very framework which Winston mapped out and which is, fairly obviously after five years, the government's preferred communications frame.

(I also find it interesting (and illuminating) in the way you express your support. It is amazingly consistent, even if your polemics are full of internal paradoxes.)

That is, you describe a struggle (in this case over resources) which pits "us" against "them",(implicitly "good" against "evil") with the "us" being led by an individual who alone can defend the side of "us/good" against whatever evil forces are at work.

Now I would remiss if I did not note that on two separate occasions when I asked you to explain what it is about this approach that you liked (a state-owned oil company on the one hand and expropriation on the other) you simply could not or would not offer any explanation of what it is you supported.

You offered only the bland assurance that it was, in the latter, in the best interests of "the people".

It should almost go without saying that this is:

a. unconvincing; and,

b. more than a bit bizarre for someone who also states that one of the things he "always detested about politics in this province is how the average person abdicates his or her personal responsibility to hold governments accountable."

We could also discuss the obvious contradictions in the provincial government's Equalization views, which, as I understand it, you have also consistently supported, despite the many contradictions government has displayed over time.

Winston Smith said...

A close friend of mine, who knows a thing or two about Newfoundland history (more than me, anyways), has pointed out that the current blog discourse is reminiscent of the 1810s-1820s, when the new technology of the newspaper press revolutionized Newfoundland's political culture.

I agree to the extent that the current regime is no more democratic than Governor Cochrane's in 1825-34. The climate of fear is certainly quite similar. While we may not end up at Saddle Hill, I suspect that closing one's ears is little different from cutting them off, in the end.

The sad fact, as Ed keeps pointing out, is not that citizens disagree about the nature of Dangovt, but that they are curiously oblivious to the past, present, and future effects of this regime. The confusion concerning Ed's post may be the result of ignorance, naivete, indoctrination, or some combination thereof, but it is unfortunate nonetheless.

The scary reality (and I don't use the term scary lightly) is that without blogs like Bond Papers and Labradore (and the odd Smellogram editorial), we would have no critical assessment of Dangovt.

The only heartening fact is that even if the public is paying little attention, Dangovt is closely monitoring all the papers and web sites -- so at least the online conversation is reaching the 8th Floor. But if the print journalists get purple files, what do the bloggers get?

Lonenewfwolf said...

so if you guys know so much about all this, what r u actually doing about it??!! holding public meetings to inform people? forming public groups to have a voice?

this 'talk-around' on the issues is a waste, and predictably turns into semantics and ego games in short order.

we all know these guys are securing the future of their friends and family with all these dealings, and that's wrong. businessmen can run the businesses, got no problem with that. if they want to sit and think about numbers all day long, that's fine with me, fill yer boots. but they shouldn't be running the show, and certainly not the politics which are supposed to keep it all balanced. it looks like a bunch of kids in a candy store in there right now.

if dan williams was such a man he would open the books and the courts so that everyone could have access to what's been done in the past, what's happening now, and what the options are for the future. we need that here immediately in order to ensure the right thing gets done, and that's why it won't happen!

the inability of our public sector to be effective stems from the 'me' generation, of which it seems all of them are a part. that's the people they're letting into that club these days, and that's what keeps the system partly flowing their way. for them its 'as long as i'm right', 'as long as i'm smarter than you', blah blah blah, that all that matters. they get their check and wait for retirement (of which more than half are doing right now). the leadership are basically businessmen looking for ways to cut cheques for their friends. none of this is news to any of you i'm sure.

every sperate department in there is in a power struggle with its closest 'rival'. sometimes i think that was set up deliberatly so that they spent all their time working against each other and nobody was watching the candy jar.

what 'everybody else' wants to know is...'what are the alternatives to the current situation?'. if you guys could help fill everybody in on what was possible, maybe we could collectively move in the right direction.

what i see happening is everybody running around blaming each other (usually along partisan lines) and the business guys making a killing.

we need to wake everybody else up!

when they closed the doors on the nalcor entity, finalized the deal for the lower churchill, and lined up buyers for all that electricity who was sitting at the table with a bunch of lawyers in his ear? danny? i think you can be sure of that.

if that public corps is gonna be making $20-30 billion a year, we need to make sure it is done for the benefit of us all, and not just the few bank accounts in st. john's it's currently set to fatten up.

i know you're an excellent researcher ed, and obviously a very accute public policy analyst but...are you one of these guys...meaning 'the business guys'?

they run on ego, and then power when ego gets filled. it starts with the accumulation of excess wealth, and in danny's case it's turned into a want to become part of the global elite. the easiest way for him to do that is with our natural resources. he's the ceo of the largest untapped sutainable green power corp in NA!

they're hoping to hook our grid into the eastern seaboard of the states, and when that gets going we'll have to pay the same for our electricity as New York City is willing to pay. good luck with that.

we could do so much more with the resources we have here. think electric trains, self-sufficent local economies, clean drinking water, teeming oceans of salmon, cod, scallops and lobster, huge pine stands.

what are we doing in NL? most people don't even know how to feed themselves for gods sake, let alone run massive energy corps or see how letting 'big ego' run our affairs is getting us nowhere!!

i wish you guys would focus on happenings like atlantica and the spp (which are at the root of all this), so that everybody out there really see's we're keeping them in check, and not just playing dumb.

please continue to focus on the issues you cover, but get a little more edgy will ya? it really does make for better discussion.