13 August 2014

Perks #nlpoli

A story in last weekend’s Telegram documented all the perks that former Premiers get.

Aside from a severance package, a couple of extra months pay, and a government car allowance for three months,  they also get a free game license (big, small,  salmon) if they want one. Now truth be told,  those game licenses go with the job anyway.  From the day a Premier gets the job, he or she can lay claim to a license to hunt or fish whatever they want. 

Most of these date back to at least the 1970s around the time the first guy who served as Premier got booted out and the second guy replaced him.  The Telegram story covers all of that.

What seems to have gotten a few people bent out of shape is the allowance for office space and a secretary for up to three years after retirement.  Some people decried the whole thing as as patronage and some even laced into Kathy Dunderdale for hiring her daughter to take the job that pays about $70,000 a year.

Say what you want about the first bit.  The total cost of it is pretty small potatoes and not every Premier is going to want to go setting slips or trudging through the woods in the fall to get a moose or caribou.  But if they did, you’d be both small-minded and pretty miserable to begrudge a former Premier such a perk given that they handled a pretty tough and often thankless job. 

These little rewards are also a sign – or ought to be a sign – that the job shouldn’t just go to any schmuck.  It’s a big deal with some hefty responsibilities.  The practices date from the 1970s, in case you forgot that,  and they really do reflect the sensibilities of the time.  It is easy to forget with the revolving door of hand-picked successors these days but basically,  until 2003,  you had to work pretty hard to get the job in the first place. Keeping it wasn’t that easy either.  So the offhand way the current crowd treat the Premier's Office shouldn’t colour your judgment about the job itself.

As for the three years’ pay for a secretary, note what former Premier Roger Grimes did with the office and the job.  That’s exactly what it is there for:
She archived all of my cabinet papers, all of my documentation, put it all into a filing system, got ready to ship some stuff over to the university and all that kind of stuff.
All those files,  cabinet papers, and other records are an immensely valuable historical trove for future researchers who want to figure out what happened during a particular premier’s tenure.  Take a trip to the poorly funded provincial archives and you’ll see the legacy of decades of neglect.  Huge chunks of our province’s political history simply exist as vague memories.  Important records are gone.  We are not talking about bits someone deliberately pilfered, like the cabinet minutes for July 13 to August 15, 1914.  We are talking just not there.

So if it cost a couple of hundred thousand bucks to make sure that we have a complete set of records for Kathy Dunderdale,  that will be pretty cheap when someone a few years from now wants to figure out what happened that led to Muskrat Falls.  Or the Great Blackout. The fact she hired her daughter really doesn’t matter one way or the other, as long as the work gets done.  It’s in the public interest.

And while we are at it,  there are three more things to consider.

First, we shouldn’t be focussed just on the records of former Premiers.  There are a few long-serving politicians or former cabinet ministers who have a pile of knowledge we should be gathering up, as well.  Too many of them go to their graves without leaving anything behind and their papers often go to the dump.

We’d be well served if we created some incentives for former ministers to donate their papers to the university or the provincial archives.  They can get a tax credit for it now, but maybe we need to sweetened that up a bit to encourage more of them to hand over the records they leave off with.

Second, we need to seriously fix the mess that is the provincial archives.  The place is seriously underfunded and it’s not clear at all that the archives at The Rooms is able to manage the enormous collection of government records that should be coming their way from the past 30 or 40 years. 

Third, we really should be ashamed that so few scholars have spent any time at all researching anything in provincial politics.  Whether we are speaking of historians, political scientists,  economists, or social workers,  we have collectively spent very little time exploring our past as it actually occurred.  Lord knows there are plenty of fairy tales, but even subjects like Labrador energy development has been pretty much ignored by local scholars.  As a result,  we have to get our history from people from Quebec or the United States.  That’s not to condemn people because they aren’t from here:  rather, it’s a reminder that if we do not understand our own history – and we don’t -then we cannot make sensible decisions about our future. 


J.Collins said...

Hi Ed, sharp piece and recommendations. I couldn't agree more. As someone who regularly researches NL politics and history I've found government documentation that crucial piece in understanding why decisions were made. Though, I would add that cabinet documentation access can be a challenge even from times long gone by.

A number of years ago as I was gathering sources for a NL Studies piece on the "Roads for Rails" agreement I attempted to access cabinet documentation. Unfortunately, the rules in place prevented their release for many more years. Hence, another possible reform would by to allow easier access to such files and a shorter time period (grant it I am not as well versed in ATI issues as yourself).



Ed Hollett said...


Thanks for the comment.

The 1914 cabinet story is true, incidentally. The one set of pre-1934 records that are very well kept are the cab docs. Week by week for years, these agendas and minutes are immaculate. Then for some unexplained reason all the records related to the start of the first war are gone. Neatly excised.

As for your experience, there are rules about access to cabinet papers. There are three ways around them.

First, cabinet can grant access under conditions, if they are so moved. They can let you see anything and do anything. They are masters of their own fate. Most of the roads for rails docs are beyond the usual 30 year exemption these days but for any one looking at any topic, cabinet is a good stop to try and access information.

Second, is the Premier's papers for whatever period. He or she will have a complete set and may be willing to grant you access.

Third, and related to hat is the minister or ministers involved. They've got a set of their own, usually and they too can grant access, if they are so inclined.

And of course there are the people themselves. They are usually (in my experience) happy to chat with a serious researcher and frankly, they are usually unmolested in their retirement so they might well relish that someone wants to delve into their subject and do a proper job of telling the story.