28 September 2020

Policy confusion does no one any good #nlpoli

Last week, the Liberal governments in Ottawa and St. John’s unleashed a bold new innovation in political announcements.

Fridays used to be the day when governments buried announcements, they didn’t want anyone to notice.  They’d take out the trash, as the day came to be known, by slipping out a news release without any fanfare.

Not anymore.

A gigantic news conference featuring both the Premier and the provincial representative in the federal cabinet unleashed a pair of significant announcements.

Problem was there wasn’t enough detail for many people to make sense of it all.

Hence, the new concept:

For-Fuck-Sake Friday.

Because it left observers shouting, “For Fuck Sake!” in either bewilderment or exasperation as they tried to figure out what was going on.

Well, fear not, faithful readers.

As we have done for the past decade and a half, SRBP will blow away all the clouds of confusion furrowing brows across Newfoundland and Labrador and tell you what it all means.

No duff.

No guff.

21 September 2020

Rumpole and The Old Bull #nlpoli

Mr. Justice Don Burridge
(Not exactly as illustrated)

Supporters of the travel ban won a victory last week as Supreme Court Justice Don Burridge said it was okay to ban travel into the province during an emergency even though it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They might want to hold off on their celebrations.

In his ruling, Burridge adopted the provincial government’s wording for the travel ban, which lumps it together with other restrictions on travel. 

[4]            On 29 April 2020 the CMOH issued Special Measures Order (Amendment No. 11), to take effect on 4 May 2020, limiting entry to residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, asymptomatic workers, and those in extenuating circumstances.  On 5 May 2020, the CMOH issued Special Measures Order (Travel Exemption Order), expanding those circumstances when entry into the province would be permitted.  As neither Order served as an outright ban on all travel, I will henceforth collectively refer to these two special measures as the “travel restriction”.

The result - and even though he refers to both things as being distinct at different parts of his ruling - Burridge ignores the very important distinction between travel restrictions and the order than bans mainlanders from coming to the province. 

And that makes all the difference.

14 September 2020

The Husky Boys' Challenge #nlpoli

The Husky gambit last week presents the province’s leaders with a fundamental challenge.  Do we continue on the current path or do we change?  This is not just a question of oil development versus some nebulous, pseudo-intellectual gibberish called “decarbonization”.

It is the question from 1984:  who will control the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore and with it the future of the province itself? 

______________________________________


Husky is in such serious financial trouble that the company is thinking about walking away from established, profitable fields offshore Newfoundland and a project to expand one of them that is already more than halfway to first oil.

That is precisely what the company announced last week.

In a statement, the company said that delays in the West White Rose project caused by COVID-19 and what the company described as “market uncertainty” left it “no choice but to undertake a full review of the project and, by extension, our future operations in Atlantic Canada.”

What is most striking about the statement is that Husky acknowledges all the reasons why White Rose and the extension project are attractive financially now and in the future:  the field produces “light crude oil at low incremental cost and with lower greenhouse gas emissions intensity than other North American crude oil projects.”

In comments to media,  Husky CEO Rob Peabody said that the project’s fundamentals remained attractive.“

The common local reaction to this news was, in every respect, predictable.  The local oil industry association, headed these days by former finance minister Charlene Johnson, wants the federal and provincial governments to spend unlimited billions in tax incentives and bailouts to prop up the industry at the levels before the market down-turn that started before COVID hit. 

31 August 2020

Warning: Elephant Crossing #nlpoli


Lots of people are very worried and some are quite upset about the government's plan to re-open schools next week.

There's more than enough controversy,  way too much noise, and very little useful information to get into here, but there is one aspect of the way people are talking about this that fits with a pattern your humble e-scribbler has noted before.

It's the tendency for local opinion leaders - local elites - to talk about doing things here based on what is happening somewhere else. Back in June, all the enthusiasm for tearing down statues prompt the post called "Mimicry and pantomime" that described several examples of this behaviour that didn't involve racism.  By the way, notice that it was a very popular topic then but has vanished just as surely as it disappeared from CNN.

Anyone on Twitter this weekend would have seen a raft of comments from teachers across the province holding out Ontario government policy as the plan we should follow in this province.  If we were the same as Ontario, doing that would make sense.  But we aren't Ontario and are not likely to become Ontario any time soon.  

10 August 2020

Illusions of knowledge #nlpoli

Last week, testimony in the travel ban case by the province’s chief medical officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald and epidemiologist Dr. Proton Rahman confirmed the extent to which decisions taken by the provincial government in the first wave of COVID-19 were *not* based on evidence and analysis.

This is extremely important reasons.  First, it is emphatically not what the public was told all along.  To the contrary, government officials – politicians and bureaucrats alike - insisted that they were acting based on evidence and sound information.

Second, the testimony confirms the SRBP post in June that government officials ignored available evidence in managing COVID-19.

What really nails the point about decisions made by government officials without evidence is a series of presentations made by Rahman. Tom Baird obtained them through an access to information request in late June.  

03 August 2020

The Walking Dead Duck

This evening Liberals will elect a new leader.

And about two weeks from now – likely Friday, August 14 – the new leader will take the oath of office and become the 38th first minister of Newfoundland and Labrador since it became self-governing (May 5, 1855) and the 14th Premier since Confederation in 1949.

Dwight Ball survived 1704 days.

That’s four years, seven months and 30 days.

55 months, 30 days.

Or barely more than a single term.

It is hard to remember a day of that very short tenure that Dwight Ball was not embroiled in a controversy.  The ones he did not make, he bungled, which made them far worse than they were.  The provincial government’s financial state is no better now that Ball is leaving than when he took office.  Arguably, it is worse.  

The House of Assembly is diminished in every respect compared to even the low point it was at when he took office and Ball leaves the Office of Premier itself diminished.  His was a spectacularly dysfunctional office from the start and it never got better.  Even single-celled organisms can learn but the relentless repetition of the same blunders in everything from staffing to how Ball and his office responded to events are the hallmark of Dwight Ball’s political career. Ball has been a zombie Premier, of sorts, one of the political walking dead.

27 July 2020

Dwight and Tom's legacy: more of the same #nlpoli

Herb Kitchen died last week.

He was the minister of finance in the early 1990s who brought down the difficult budgets, starting in 1991 that were part of a plan that turned the provincial government around.

The deficit at the time was about $300 million and the total budget called for spending of around $3.2 billion. 

Finance minister Tom Osborne announced on Friday that he will need to borrow $3.2 billion to close the gap between what the government will spend (about $8.9 billion, plus more money for Muskrat Falls) and its income.

Officially, Tom Osborne’s deficit of $2.1 billion for 2020 will be 25% of spending compared to less than 10 percent back in Herb’s day.  But if you wanted to compare apples to apples, then we should use that $3.2 billion cash figure, which works out to a deficit three and a half times the size of the one Herb Kitchen brought to the House of Assembly 29 years ago.

Thank God Herb didn't live to see what a mess the provincial deficit will actually be.

20 July 2020

Change versus more of the same: Summer 2020 edition #nlpoli




Spring 1994.

At the point Clyde Wells spoke to the graduating class of Memorial University’s business school that year, the administration he led had already started getting government spending under control and transforming the economy.  Wells goes through all of that with the class, why government was undertaking the changes, and what he hoped would be the outcome. 

Give the speech a listen.  It’s only 38 minutes and it is striking on a few levels.  First of all, think of the last time you heard a Premier speak to an audience in Newfoundland and Labrador this calmly, rationally, and with as much detail.  This is not a speech of clever quips or turns of phrase.  This is basic information.

13 July 2020

The challenge of change #nlpoli

Change is hard.

 It's even harder when no one wants to change.


Our Former
Dear Premier
Some people outside the Liberal Party have been obsessed lately with the leadership contest currently going on.  They seem to think that one person can make all the difference in how the provincial government will tackle its considerable financial problems.

Well, the belief that the Premier is the strong man or woman responsible for everything is part of our post-Confederation political culture. The strongman myth – a local version of the Latin American caudillo or the Soviet/Russian personality cults - has only grown in strength since 2003 despite the ample evidence it simply isn’t true.  There are many factors that determine what the government does and those will affect the choices the next premier and the administration he leads will make.

Rather than look at the individuals who might wind up as Premier next month, let’s take a look at those other factors.

07 July 2020

Muskrat committee flags cost risk for potential alternate transmission software #nlpoli

At the end of December 2019,  the Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee added development of alternate protection and control software for the high voltage direct current transmission system – that is, the Labrador-Island Link  - to its list of risks the committee is monitoring for potential added project costs.

Alternate software and syncronous condensers
are major project cost risks.

The reasons for the concern are contained in the section of the report on a visit by the Independent Engineer to the software development team:

“While the plan still shows expected completion of the factory acceptance tests (FAT) by June 9th, 2020, there is little confidence that the target will be met. Progress velocity remains in risk category ‘red’.”

The report received by the oversight committee in late February 2020 also noted that the number of “outstanding bugs that will be identified/ remedied at later stages presents an unknown risk to Project schedule and S/W [software?] performance.”

The Independent Engineer’s site visit to the GE development team also observed that “GE’s project plan does not include full regression testing of the completed software release or provides time allowance for bug fixes between the project phases. That raises a question if that approach will ensure full functionality of this critical component.”

The Independent Engineer was supposed to do a site visit in the first quarter of 2020, but COVID-19 forced postponement.  In the report on this period received by the oversight committee on 15 June 2020, the committee noted that the software development and schedule remained a “key project risk.”

The Q1 2020 report also noted problems with another, unrelated issue: “Soldiers Pond synchronous condensers vibration and binding issues root cause and remediation remain ongoing. When Unit 3 bearings and housing were removed corrosion and damage was [sic] observed.”

At the recent annual general meeting, Nalcor chief executive Stan Marshall apparently made no mention of the ongoing difficulties with the P and C software and the synchronous condensers.  Media reports just talked about the impact of COVID-19 that forced closure of the work site for a couple of months.

-srbp-

06 July 2020

Building on our successes #nlpoli


“First and foremost, be totally honest with the electorate,”  former Premier Clyde Wells told Anthony Germain on CBC’s Sunday Edition last weekend.  He was giving some general advice to the next Premier on how to handle the provincial government’s enormous financial problems.
SEP 1992

“Don't go sugar-coating anything. Fully disclose what you're doing [and] why you're doing it. Have a logical plan that will treat everybody fairly.”

Another part of Wells’ approach was to communicate.  Wells told Germain that he took every opportunity to explain what was going on and why it was happening to the public.  He made a couple of province-wide addresses to the public to do just that.   

People didn’t like it at first.  The opposition parties and the unions criticised everything.  That’s what they are supposed to do.  But, as Wells, pointed out, “the people of the province come around. In my case, it was proven that they come around, because in the 1993 election, after four years of the most severe cutting, we had an increased majority.”

Few Premiers have done that in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1855 and none have done it since Wells.  In 2007, with bags of cash, great times, and no opposition to speak of, the governing Conservatives won more seats than they did in 2003 but they did it with fewer votes.  In 1993, the Liberals got *more* votes than they received in 1989.

But that doesn’t really tell the whole story.

29 June 2020

All the news the mob will let us print #nlpoli

Saltwire laid off a hundred or so people last week, 25 of them in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The most recent cuts are the result of revenue drops due to COVID but Saltwire has been hacking and slashing at its operations across the region since buying up a raft of dailies and weeklies from TransCon a few years ago.   In Newfoundland and Labrador, The Telegram is the only daily left.  The rest - more than 15 dailies and weeklies – have been closed.  Their replacements are a couple of weekly freebie mailbox-stuffers.  Editorially, Saltwire is now well on the way to becoming the same thing: a generic content generator with a local label slapped on it. 

To appreciate what is going on here, you only have to look at The Telegram’s circulation.  The public only has ready access to data for about a decade  - 2008-2016  and  2015 – 2018 -  but that, coupled with a bit of recollection from a veteran observer of local news media, gives an idea of the dramatic decline of print media.

The Telegram’s paid circulation dropped about 60% to 65% between 2008 and 2018, the last year for which we have figures.  Monday to Friday, the paper has dropped from between 25,000 daily subscribers on average to about 10,000 in 2018.   The weekend edition is currently around 14,000 paid down from 41,000 in 2008. 

16 June 2020

SCC decision complicates school budgets for fall 2020 #nlpoli

The provincial government’s budget problems, the amount it spends on education, and its plans for the fall living with COVID-19 just got a whole lot more complicated thanks to the Supreme Court of Canada decision on Friday in a case involving minority-language schools.

Francophone Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are constitutionally entitled to educate their children in their own language at public expense if they have as few as one student in a community.

In its decision in Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie‑Britannique v British Columbia (2020 SCC 13), a majority of Supreme Court of Canada judges ruled on Friday that, in general,  minority-language students should get their own school if the government gave one to the same number of majority-language speakers somewhere in the province.  The Court said that this approach would promote fairness and make sure public funds are spent wisely.

The Court said that minority language rights are protected in the constitution because schools help preserve the language and culture of official-language minorities.  The majority determined that all children deserve the same opportunities as well as the same quality and experience at school. The Court said that going to a small school should not mean students get a worse education.

What that means for Newfoundland and Labrador is that the threshold for providing a francophone school in the province is now the smallest school size in the English-language system.  A quick check of school statistics shows that Newfoundland and Labrador currently has schools with four or fewer students and some that appear to have only one student enrolled in 2019-2020.  In 2018, the English school district voted against closing very small schools despite the provincial government’s severe financial problems.

15 June 2020

Racism in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli

An expression of power and privilege
Some people in Newfoundland and Labrador are talking about racism.

This is good.

Unfortunately, they are talking about racism somewhere else.

This is bad.

And, they aren’t really talking about racism with the intent to do something about.  They are talking about something completely superficial and meaningless.

That’s worse because nothing will change in Newfoundland and Labrador, where racism is so commonplace that most people don’t even realize it.