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.




09 June 2020

Mimicry and Pantomime #nlpoli

A couple of thousand people turned out in St. John’s on Saturday for a rally organized by a new group calling itself Black Lives Matter NL.  They listened to speeches, raised their fists, and did all the things one would expect at a rally to draw attention to anti-black racism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There is anti-black racism in Newfoundland and Labrador, as much as people want to turn a blind eye to it.  Many of the people on the receiving end of the racist behaviour came here when the economy was booming.  The racism  - petty, vicious, ugly - was there if you wanted to see it.  And now that the economy is not booming, racists are expressing themselves more aggressively.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the weekend protest except that it took the murder of yet another black man by police in the United States followed by two weeks of growing protests across the United States to spark anyone locally to notice what is and has been a problem here for some time.

There have been some brief flurries of public comment about racism here recently, but what makes this weekend’s demo rather unusual is that it took such overwhelming events in a completely different culture and country over two full weeks to spark a bit of stirring locally.

Not an issue, say some most likely since it was all for the good.  Well yes, it is good to see issues of race and racism raised in Newfoundland and Labrador.  And were this the only example of a local action spurred by international events, then we might well just ignore.

Except that it isn’t one, odd example.

01 June 2020

The facts of the case #nlpoli


From the start of the pandemic, the provincial government  took decisions for political reasons, not medical ones.  It continues to do so.  It is clear that the provincial government has maintained very tight restrictions on the public far longer than necessary and that far more extensive efforts to control the public since 30 April are not based on evidence and medical necessity.
This is fundamental mismanagement that is harming the province and its people. 
The root of the problem is the political divisions in cabinet. The prospect of a new Premier to replace Dwight Ball brings with it the chance to sort out the problems and get the province ready to deal with COVID-19 for as long as necessary.  
The current situation is unconscionable.
Whatever it takes

The government's own advisors give evidence
that contradicts government's decision.
The Chief Medical Officer disclosed the first case of COVID-19 detected in Newfoundland and Labrador on 14 March.  The woman had recently returned from a cruise in the Caribbean.  Public health officials had tested 114 people half of whom had tested negative for the disease.  They and another eight besides were quarantined at home as a precaution.

The government’s first action attributed to COVID-19 came two days later.  At a news conference, Premier Dwight Ball, health minister John Haggie, education minister Brian Warr, and chief medical officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald sat literally shoulder to shoulder behind a long desk.

We are “in uncharted waters” Ball told reporters.

Effective immediately, Ball and Warr announced, they had closed the province’s schools and daycares as well as College of the North Atlantic.  The move sent 74,000 children home along with thousands of adults across the province from the post-secondary college.

Haggie told reporters that effective immediately, the province’s health system had stopped all elective, diagnostic and surgical procedures. 

Ball said that public servants were also going to work from home, effective immediately.

“We will do whatever it takes, when necessary, to ensure your safety,” Ball said.

Asked about the impact of public cries to close schools as other provinces had done, Ball said "You always listen to people. We want to do what's best."

Ball and his ministers made the decisions to close schools, hospitals, and the provincial government that Monday morning.  There was a single case of COVID-19 in the province.

26 May 2020

Fighting the Boogeyman with Dwight, John, and Janice #nlpoli

Ontario Premier Doug Ford pleaded with Ontarians to get tested for COVID-19 on Sunday, even if they were not showing any symptoms. He repeated the call on Monday after a weekend gathering saw thousands pack a Toronto Park and the number of new COVID infections climbed for the eighth straight day.

In St. John’s on Monday, chief medical officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald warned Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that “as we move around more” we will see more cases of the disease in the province. Asked by a reporter if there could be asymptomatic people in the province, Fitzgerald said there as no way to be sure. They could be out there, infecting people.

That sounds reasonable enough until you realize that there is only one active case of COVID-19 in the province and that person is in hospital, where he or she has been for weeks. The last reported cases were on 07 May.  Even then, there was some question that one or both might have been false positives.  But in any event, we are now more than the incubation period of the virus.  Fitzgerald described it as almost three weeks, which would be one and a half times the incubation period for the disease.

The province’s borders are sealed to all but a handful of people and those are subject to monitored isolation for two weeks before they can move around. Health minister John Haggie has described that two-week wait – the worst-case incubation period for the disease – as the best test there is for it.

Haggie has also used the prospect of cases suddenly springing up and swamping the health system as a reason for the very slow relaxation of the province-wide lockdown.  He hasn’t gone to the spectre once in a while.  It is a frequent explanation for the government’s approach to COVID-19.

You can understand why Doug Ford and his officials talk of asymptomatic cases or new outbreaks.  They are staring at a dramatic surge in cases after cresting the first wave and reducing the number of active cases. But in Newfoundland and Labrador, Haggie and Fitzgerald have gone beyond prudence or a reasonable dose of caution. They are basically dismissing evidence and justifying their decisions to restrict just about every aspect of life in the province because they think there’s a boogeyman out there.

24 May 2020

In front of your nose #nlpoli

Orwell, c. 1940
Colourised by Cassowary Colurization

A truly free and democratic society must be based on fundamental rights and freedoms that individuals may enjoy and that are restricted rarely and only to the extent necessary to protect other rights.

In Canada, 38 years after the proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this should be well understood.

But in Newfoundland Labrador, these rights are foreign ideas not well understood or generally accepted.

The latest example of how easily fundamental rights can be denied with popular support is the decision, supposedly taken by Brian Jones alone, to stop writing a column for his employer The Telegram.

He did so in the midst of a controversy over a column that appeared on May 20.  There was nothing remarkable about this column compared to the thousands of others he has written in his long career as a journalist and editor, except that this time, Jones aimed his characteristically malodorous vowel movements at public sector workers.