13 January 2020

John Crosbie #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Left to Right:  Bill Doody,  Brian Peckford, John Crosbie, Jane Crosbie,
and Beth Crosbie at the 1983 federal PC leadership convention

The outpouring of praise in memory of John Crosbie, who died on Thursday, has been such a flood of cliché and, in some cases, fiction that it does a disservice to the memory of one of the most significant political figures from Newfoundland and Labrador in the 20th century.

Remarks by Edward Roberts,  Joe Clark, and Brian Mulroney were closer to the truth of the man than most. Roberts once noted that Crosbie wanted to be leader of anything he was ever involved with, starting with the Boy Scouts. Certainly, that is a testament to Crosbie’s ambition and determination, but in his interview last week, Roberts spoke plainly of Crosbie’s considerable intellectual talents that went with his ambition and determination.  

Likewise, Clark spoke of the respect that public servants and cabinet colleagues in Ottawa had for Crosbie both for his ability and for the professional way he dealt with them.  The politicians understood that Crosbie would be tough to deal with when he wanted to get his way, but they understood that Crosbie never failed to deploy the same fierceness in defence of the team when attacked from outside. The bureaucrats appreciated someone who understood their briefs, especially in portfolios like finance.

By contrast, Rex Murphy, so long removed from Newfoundland and Labrador physically and mentally that his writings on the province are a unique brand of safari journalism, gave the National Post his trademark overwrought prose.  He appears, as well, to have used an equally overwrought imagination to cover over the considerable gaps in his memory of what actually happened now almost a half century ago.  

The one thing Murphy got unmistakably right is to credit Jane Crosbie for her role in John’s political career.  Not to eulogise her before her time but Jane is as much the political force, and understood as such, as John ever was. People in Newfoundland and Labrador today who claim they want to get more women involved in politics – many of them people who know nothing of politics in the province and care even less about it – would do well to spend some time talking to Jane Crosbie and others like her. To say that “Jane was every bit his equal” may well sell Jane short, although the crucial part is that “the only difference [between the two] being she chose the off-stage role.”

06 January 2020

Patronage and pork #nlpoli

Think of it as classic political news in Newfoundland and Labrador.

VOCM headline: “Premier commits to fixing patronage issues in government”.

At the same time, some people in Western Labrador are  angry at the Premier for closing a small government office in Wabush.

In the VOCM news story, Premier Dwight Ball was referring to the controversy appointment he authorized at The Rooms. Many people consider that patronage because the person who got the appointment had previously been a political staffer in the Opposition office while Ball was Opposition leader.

What makes this a classic political story in Newfoundland and Labrador, though, is that no one sees the other job – the bureaucratic office in Labrador City – as patronage even though that’s what it is.
At the turn of the century, the provincial government relocated departments or bits of departments from St. John’s to other towns in Newfoundland and Labrador.  They called it “regionalization”.  The idea was to spread the “benefit” of government spending around the province instead of concentrating it in St. John’s.

We are not talking about putting a snow clearing depot for the west coast on the west coast.  We are talking about shifting the office of the fire commissioner with seven high paying jobs and putting them in Deer Lake, along with a bunch of people who run provincial parks. The aquaculture division of the fisheries department went to the coastal community of Grand Falls-Windsor, and the medical care commission offices – the folks who pay doctors for their services – went to GFW as well.

“You can do the work anywhere” was a common rationalization for the whole scheme and it certainly is true.  You *can* do these administrative jobs anywhere.  But it was more efficient in many cases to do them in St. John’s, which is, after all, the capital city and administrative centre of government. 

03 January 2020

15 years of The Sir Robert Bond Papers #nlpoli

Today marks the 15th anniversary of The Sir Robert Bond Papers.

The first post  - 03 January 2005 - described the atmosphere at its birth but, most importantly, gave the philosophy that remains its foundation:
In any thriving democracy, sound public policy can only come through informed debate and discussion. 
As long as SRBP continues,  it will provoke debate and confute myth-mongers based on research and evidence.

8200 posts.

More than six million words.

And more to come.


23 December 2019

SRBP on VOCM's On Target #nlpoli

For those who missed it, your humble e-scribbler appeared on VOCM's On Target with Linda Swain twice this year.

Here are links to the audio in case you missed the episodes.  It starts with December 20 and a chat about the top stories in politics during 2019.  The other episode was on November 29.  Just scroll down the list of episodes using the slider to find it.


18 December 2019

Borrowed Money and Borrowed Time #nlpoli

Tom Osborne was in Ottawa on Tuesday with his fellow finance ministers trying to squeeze some extra cash out of the federal government. 

The wealthiest provinces in Canada – Alberta,  Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador – are looking for some changes to the Fiscal Stabilization Program that would give them extra cash.  They’ve given up on changes to the Equalization program since it is intended to help poorer provinces deliver essential services at roughly comparable levels of taxation. 

FSP “enables the federal government to provide financial assistance to any province faced with a year-over-year decline in its non-resource revenues greater than five per cent.”

Provinces may submit a claim to the Minister of Finance as late as 18 months after the end of the fiscal year in question or may also submit a claim for an advance payment based on as few as five months of data for the fiscal year.

The program doesn’t compensate provinces for losses due to changes in provincial taxation rates. A drop in resource revenues is taken into account only if and to the extent that the annual decline in revenue exceeds 50 per cent.

As Osborne’s financial update for 2019 indicates, though, a bit of extra federal cash won’t fix the problems Osborne has.

17 December 2019

Three books for Christmas #nlpoli

Where Once They Stood - Newfoundland's Rocky Road towards Confederation
Top Choice 

Where Once They Stood is arguably the most significant work on modern Newfoundland and Labrador political history in more than 30 years.

The fact that it has been largely ignored in popular conversation in this the 70th anniversary year of Confederation is an affirmation of its significance.

Raymond Blake and Melvin Baker Decisively repudiate decades of mythology about Confederation.  The show that voters fully understood the issues at stake in both the 1869 election and in the 1948 referenda.

Baker and Blake argue that women were instrumental in determining the outcome, in 1948, believing it provided the best opportunity for their children.

Invisible no more

James Candow's new history of the Royal Newfoundland Companies in the early and mid- 19th century fills an important gap in both the military and political history of Newfoundland at a crucial time in its history. 

The two histories are intertwined, culminating in the election riots of 1861 when members of the Royal Newfoundland Companies opened fire on a crowd of rioters, killing three and wounding others. The political compact that grew out of that election shaped Newfoundland politics and society into the twentieth century and continue to echo today.

"In The Invisibles, James E. Candow provides the fascinating back story of the Royal Newfoundland Companies while enhancing our understanding of the role they played in Newfoundland history and the lives of our communities."

The Invisibles is an inadvertent companion to Baker and Blake's examination of Confederation. 

A new Robert Bond biography 

Jim Hiller's biography of Robert Bond brings together elements of the story of Newfoundland's best known pre-Confederation prime minister that have been scattered through other works over the past four decades.

Hiller succeeds in his goal of placing Bond in the proper context of events during his political career while providing a fair assessment of the man and his performance.

Bond served in or led administrations through the 1890s and the first eight years of the 20th century. It was, as the ISER blurb describes it, "an era filled with challenges that still resonate today."    

Bond is most commonly associated with external affairs, primarly the struggle to negotiate free trade with the United States, to bring an end to the French Shore, and, generally, to deal successfully with imperial powers in London whose priorities could vary greatly from those in Newfoundland."

While we are still waiting for fresh eyes to look at Newfoundland's external relations from the 1890s through to the Great War and the early 1920s,  Hiller provides as thorough and fair treatment as one may find of one of the main figures in Newfoundland history and the time in which he lived.


16 December 2019

Lomond cleared by Citizen's Rep of wrongdoing in email deletion #nlpoli

In a report on his investigation, Citizen's Representative Barry Fleming said that while deputy minister Ted Lomond had directed the deletion of a single email related to Carla Foote's move from Executive Council to The Rooms, Lomond did so believing it was a transitory record that could be deleted under government records management rules. 
Fleming found that the email at The Rooms was not deleted.  He did not find there was a widespread practice of deleting emails in Lomond's department.

Ted Lomond
Citizen’s Representative Barry Fleming cleared deputy minister Ted Lomond of wrongdoing in the deletion of an email related to the transfer of Carla Foote from the position of associate secretary of cabinet for communications to the job of executive director of marketing at The Rooms.

The report into the investigation, dated 29 April 2019, said that,  while he concluded that Lomond directed that an email be deleted, Fleming could not “find that [Lomond’s] instruction or intention was to improperly delete [sic] that e-mail and letter.”
Fleming wrote that there “is enough evidence to suggest that [Lomond] considered the e-mail and letter to be a transitory record and therefore could be deleted.”  Fleming noted that “[we] found no evidence to suggest that the deletion of emails was a widespread practice.”
Under the Management of Information Act, "transitory record means a government record of temporary usefulness in any format or medium having no ongoing value beyond an immediate and minor transaction or the preparation of a subsequent record."
Section 5.4 of the MIA says that "transitory records may be disposed of when they are no longer of value, and shall only be disposed of through means which render them unreadable, including secure shredding or in the case of electronic records, secure electronic erasure."

The Office of the Chief Information Officer says that a transitory record would include the draft versions of records the signed version of which has been retained, as well as the electronic versions used to transmit the draft from one person to another."
In the report, Fleming said that the executive assistant to The Rooms CEO Dean Brinton had not deleted the email. “Indeed,  Brinton’s Executive Assistant indicated that this was the only time she had received an instruction from Mr. Lomond’s office to delete an e-mail.”
While Lomond’s EA did not recall specific details of what happened on June 15, 2018,  Fleming said she “did state that Mr. Lomond was a stickler for having all employees delete transitory records. She indicates that if she had communicated with Mr. Brinton's Executive Assistant to delete e-mails, it was a reference to ones which are transitory records. She doesn't recall Mr. Lomond ever directing her to delete substantive e-mails.”
Fleming noted that “Mr. Lomond’s evidence on this issue was quite candid. He stated that he knew the decision conveyed in the e-mail and attached letter might be controversial and subject to an access to information request. Having that in mind he wished to ensure that only proper e-mail remained. He states that he continually reminded staff to delete transitory records and that this process is in keeping with best practices for e-mail storage.”
Fleming said that the “professionalism exhibited by all public employees we encountered made the conduct of this investigation easier than it might otherwise have been.”
Fleming’s report on Christopher Mitchelmore, presented in the House of Assembly, contains a reference to another investigation into the deletion of an email without identifying Lomond as the subject of the investigation. 
Fleming investigated Lomond for the same five accusations as the ones contained in the Mitchelmore report. On the other four, Fleming accepted Lomond’s “evidence that during all relevant time he was conveying information from Executive Council and his Minister to the Chief Executive Officer and Board of Directors of the Rooms Corporation. Lt is clear that he was not the directing mind in any of the decisions that precipitated these allegations.”
“ A deputy minister who follows the instructions of his minister and central agencies of government cannot be said to have grossly mismanaged his executive responsibilities,”  Fleming wrote.
On Friday, CBC reporter Peter Cowan tweeted that after "the Mitchelmore report found that emails were deleted, I've asked the Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate whether that broke the rules" based on an access to information request Cowan filed in October 2018.  
While Cowan's tweet incorrectly refers to emails (instead a single email) and that they had been deleted,  the CBC story on the request to Commissioner responsible for access to information appeals refers specifically to one email.  The email in the department was deleted but the one received by The Rooms was not. 

Note:  Fleming's report consistently presents the word as "e-mail" while SRBP uses "email".

11 December 2019

All three parties in NL gain in polls #nlpoli

The latest poll from Narrative Research shows the distorting effective of disregarding the "undecideds".

The number of people who didn't pick a political party dropped seven percentages points compared to August (35 to 28).

The Liberals and Conservatives picked up three points each and the New Democrats picked up a couple of points.  The changes don't add up exactly due to rounding and the slight inexactness of recalculating the original distribution from the numbers released by Narrative.

In the Narrative version, support for the parties stayed the same among "decided" respondents.

The pretty chart shows polling four the last four years all presented as a share of all responses. You can see the undecideds have been on an obvious and steady downward trend since earlier in 2019.  If you toss out the March UND number as an outlier,  there's still a drop from the time of the election. 

The fact that all three parties grew in the last quarter by the same amount  - more or less - is curious.  Choice for Premier has remained roughly the same for the past year as has satisfaction with government's performance.


10 December 2019

Transitory Records #nlpoli

In dealing with one aspect of the business of getting Carla Foote from Executive Council to The Rooms,  deputy minster Ted Lomond suggested to The Rooms CEO that he delete the email in which Lomond had forwarded a proposed draft of a letter.

cbc.ca/nl ran a story on it Monday based on the report from the Citizen's Representative into allegations against Lomond's minister, Chris Mitchelmore.  The CBC story included this quote:
"I talked to Mr. Brinton a number of times and I said to him that in light of everything that is happening, I would suggest you delete your transitory records," Lomond told the Office of the Citizens' Representative. 
Brinton said he knew their conversation would be subject to requests under the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act [ATIPPA], and said he wanted to make sure his emails were in order.
"You knew this was going to get ATIPP'd," he told the citizen's rep. "So I would like to have my records neat and tidy, final versions lined up."
Transitory records are not described in ATIPPA.  They are covered in the law that governs how government maintains its records.  It's called the Management of Information Act. Anyone submitting requests for government documents under ATIPPA should know both pieces of legislation inside out.  For those who are interested,  the Office of the Chief Information Officer has a tidy little description of "transitory records".

09 December 2019

Political Foote Ball #nlpoli

Since 2003, the legislature has become more about political theatre than the public interest.  This past sitting of the House proves how much that is so.
Public discussion of policy issues in Newfoundland and Labrador takes place inside an echo chamber. It tends to stay inside arbitrary, artificial boundaries.  Participants  ride their hobby horses and ignore or try to shout down anything that contradicts their assumptions. often comments are not about what is actually going on.  They emphasise the trivial and superficial – the spats with Gerry Byrne and Tom Osborne – and ignore the  far more serious. Much of what they do is absurd:  they chase Chris Mitchelmore, knowing that Dwight Ball actually made the decision. 

Only the Premier can approve appointments
to the senior public service. 
You see them a lot.

New releases from the provincial government announcing changes to the senior public service in the province.  New people taking jobs.  People being moved from one job to another. A handful of retirements or people who left, implicitly to take up another job.

In October 2018, for example,  there was an announcement of a new appointment as associate secretary to cabinet for communications. There’s no mention of what happened to the person who used to have that job,  although the release for that earlier appointment came in January 2016.

The senior public service includes deputy ministers, associate and assistant deputy ministers, and executive directors.

There were 56 changes at that level in 2016, 60 in 2017, and only 16 in 2018. 

They don’t issue news releases for every one, any more.  Dwight Ball stopped announcing any appointments below the rank of deputy minister.  The high number of changes in the senior public service under Kathy Dunderdale became a major issue and an easy way to stop people finding out about the changes was to simply stop announcing some of them.

Fortunately for openness, transparency, and accountability, there’s a database online of orders-in-council that anyone can search.  Those are the legal documents that make each senior executive appointments official. 

03 December 2019

Chaulk and Cheese #nlpoli

If the members of the House of Assembly vote to accept the reports from two statutory officers as presented they will have to accept that Chris Mitchelmore committed an act that does not rise to any reasonable definition of gross mismanagement.   
If they accept that he has committed such an act, then they must accept he did it alone despite evidence that others are at the very least equally culpable. 
Then they must also accept that the punishment for such an offence is far below the standard one ought to expect. 
And in the process, they will endorse reports that are, by any reasonable measure, far below the standards that should come from an office as important as that of the Citizen’s Representative and that of the Commissioner of Legislative Standards.

The conventionally wise were conventionally outraged by two reports released on Monday about how Carla Foote got her job at The Rooms.

None of the reports told us anything of substance about the whole business that we didn’t know before.  Dwight Ball wanted Carla Foote in a new job and Chris Mitchelmore obliged by fixing up a spot at The Rooms.  That did not stop the Chorus from moaning, wailing, and bunching up their tighty whities at this unprecedently extreme, unusual, and hitherto unknown display of corruption unseen in this place before now.

Unknown, that is since the last crowd got punted from office in 2015.  Truth is, by example of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador between 2003 and 2015,  Mitchelmore ought to be ashamed at himself for falling so far short of the standard of corruption represented  by the appointments of cabinet ministers’ bedmates, hacks, and failed candidates to all manner of jobs far more influential than directing advertising for the provincial museum and art gallery.  In those heady days,  the legendary A.B. Morine, looking up from the warmer climes in which he is spending Eternity, could be heard on especially still nights slow-clapping his approval from the old House of Assembly as his heirs on The Hill bested his century-old record time and again.

Yes, Dwight Ball promised to stop this sort of thing, but so too did Danny Williams, gone from office now these nine years this week.  Williams’ parting act was to try and put his future wife onto the offshore board. He failed but not before a few people  - in and out of government - embarrassed themselves in some pretty spectacular ways.  Even Williams’ shag-ups are legendary.

And yes, they both deserved to be pummeled for making promises they knew or ought to have known they would not keep.

But the thing that people should be concerned about in this is more than hypocrisy.  They should read the two reports released on Monday and ask many more questions that are every bit as troubling as the way the Premier and his administration moved the Assistant Secretary to Cabinet to from one part of the public service to a Crown corporation.

02 December 2019

Setting minimum wage #nlpoli

The minimum wage should be tied to the economy, predictable, transparent, and removed from political interference.
One way of setting minimum wage that meets those criteria would be to take half the average hourly rate for non-unionised employees for the previous fiscal year and increase it by the annual provincial rate of inflation for that year.
Using that method, the 2019 minimum wage would have been $11.58 on April 1, 2019 instead of $11.40.

The current discussion about minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador is entirely a political debate between two groups over the arbitrary number to be assigned as the minimum value for the labour of about 13,000 workers in the province.

That’s about five percent of the labour force in Newfoundland and Labrador but the amount could have a larger impact on the economy.  That’s not because, as proponents of a higher arbitrary number assert, more money in the pockets of workers boosts the economy, but because about 40% of the labour force makes less than the arbitrary number proposed by unions in the province.  

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour gives them a powerful argument for hourly wage increases for *their* members who would magically become minimum wage workers. This would create pressure to raise those wages back to their former position above the minimum wage.

This is why the unions are concerned about the floor price for labour in the province at all.  They look after the interests of their members. They want to use the minimum valuation of labour as a means of achieving what they cannot through collective bargaining.

On the other side of the argument, groups representing employers oppose any increase in labour costs, understanding that the argument is not really about minimum wage employees but about the rest of the labour force.

Both sides employ evidence selected to support their pre-determined conclusion. Much of this “evidence” is produced by organizations tied financially and otherwise to one side or other of the debate over an arbitrary number. 

27 November 2019

A mouthful of burp #nlpoli

Not one mitigation scheme.

Not two mitigation schemes.

Three mitigation schemes.

Delivered by the end of January.

All wonderful grand and all believable if you have had the sense knocked out of you by the endless string of promises Dwight Ball has made about mitigating the impact of Muskrat Falls on electricity rates.

Promises made but not kept.

25 November 2019

The Rookies, the House, and the Orchestra Pit #nlpoli

What is reported is seldom what happened even though what happened is far more interesting than the stuff that falls into the orchestra pit.
Events in the House of Assembly are the result of decisions by members of all three parties.  Any analysis that ignores the simple realities of the House or robs the individual members and their parties of their agency is misleading.

The biggest story from the House of Assembly’s latest session was Ches Crosbie’s call last Thursday for his party to hold a vote on his leadership next spring.

There’s no surprise in this.  Political parties usually dump leaders after a failed election and this time will be no exception for both the federal and provincial Conservatives.

The immediate impact of this, aside from what it means for the Conservatives, is that the Liberals will now have an easy ride getting their budget through the House no matter how bad it is.  The Conservatives won’t want to trigger an election in the midst of a leadership change.

And there *will* be a change.  The Ball-led Liberals are weak, and the polling numbers reflect that. Any reasonably competent opposition could unseat them in a general election.  After all, Crosbie’s incompetent crowd came within a hair’s breadth of unseating the Liberals and the Liberals have not gotten better six months later.  So, expect a new Conservative leadership hopeful to emerge after Christmas to lead a reinvigorated blue bunch.

Meanwhile on the Liberal side, Dwight Ball will also face a leadership review vote in the middle of 2020 at the party’s postponed annual conference.  The party executive skipped out the one for 2019 because it was an election year, but it must have a convention in June 2020 according to the party constitution. That’s not to say that party president and Dwight Ball loyalist John Allen isn’t trying to find some way to push the convention off to 2021.  Apparently, there is anxiety over the prospect that Ball wouldn’t survive the mandatory leadership review vote that comes with the next party convention.

But as big as Crosbie’s Thursday announcement and Ball’s situation are for the future of the province – there is that little provincial government financial mess sitting out there unaddressed – that wasn’t what the news media and the local political commentariat were yammering about last week.