25 February 2005

The backstory on Flo

In any news story there is the obvious detail about what happened.

In the case of Florence Delaney's resignation, we have the basic elements of what occurred.

The former treasury board secretary was told she was being moved to Environment. Rightly considering the move a demotion, she elected to resign apparently less than two years short of her pension.

That's the frontstory.

Government has dutifully denied this will have any impact on anything and in their version of things, Delaney had differences of opinion with the Premier on budget priorities. They have stuck with this media line - one of their series of statements about an event - as the story now enters day three.

In handling the frontstory, government is trying to kill it off quickly, end any inquiry into the matter and move on to something else. Their whole media line is the equivalent of the English bobby from the movies: "Alright then. Move it along. Nothing to see here."

Problem is the foot of the corpse is sticking out from under the white sheet and people just can't help but peek.

As noted a couple of days ago, differences of opinion don't normally spark this sort of situation - either the demotion or the resignation. So that alone makes the government's media line a little suspicious and largely ineffective as far as those who know government would be concerned. The news media may drop the issue but reporters won't necessarily forget; nor will senior public servants.

More importantly, if you could strip off that white sheet from the medical examiner's office, you'd likely see a lot more than the tragic and unnecessary end of an otherwise exemplary public service career. The real story here isn't even the ease with which the Premier dismisses those who disagree with him, apparently.

The substantive story lurking under the covers is the apparent difference of opinion in the upper reaches of government on government financial plans for the next few years.

In the e.e. cummings tribute speech on January 5 and in the subsequent budget, the Premier made it quite clear that the province's financial state made it necessary to embark on a process to fix it that would take years. Aside from the layoffs and the wage freezes, government embarked on a program review to restructure government and make it more efficient.

From the events this week, it seems that some within government, including some cabinet ministers - Loyola Sullivan maybe? - want to continue with those reform initiatives. They want to hold the line on spending. They want to take the measures recommended by the Gourley report from PriceClubWaterHouseCoopers and by David Norris in his paper to the Vic Young Royal Commission.

Would that mean we are in for a Dark Age lasting until 2012 or so? Not at all. But it does mean that there will be the kind of calls to Open Line shows we haven't heard since last year. The calls are ones that are a lot less enthusiastic in the praise of the Premier than he has seen now for the past six months. Those are the kind of calls that lead the Premier to joke about quitting politics or to tell reporters, as he did last year at the peak of the budget flap, that he regretted entering politics every single day. In a less personal sense, though, that approach is a lot less flashy, a lot less massaged than the one we have seen in recent weeks.

The alternative in this cabinet disagreement is likely something akin to the Tobin pattern from the 1990s. Recall that Tobin entered the Premier's Office, brought in a budget that laid off 1500 people and consequently fell drastically in the polls and popularity. He grabbed an issue that boosted his popularity and thereafter worked to find every nickel he could in one-time payments to make sure that he never again had to say anything that was vaguely unpleasant. Tobin also started living on the Open Line shows all as part of a program aimed at keeping his personal polling numbers up as high as possible. Every issue was tackled as a one-off and slowly the government lost any sense of strategic direction.

The financial circumstances are different this time though. Even without the January Deal, the provincial government was actually in good revenue shape nd will be for some time. As it turned out, high oil prices helped push the province along like an ice boat in a hurricane.

Here's the thing: there are some long-term issues that need to be tackled. The time to do it is now. The Voice of Doom speech may have been as grossly overblown as it was grossly delivered but at its core was a streak of fiscal commonsense that people bought into. Take a look at the reaction to the ad campaign among the Fair Deal crowd to get a glimpse of that commonsense. And not tackling those long-term issues - unfunded pension liability, for example - now while we have the cash would be as unforgivable as a Tobinesque spending spree.

What seems to emerge from the backstory of the Delaney departure is a government that lacks a coherent strategic vision; it seems to lack a Plan. The January Deal simply isn't big enough to cause a fundamental shift in government fiscal strategy in light of the "reality" Loyola Sullivan has been relentlessly pushing since last year. Yet here we have a huge racket on a fundamental strategic issue fully 18 months into this administration.

The government could only now be locked in some fundamental disagreements of the type mentioned in the government's own media line if it was moving from issue to issue without an underlying plan or philosophy.

If the disagreements are deep enough to cause the untimely demise of a top civil servant, then we on the outside must indeed wonder what lies under the sheet.