07 July 2005

Jack Byrne - Back to the Future!

For those not in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Fisheries Broadcast is a CBC Radio show that has been running for decades. It's the last show in the CBC radio line-up that is aimed solely at a particular sector of the economy, giving news and weather of interest to those in the fishery.

Driving home on Wednesday evening, I caught the introduction by host John Furlong to an interview with provincial cabinet minister Jack Byrne. Furlong said that the recent make-work package for fisheries workers announced by government had stirred some debate. To be sure some of the "debate" was from politicians clamouring to see the package extended to their districts or otherwise sweetened up.

But unless I have been missing a rollicking good time on the Fish Broadcast, I haven't heard so much as a peep from anyone about this policy from the Peckford years.

Jack Byrne did an admirable job of answering Furlong's questions; well, actually he did an admirable job of socking out the SOCKO-crap all that expensive mainland "media training" gave him. Jack had three messages and he stuck to them relentlessly, which is what many of these pre-packaged "training" sessions tell people to do.

It's Jane Stewart-in-a-can all for the low price of about $20, 000 bucks. Locals could do real training better and cheaper; but I digress.

Jack said:

1. The package was a one-time deal.

2. All the marvelous plans for economic development the government was working on would generate jobs to take care of fisheries workers in the future.

3. Whatever happened, he was sure the Premier would always use the best information to make the right decision in the best interests of the province.

So much for cabinet government.

To take the last point first, I am not sure if Byrne's point was that "Papa is in charge" (an excerpt from the Generic -Messages -for -the - Typical - Third -World -Dictatorship training module, no doubt) or that Jack himself wanted no responsibility for the make-work policy in the first place.

As for the middle point, this was a return to the "We gots Plans" theme that ran through the last Throne Speech. It was right after the Official (But Limited) List of Great Artists Known by the Speechwriter.

The only problem with Byrne's contention is that almost two years after taking office and another two and a half years in opposition before that, during which time we were assured they had plans ready to implement the day they took office, the current administration seems not to have a plan of any kind at all for anything.

The proof? We simply have yet to see one. Of any kind.

Even an outline would be nice.

In almost two farggin' years, as Roman Moroni would say.

The only plan they have is to keep sending SOCKOs out that they have plans in the works.

I felt a chill run down my spine as Byrne tossed out that "things will be better" SOCKO just because it sounded so much like a line from Glenn Tobin, Peckfordite social services minister (the guy in charge of Lotto 10-42) and more recently, known to be in charge of the liquor corporation.

In an interview with the fifth estate about Lotto 10-42 as it was then known, Tobin said two things:

1. There is no Lotto 10-42 in which the government deliberately stamps people up to get them on the EI rolls; and,

2. Even if there was such a program, and he wasn't admitting there was, but if for argument's sake we allow there was such a program, it wouldn't matter anyway because the Hibernia was about to start flowing and there'd be jobs for everyone and we'd all be rich, Praise Brian.

Or words to that effect.

All that leads us inevitably to SOCKO The First.

The problem with Jack Byrne's message that this was a one-off aid package is that history teaches us something starkly different.

Government works on the basis of an extreme version of Newton's First Law of Motion (inertia): - an object at rest will remain at rest (despite the best efforts to move it) or alternately, an object in motion will remain in motion (despite any evidence that it needs to stop quickly or Herculean efforts to stop it).

In the absence of a plan, governments everywhere tend to come up with these lash-up policies, sometimes, as in this case, digging back into their genetic political memory to find something that fits. This little make-work policy from government, for example, looks like it was dreamed up by Marty McFly, who took his Delorean for a little hop back to the glory days of 1985 to find out what Brian would have done.

Policy, as one wise former deputy minister once told me was about history, not logic and reason. When confronted with an issue, government bureaucrats invariably ask: 'What did we do before?"

I digress yet again.

More to the real point, though, in the continued and complete absence of a plan for either the fishery, or for economic development either in this case, there is a danger that as these work shortfalls inevitably occur, government will tend to go back to the make-work approach again and again until it becomes a policy.

As premiers wander about pledging that he won't let a single community "go down", they are spouting policy.

When a government gets focused exclusively on the tactical, as this one surely is, it starts doing everything as a "one-off". It only sees the specific issue and looks around for something to make the issue go away. Until the next time.

By the time of the third "one-off", you have a policy.

and a strategy.

by default.

In the meantime, in cases like this, no matter how many SOCKOs get spit out about having plans, being strategic and having a plan, the evidence almost inevitably shows that the SOCKO claims are actually a case of GIGO and that government is headed for being either SNAFU, TARFU or FUBAR.