23 October 2005

Reprint: Outside the box - Time

Here's a reprint of a column originally published in The Independent, January 2004.

It seems appropriate to reprint it now, especially considering that the Premier's comments on his second anniversary in office refer to how much they are still working on.

At the time the column appeared, the view inside the administration was that they would do things at their own pace.

That's certainly been true, but the fundamental point of the column - about the need to get moving quickly - seems to be more relevant with each passing date.

by Ed Hollett

A new government has a very small amount of time in which to lay the groundwork for its term of office. It has about six months to show things are different and about a year to start showing signs of results. In fact, they really have about 100 days to make a mark, and when it comes to things like re-organizing the departments and getting political and public service staff changes made, they have even less than that.

The reasons are pretty simple: The outside world wants to figure out what government they really elected. For the government itself, they need to sort out the basics so they can cope with the onslaught of demands that come with the force of a three inch fire hose. Put another way, the new government has a short time to take control of the public agenda. That'’s the only way they can filter the workload down to a manageable level, let alone do the things they want to do. Without control of the political agenda, they become followers rather than leaders.

The Williams government is remarkable because it looks like a party that is at the end of its life in power rather than the beginning. It doesn'’t have control of the political agenda. Even something as simple as the long-awaited appointment of Doug House was announced and interpreted by CBC television rather than the Premier'’s Office. Add that to the obvious confusion in the Premier'’s messages, his testiness in answering media questions, and the lack of any meaningful signs of a change, let alone "“The Plan"”. The Stunnel, the Premier'’s hobbyhorse, is the sort of ludicrous mega-project that seems more worthy of Brian Peckford in his last days than a newly- elected Premier with the well-deserved reputation of being a level-headed leader.

We don'’t have to go back too far in time to see a government that didn'’t have control of the political agenda. The Tobin government, described by one of Tobin'’s closest advisors as having "“no idea what we are doing"”, lost control of the agenda from the start. Tobin plummeted in the polls his first year in office, and for the rest of his sojourn, the province was treated to an endless string of half-assed decisions, many of them made up by the Premier in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car.

The best example of a government that didn'’t control the agenda is the Grimes administration. For a whole bunch of reasons, Roger Grimes never seemed to find his mark, let alone make it. The most glaring display of Grimes'’ weakness was in contract negotiations with public sector unions. The unions defined the problem and the solution: more people and more money. Government never even got into the discussion. Grimes was beaten in a fair fight, but cost was never considered.

What was really lost over the past seven years, though wasn'’t control. It was opportunity. A raft of things begun in the early 90s, from economic development to government reform, came to a screeching halt in 1996. The Williams party got wide support last October in large part because they were promoting a vision that cuts across party lines.

The Premier and the cabinet he leads are as good as any cabinet we have had. They are intelligent, capable and well-intentioned. People want to see their vision put to practice. They want Danny to succeed.

If the new government thinks the water is flowing through the hose at high speed now, get ready. The unions will likely launch their public campaign in the days and weeks ahead. The last time they faced a government that was disjointed and disorganized, the unions cleaned up.

A new government has a very short period in which to make its mark.

The clock is ticking.