13 February 2007

Stupid is...?

Transportation minister John Hickey is suing former premier Roger Grimes for defamation over comments Grimes made about Hickey's double-billing of expenses to the legislature.

Hickey has admitted the double-billing - and in one instance a triple bill - both by paying back the money involved and by acknowledging that he and his staff members made unspecified mistakes in filing the claims.

Grimes pointed out that the first line of defence against inappropriate billing of expenses is the signature by a claimant - in this case, Hickey - on a form containing the details of the expense and some form of documentation that the expense was legitimate. Grimes has said many things about the implication of Hickey's actions and his defense and that is the nub of Hickey's claim of defamation.

Leaving aside the details of the double-billing and Grimes' comments for a moment, let's take a look at the legal action that is now resulting.

If Roger Grimes did nothing else after moving to the opposition benches in 2003, he demonstrated his ability to induce apoplexy in Premier Danny Williams. Grimes' mere presence in the House was enough to cause Williams to turn red in the face and launch into a variety of attacks on the former premier, some substantive and some - as is Danny Williams' wont - distinctly personal.

On several occasions since retiring from politics, Grimes has made public comments about the current administration. His remarks, in fact the mere fact Grimes spoke at all, was sufficient to cause the Premier and his supporters no measure of anxiety.

The comments on Hickey are no exception. Take a look at the remarks left by various pseudonymous individuals on a vocm.com poll on the issue. Given the current administration's practice of organizing responses to these things, it is a reasonable assumption that a majority of the comments left reflect the views of the Premier's political supporters.

Grimes still gets under Danny's exceedingly thin skin.

And that was the whole point of Grimes' comments in the first place.

Even if Roger Grimes loses the Hickey lawsuit and winds up issuing an apology and paying costs and damages, he has already succeeded in his political purpose.

Moreover, Hickey's lawsuit guarantees that Grimes will succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

Hickey's admitted mistakes will now continue to be the subject of media attention for months to come. His double-billing will be in front of the public on a regular basis at least until the election and possibly after.

On top of that, Hickey's action - possibly at the insistence of the Premier himself - demolishes whatever effect the Premier's communications tactic for Hickey was intended to have in the first place.

The whole idea of pulling Hickey back into cabinet, daring the police to lay charges, paying back the excessive claims and then claim vindication once charges were not laid, was to get the matter out of the public eye as quickly as possible.

Williams' political strategy here - inseparable from the communications tactics - was also to draw an immediate distinction between Hickey and the other five members of the legislature who overbilled its accounts. Recall that Williams said - initially through at least one media leak - that Hickey's case was different from the others because the amounts were smaller and the whole matter could be chalked up to the mess in the legislature's financial administration.

That was said - you will recall - when the details of the overspending were known to the Premier's Office but not to general public, and likely not to the reporter or reporters who got the Blackberry messages from the 8th floor on what the line the Premier would be taking when he spoke.

The whole thing was built around a pretty simply understanding that the public tends to forget incidents such as these after a short period of time. For the time it remained in their eyesight, they can be persuaded of a point of view by the repetition of the same messages from multiple, seemingly independent sources.

Hickey's lawsuit demolishes that little strategy as well. If Hickey had not launched his suit, the whole matter would be forgotten even today. By-elections, the pending budget, just about anything would have knocked Hickey's mistakes from the public eye.

Now they will be reminded regularly until the suit is finished its wanderings through the courts.

In a wider sense we see here enough to question the wisdom of whatever passes for strategic thinking in the provincial government these days. It's pretty dumb to give ones political opponents a rod with which to beat ones back. It's pretty dumb to undermine your own cause in the process.

But then again, such blunders are consistent with the fundamental strategic mistake Danny Williams made in his response to the House of Assembly scandal in the first place.

When the Premier and his cabinet set up the repeat Auditor General's probe and the compensation panel under Chief Justice Derek Green, they created a series of events which would bring the entire spending scandal forcefully back into the public eye right up until the October general election.

To see the folly of the Williams approach, one need only look at the public reaction to the bonus money revealed recently by the Auditor General in his annual report on government spending. Although the Premier knew of the money three years ago - and approved it by silence - and knew of the Auditor General's report before Christmas, his first strategy was to defend.

The public reaction was bitter, perhaps more than the Premier could have guessed. The Premier moved to his Plan B, namely to order the money repaid but only after his government took two days of public flogging. The Premier complained about the impact the scandal was having on his ability to government, just as he did before Christmas when the Hickey business was revealed initially, but the damage was done.

The so-called dribs and drabs of information are exactly the result of the system Danny Williams established. The Premier reaps what he sowed based on the tactical goal of limiting damage to his administration through the control of information release, rather than on debriding the wound quickly and allowing recovery to take place.

By their very nature, micro-managers are tactical thinkers. That is, they focus on the individual details, rather than looking at the bigger picture. It shows in their actions, if not at the outset, then as an issue unfolds.

In the House of Assembly scandal, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador can see the folly of purely tactical thinking. In the Hickey matter, we can see yet another excellent example of the weakness in trying to make tactics a substitute for strategy.

No matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, Roger Grimes has won this encounter already. In launching the suit, John Hickey may well have handed Grimes an eloquent defence that few will ignore, even if a judge rules against the former premier.