03 August 2008

The pack politics of ambition

Politics is a strange thing.

There's a lot of individualism and ego but at the same time there's some really obvious group behaviour within the party pack.

The ambitious ones are always hungry to move up in status. 

Nothing surprising in that.  That's what ambitious people do.

There's nothing wrong with ambition. That's what keeps the blood pumping in a party that otherwise might be mistaken for dead.

Joan Burke for example, is one of a couple of the current crowd who fancies herself and is fancied by some as an eventual alpha to replace the alpha currently running every pack around the province.

Jerome is another one.

These ambitious betas will not challenge the alpha outright. Rather, they actually copy the alpha in many respects, especially speech patterns and attitudes.

Most obviously, they become supremely loyal:  they will do and say anything the alpha demands, no matter what, since currying favour with the alpha raises their own status within the pack in the meantime. 

They'll even try to anticipate the alphas demands so they can be ready to satisfy him immediately and appear therefore all that much more loyal within the pack.

No surprise then that someone familiar with Joe Smallwood would consider Burke to be aping one of the biggest political alphas in the province's history.

"The way Burke is acting is as if the 1973 amendments never took place," says [retired Memorial University head librarian Richard] Ellis. "It's a little bit ironic for a Progressive Conservative to be harkening back to Smallwoodian legislation."

Ellis had responsibility at one time for the Smallwood archives, among other things, so when it comes to the recent past, Ellis would know a thing or two.

He's off by a few decades but the idea's the same.

Danny Williams is the one channeling Joey Smallwood, either deliberately or inadvertently.  And, by the transitive property, Burke is channeling Smallwood, but only doing it through Williams.

She's adds some ruffles and flourishes of her own to her public speaking - the completely flat affect in her voice, for one -  but the attitude behind the words is unmistakable:  this is the way things are because I said so.  Period.

We likely won't be seeing any ticking right shoulders on the education minister soon and neither will she likely develop less harsh speaking voices  - at least without professional coaching.  But that's really just packaging.

What you can expect are more of what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.  It's really the same Joan Burke we've seen in other cock-ups or controversies in her department already - like the Eastern School district alleged fraud case that cropped up while her current parliamentary assistant was running the school board -but for some reason it just stands out more in the current Memorial University crisis. 

Joan Burke, the alpha wannabe will stick even harder to her guns under pressure because that's what the alpha would do (or what he wants) and in order to be loyal and eventually replace him, the covetous beta must be more alpha than alpha.

And like all ambitious politicians, Burke like knows there a pattern to how the future alphas move around government and move up within cabinet.

If memory serves, she has done or is doing her stints in financial management on treasury board.  She's the government House leader which gives her more parliamentary experience - such as the House is these days - and more experience managing her colleagues in cabinet.

Running the big social departments would be crucial to her future.  Having run education for the past three years, Burke is likely angling to replace Ross Wiseman in the next shuffle, whenever it comes. 

And if she gets the promotion to health, as a number of future alphas and presumptive alphas did in previous administrations  [think Grimes and Aylward most recently] putting Burke in charge of health care would be a sign of her heightened status within the pack.

There's no guarantee health is a stepping stone to greatness.  Look at poor Tommy Osborne.  From minister of the largest department in government one day where all he had to do was follow orders and not shag up, to government backbencher the next via a castrated justice department in between.

The only way Osborne could have been handed a bigger slap in the goolies was if he'd been given permits and licenses instead of justice on the way out the door.

But in the current crisis in education, Joan Burke has really done anything to diminish her status as one of the betas most loyal to the alpha.

She's done all the things she needs to do to prove her status.  Burke will be rewarded, at least in the short term with an alpha who will back her to the hilt.  He will go to the ends of the Earth for those who follow his orders tirelessly.

When he emerges from escorting second place essay winners around, the Premier will likely lash out at everyone and everyone.  Everyone that is, except Burke, who will be commended for her hard work in the best interests of the province and the people.

Yada, yada, yada.

In the politics of the pack, loyalty counts above all else.