23 January 2009

Pull the other one, Jerome

About half through finance minister Jerome Kennedy’s scrum on Friday something very interesting happened.

Jerome scratched his nose.

kennedy nose It’s interesting because it is the only time he made any big hand gestures within the camera shot during the entire scrum.  His hands come up a bit during some sections but this one really leaps out if one watches the whole scrum from start to finish.

It’s interesting because he scratched his nose right after an exchange with reporters about how the province’s financial state might make it impossible for government to deliver nurses a very generous wage offer since, as Kennedy put it, there are “unknowns and variables” that will affect government’s financial position.

In fact he scratches his nose right before he says “unknowns and variables.”

It’s interesting because scratching your nose is usually taken as a sign of discomfort, a sign that what was said is not accurate or true.  In extreme cases, scratching ones nose is a sign of deception.

The nurses and government have been at logger-heads for most of the past year.  The government insists that there will be no discussion on salaries;  it’s the 20% offered or nothing else. 

Listen to the scrum.  You have to go a ways before that becomes clear but under relentless questioning from CBC’s David Cochrane Kennedy makes it plain that the only issue government is really hung up about is cash.  The rest of it is something they are willing to talk about but nothing more. 

This isn’t negotiation by any stretch of anyone’s imagination or even a serious effort to get the nurses back to the bargaining table.  If it was, Kennedy and his boss wouldn’t have been throwing threats around since before Christmas.  Now the last threat – to take the 20% off the table after December 31st – turned out to be a gigantic bluff.  The nurses pulled the other one and found out there were bells on it.

The latest threat is to come back and take the offer or else, the or else part in this case being having a settlement imposed on nurses.

From the nurses perspective, of course, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that there’s precious little difference between swallowing the 20% and everything else in government’s position  along with it or having rammed Danny and Jerome ram it down their collective throats as if they were AbitibiBowater. 

No difference, no gain.  No gain – even if only in face saving – and there is no chance of averting a strike.  Nurses have been down this road before.  A decade ago they hounded Brian Tobin during the winter election until Brian made a deal to get them off his back.  From the nurses’ standpoint, he didn’t deliver so they went on strike.

He legislated them back to work.

The opposition Provincial Conservatives had a field day in the legislature that spring raising questions about recruitment and retention and pattern bargaining.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Kennedy pulled his nose because what he is saying makes no sense and he knows it. 

In addition to the December 31st cut-off being a big bluff, the whole threat to the nurses lacks in credibility.  If they might not get anything beyond eight percent in the first year because of the uncertain economic times, then it stands to reason that the other unions might have to give up their cash as well.  Kennedy says no;  the government has guaranteed their money despite the economic circumstances.

CBC’s David Cochrane does a good job of poking at that one and Kennedy squirms in discomfort at the fairly obvious logical problem with the government position. He gets to the point in the scrum where – having drawn a bunch of lines in the sand of his own - Kennedy accuses nurses union president Debbie Forward of drawing lines in the sand.  Again, Cochrane points that out in the preface to one of his questions. 

Kennedy’s conundrum on the nurses is that obvious.

His fiscal one will become more obvious the closer we all get to budget day.  On the one hand, Kennedy needs to convince nurses there are hard economic times and therefore they should take the government offer now rather than risk losing all that money.

On the other hand, you have government and its supporters - Kennedy, Shawn Skinner, Paul Oram, government pollster Don Mills and government economic consultant and Wade Locke – all talking about how wonderful the future will be. The two things can’t live in the same space just as the 31st of December can’t be a deadline and then not a deadline, the 20% can be guaranteed but not guaranteed or the government be willing to talk but only if there is no talk and the nurses accept whole the government’s position as dictated.

The last government crew that messed with nurses wound up starting their long political death spiral in the fight. The only difference is that then the government started out with a credible financial argument to back their position.

Jerome hasn’t even got that.

All he’s got is his nose to pull.

Sounds pretty impotent.