16 March 2011

Head-scratching and nose-pulling over latest twist in Matthews appointment debacle

A few of the people steadfastly supporting the provincial government’s pork-barrel attempt to get Elizabeth Matthews on the offshore regulatory board were left scratching their heads Tuesday evening. [changed verb tense]

Some are so perplexed trying to reconcile their stories with the facts that they are even calling for a public inquiry

The reason is simple.  Yet another aspect of the story they have been spreading is blowing away in the face of facts. 

The specific bit now boiling off faster than a Japanese reactors’ cooling water is the claim that Elizabeth Matthews didn’t know about her board appointment or that her appointment included a seat on the board, depending on how you interpret the comments. 

On Friday, Matthews responded to a Liberal opposition news release that noted she was appointed to the offshore board on December 21 with effect from January 1, 2011. CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane tweeted a series of comments on this, including comments about Matthews:

(March 11)  “Where are you getting this from?  Feds tell me her appt isn’t finalized at all…I spoke to Matthews directly.  She says she is not on the board….EM says she has never been told of any appointment.  Do Libs have draft letter never sent?…Skinner says they nominated EM in January…”.

Cochrane put Matthews’ comments to Shawn Skinner in a scrum on Monday.  Skinner agreed that Matthews hadn’t been notified and that’s the story CBC ran with on Tuesday.  Skinner also mentioned that the appointment needed an order in council but insisted that Matthews didn’t know about the appointment.

Well, the order in council clinches it:

OIC matthews

If you look on the left-hand side of the document, you will see the list of people to whom officials of the cabinet secretariat distributed the order.  “P” is the Premier.  The Natural Resources and Public Service Secretariat deputy ministers got copies, as did the Attorney General, the Deputy Clerk of the Executive Council and the file.

And so did someone named E. Matthews.

Just so that everyone understands just how crucial this document is, understand that the order in council is one of the basic legal instruments of our system of government.  You can find a handy definition of what an order in council is over at the Privy Council Office website along with a searchable database of these public documents.

To paraphrase, an order in council is a legal instrument made by the cabinet, called the Lieutenant Governor in Council, by powers given by a law or, less frequently, the royal prerogative.  In most provinces, orders in council are made on the recommendation of the responsible minister and take legal effect only when signed by the Lieutenant Governor.

They don’t get back-dated.  And they damn well don’t get left sitting idly around somewhere unattended.  The people who handle these things are nothing if not diligent to the point of anal retentivism about making sure everything is done just so. That’s not a knock on them; to the contrary, the people in the Executive Council office are among the most trustworthy and responsible people anywhere on the planet.

They don’t shag up, as a rule.

And in this case, they’d have extra incentive not to make a mistake.  As Shawn Skinner pointed out on Monday, these appointments belong entirely to the Premier.  Kathy Dunderdale gets to make them just like her predecessor Danny Williams did. That isn’t what happened before 2003, by the way.

If Kathy picked Liz, then there’d be hell to pay if Liz did not know that she could start earning cash come the New Year.

Nor is it really plausible that Kathy Dunderdale, Shawn Skinner or any of their senior staff might have buggered up and not mentioned to Liz she had a seat on the board.

Nor is it likely that they thought one didn’t happen without the other.  Shawn Skinner’s been pretty clear since Monday that they considered it a two-stage process, but stage one happened in December. 

The order in council makes the appointment to the board first.  Then it puts Matthews forward as a vice-chair, subject to federal approval.  That’s what Skinner told reporters on Monday.  As it turned out, the feds made a counter-offer to accept Matthews contingent on the province accepting a second vice-chair by federal appointment.

Nor is it likely David Cochrane either misunderstood what Matthews told him or made a fairly consistent mistake in conveying it via Twitter or anywhere else. Matthews relayed what he got and consistently put the comments to Skinner.

Now Liz may have misunderstood what was going on, but that’s a different – and entirely possible – thing. 

For something like this, Matthews would have been entitled to attend any board meetings after January 1, 2011 and participate like any other member.  The only thing that hadn’t been settled up to the time she bailed on the whole thing was the second part of the order.  That is, the federal government had not agreed to her appointment to the vice-chair’s job.

But her board appointment on behalf of the province?

Full legal effect on December 21.

With Matthews’ decision to bail on the appointment, the whole vice-chair position at the board is up in the air.  The idea of two vice-chairs appears to have been nothing more than an effort to have a federal appointee to offset Matthews. 

With her appointment now dead, there’s an opportunity for both St. John’s and Ottawa to agree on an open competition to be followed by an appointment based on qualifications and merit.

If nothing else, it’s got to beat the hell out of yet another complete disaster  - remember Andy Wells? - that its proponents have been forced to defend with what amount to claims of their own bungling and incompetence.

- srbp -