31 October 2011

Truth in small things #nlpoli

If the truth may be found in the smallest of things, then the shifts and changes in Kathy Dunderdale’s second cabinet reveal a great deal.

“It is very important to me that our government operates as efficiently as possible, while providing quality programs and services that meet the needs of the people of our province,” said Premier Dunderdale. “Re-aligning departments and adjusting ministries to ensure they are best positioned to take on the challenges and opportunities before us is very important.”

Here’s how the official news release laid out the re-aligning and adjusting:

  • Combine the old Human Resources, Labour and Employment department with the post-secondary education section of the Education department to create the  Department of Advanced Education and Skills.  The new department will “focus on supplying highly educated graduates and skilled workers for a fast-growing economy.”
  • Merge the aboriginal affairs department with the Intergovernmental Affairs department to create the Department of Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Put the Business department with Innovation, Trade and Rural Development to create Innovation, Business and Rural Development.

This release puts the big information at the back end.  Eliminating the business department ends an eight year fiasco. In effect, the Conservatives created the “business” department in 2003 by breaking off some sections of the industry, trade and rural development department.  Now they’ve just put it all back the way it was, complete with the Beaton Tulk-era Rural Secretariat

After eight years of accomplishing nothing, the Conservatives have just put the economic development resources of government back to where they were in 2003. Danny Williams created the department to give a vehicle for his personal business acumen to create thousands of jobs and single-handedly produce a economic miracle in the province.  Williams did nothing while he was minister of his own department, often going weeks without meeting his deputy minister. He handed it off to a succession of second and third tier ministers like Fairity O’Brien or Paul Oram.  Even someone like Ross Wiseman couldn’t do anything except make speeches and hand out gobs of free cash to private companies.

The result of those eight years is a very fragile economy is is more heavily dependent than ever on government spending. The new minister – Keith Hutchings – has exactly zilch in the experience department when it comes to economic development:

Mr. Hutchings graduated from Memorial University with a Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Political Science and obtained a Certificate in Public Administration from Memorial, as well as an Occupational Health and Safety Program from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Mr. Hutchings’ professional career has included 11 years with the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission. He also served as Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant to then Leader of the Official Opposition in the Provincial House of Assembly (1996 -1998) and successfully ran his own consulting business.

The Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs department basically recreates what used to exist 20 years and more ago as the Intergovernmental Affairs secretariat, and adds Labrador Affairs and the non-profit and voluntary secretariat for good measure. The first two are relatively small, functionally oriented sections that could easily be rolled inside the Executive Council where they once lived.  The latter two sections are meaningless political sops that serve only to increase bureaucracy without enhancing service delivery. Dunderdale could have eliminated them entirely while likely improving the overall efficiency of government.

The ministry went to newbie Keith McGrath in order to make sure there was a cabinet minister from Labrador. This reorganization is a minor administrative change.

The new Advanced Education department actually combines the pre-2003 post-secondary education ministry with the department that handled job training programs.  That’s it. 

The organization makes sense if it was aimed solely at ensuring that the provincial job-training resources lined up to meet – belatedly – the labour crunch in the province. 

Adding Memorial University to the mix could severely hinder the university’s development by burying it inside a department aimed at something other than what it does.  Memorial doesn’t exist in order to be a glorified trade school.

This is Joan Burke’s big reward for backing Dunderdale, nothing more, nothing less.

What’s more interesting about the labour market focus of the department is that it won’t include any of the labour relations elements.  They are all part of the provincial government’s traditional function of regulating industry and ensuring a healthy and productive labour relations climate.

But under the most recent re-organization, the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission reports to the government services department and the labour relations agency reports to the environment department. Such a re-alignment ensures that the “silos” the new minister claims the re-organization would cure remain in place.

In  every other respect and distinct from these three adjustments, the departmental organization stays the same. 

When it comes to who got a new job and who didn’t, those seemingly small points also tell a larger story.

Besides Joan Burke, Susan Sullivan got a big reward for her political loyalty to the Premier. She takes over the health portfolio.  Sullivan may not feel quite so lucky in a few weeks or months – health is a difficult portfolio – but it is the largest department and the one that typically goes to those the Premier holds in high regard. If she does well, Sullivan could become a contender to replace Dunderdale when the Premier leaves before 2015.

Jerome Kennedy’s new gig at natural resources gives him a well-deserved respite from the health minister’s job. Kennedy took over that job at a hard time and navigated the department though some tough times.  he got out of it with both his health and his reputation intact.  That’s a rare achievement.

At natural resources, Kennedy faces the challenge of mounting problems with the Muskrat Falls project.  Kennedy can be a forceful proponent for an argument like Muskrat Falls.  He can also be a diligent house-cleaner when problems occur. if Dunderdale had to kill off Muskrat, Kennedy could handle that effectively too.

In the next four years, Kennedy will also have to deal with the border issue in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the future of a string of law suits related to the Lower Churchill. 

Danny Williams appointed Kathy Dunderdale to natural resources safe in the knowledge that he was really looking after things.  He didn’t need a minister who understood much and Dunderdale fit the bill.  With Kennedy, Dunderdale has a minister who will – in all likelihood – lead this crucial department in more than name only and take the heightened public profile along with it.  Kennedy could be well set when Dunderdale leaves.

Kennedy’s appointment as Government House Leader is a clear sign the Conservatives are going to approach the legislature with a strong arm and an iron fist.

Darin King took the poisoned chalice of fisheries in the recent cabinet shuffle.  The provincial Conservatives haven’t been able to find a policy they can all agree on.  As a result, the fishery remains a festering political pustule that breaks from time to time, splattering the minister of the moment. King can kiss his leadership aspirations good-bye.

Derrick Dalley got the Conservatives’ community pork portfolio as minister of  tourism, culture and recreation.  He succeeds Terry French who got a quiet and relatively easy portfolio in what is usually the home of ministers on the way into cabinet or those on the way out.

- srbp -