22 October 2012

One fine Friday afternoon, or change versus more of the same #nlpoli

A little over a week ago, Kathy Dunderdale told the provincial Conservative annual meeting that her administration is overspending. Dunderdale acknowledged yet again what she and her predecessor have admitted since 2009. 

The provincial economy is overly dependent on offshore oil, Dunderdale told her fellow Tories.

Dunderdale and the Tories are at historic lows in the polls for a majority Tory government.  Dunderdale announced a cabinet shuffle to her caucus months ago and to the public weeks ago.

After weeks of waiting, Dunderdale finally changed her cabinet on Friday afternoon.

But all the big things that needed changing – finance and economic development stayed exactly the way they have been.   Tom Marshall, who has presided over the chronic overspending for as long as he has been in the finance minister’s job got to keep his seat.  Kevin Hutchings got to stay as the minister responsible for economic development.

No change.

Big issues.

Lots of talk about them.

Not a hint of any action to address them.

Dunderdale also had a chance to freshen up her cabinet.  Some ministers – Felix Collins, Tom Marshall, and Tom Hedderson to name three  - are due for retirement. Collins could have easily been punted for his abysmal performance over Bill 29.  Make no mistake, Dunderdale’s speech in Gander last weekend made it plain that she is personally committed to Bill 29 and its restrictions on public access to government information.  From that perspective, flicking Collins from cabinet would have been a potent demonstration of her power and her anger.

So what did she do with Felix?  She kept Collins in cabinet, affirmed her support for him personally during a scrum with reporters, and sent him to handle intergovernmental and aboriginal affairs.  Media called it a demotion.  He still collects a minister’s paycheque, beefs up his pension, and has few responsibilities in a department that for the most part handles issues Dunderdale manages herself.  That doesn’t sound like a demotion.

Dunderdale took a few nails out of Darin King’s cross, moving him from fisheries to looking after police and prisons as justice minister.  King also gets the job of government House leader.  That’s the job natural resources minister Jerome Kennedy has mishandled for the past year or so.  That gives King a higher profile when the House is in session.

The attorney general’s portfolio went to Tom Marshall, further increasing his power and influence at the cabinet table. Again, that’s isn’t what you’d expect,  if Dunderdale meant to make any significant changes to the government’s policies that would address the big problems she spoke about in Gander.

Even as a matter of administrative change, Dunderdale could have added fire and emergency services to the police and prisons portfolio to create a new ministry of public safety.  She didn’t.  In fact, Dunderdale did not make any changes to her administration beyond the one needed to keep a lawyer as attorney general.

No new faces showed up either. 

So why did Dunderdale balk when all the signs pointed to significant changes in her cabinet?

She didn’t balk. Dunderdale didn’t have a choice.  Remember:  she only has her job because everyone agreed in 2010 to let her take it  for a while. The backroom deal the Tories struck among themselves to get through the election in 2011 and slightly beyond still limits what she can do. 

Dunderdale changed the cabinet only to the extent that cabinet agreed to change. That isn’t what normally happens but then again, nothing about this shuffle has fit the usual pattern.  Caucus knew months in advance.  The public found out weeks ago.  And for weeks, people wondered when the whole thing would happen.  The delay must have been increasingly embarrassing.

And in the end, Dunderdale shuffled the cabinet at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon.  Usually cabinet shuffles happen in the morning during the week.  The only reason to go off in the middle of the afternoon is if there was a surprise development, like a personal crisis for one minister.  And a Friday afternoon is the time you do something that you’d just as soon get finished so everyone can forget about it.

Down in the polls and facing some pretty significant issues, the province’s Tories had the chance to unveil a set of new initiatives, introduce some new faces to cabinet, and generally change the stories that the media have been running for the past few weeks.

Changing the channel is one of the most potent communications weapons a government has in its arsenal.  Experienced politicians know how to push out something shiny and attractive from a new direction so that people will start talking about the shine rather than the problem that has been plaguing the party for a week or a month.

Or in the case of Kathy Dunderdale for the past year or more.

Changing a few bodies or even giving the same old groups a new name and a new minister isn’t one tenth as powerful as actually announcing something genuinely new and different.  Go back and look at what Kathy Dunderdale said about Tory communications problems:
… we have worked hard this summer, let me tell you, on doing the kinds of things and supplementing our communications staff, reorganizing within all of our caucus and our offices and our departments to make sure that we’re effectively communicating to the people that we serve so that they understand what we’re doing.
The Tories have had a very effective communications approach since 2003.  They have no shortage of people to say things and methods of getting the information to people about what they are doing. 

Their communications problem isn’t people and organization.

Their problem is content. 

Friday’s cabinet-changes-that-kept-everything-the-same proved that point.