10 January 2013

High-Value Delivery #nlpoli

Two cabinet ministers trekked up the Southern Shore on Wednesday to hand over a cheque for some government cash to a local group of seniors.

Of course, they dragged their political staff with them.

The value of the cheque was $2,000.

That’s right.

One cheque for two thousand dollars.

And it took not one but two cabinet ministers plus the assorted hangers-on to carry up the shore.

That’s one expensive delivery.

The value of the cheque isn’t what drew Keith Hutchings and Terry French to Aquaforte.  Da byes also weren’t looking for a free cup of tea and while Terry is a fitness nut,  the well-being that lured him to a news conference for a couple of thousand bucks is political wellness.

The value of this cheque is in the good will it will buy and the votes that will follow that good will.  What Terry and Keith were up to is just the latest version of the very old Newfoundland political custom of patronage.  The local politician delivers goodies from the government.  His success as a politician comes from how much cash he brings back.  The locals will reward him with their votes. 

While some people get all excited about a few political staffers clicking madly to skew VOCM Question of the Day, the real key to success in the provincial Conservatives’ permanent campaign since 2003 has been their relentless campaign of self-praise for every penny that gets spent by the provincial government anywhere for anything.

Every quarter they’ve pounded the airwaves to talk about the money they delivered to voters.  And when the Conservatives weren’t announcing the Hebron agreement two Augusts in a row, they’ve been known to alert the media to everything from fire trucks to bedside trays for the local hospital to a can of paint and a couple of brushes.

The only difference between the election years of 2007 and 2011 and the other years was the total amount of money and the shit-fit of news conferences and news releases that went with all the spending.  Public spending in Newfoundland and Labrador is nothing if it is not highly political.

The $2,000 that went to Aquaforte on Wednesday is part of a spending program the Tories started in 2010.  That year the seniors in Aquaforte got $4,000.  So did about a 90-odd other communities. And like clock-work all the Tory politicians issued local news releases to draw attention to the cash.  No one would be surprised if some of them turned up at a dinner or an afternoon tea to hand out the cheque personally.

If you want to understand the strength of the patronage system in local political culture just cast your mind back to the giant political slush fund run out of the House of Assembly from 1996 to 2006.  Every member of the House had access to tens of thousands of dollars he or she could hand out in whatever way they wanted, often without receipts.  They did, almost without any exceptions.

What showed the strength of the system was not the desperate pleas from some of the politicians to keep the whole thing going.  What really stood out was the way people in Kilbride district and Torngat Mountains, for example, reacted to news that their member of the legislature had been charged with fraud and other criminal acts. They talked to reporters about how great the accused politicians were and about how much they had done for the district, that is, how much money they handed out. 

Now for all that, the double-teaming for this seniors announcement stands out for being a bit excessive.  It’s hard to imagine either politician is sweating about his political future.  We are still a bit early for the February poll goosing parade.  This announcement doesn’t seem big enough to get much media play compared to what individual MHAs could generate for themselves in the local media.

Maybe the cause was nothing more complicated than the quota system that pervades the provincial government’s communications system.  Departments must produce set amounts of happy-happy news.  If tourism was down on its quota, then this was an easy answer.  

You can see the same thing - the quota system -  in the series of news releases over the holidays and into the New Year talking up the glorious stuff that is going on every, supposedly.  The publicity machine just cranks this stuff out relentlessly.  It’s such hollow blather you really couldn’t imagine someone thought something like the string of political spam could stop people from thinking about the looming cuts and layoffs.