21 February 2013

So why did they lie? #nlpoli

CBC’s David Cochrane contacted the public works department*  Premier’s Office and asked about rumours he’d heard of renovations to the Premier’s Office.

As Cochrane reported on Twitter, the public works department Premier’s Office told him that there were no renovations currently happening.

Not exactly true, as it turned out.

Seems the Premier’s Office will be relocated to the 4th and 5th floors of the Confederation Building’s East Block.  The provincial public works department has already moved lawyers from the justice department’s civil division into other offices in preparation.

There were just no renovations currently underway.

Cochrane posted the response verbatim.  The (more) in brackets reflects the 140 character limitation on individual tweets.

Here's the full text of the response I got: "There have been no renovations to the Premier's Office." (more) “The department is undertaking some planning to eventually move various offices... " (more) “including the Premier's Office, to accommodate necessary mechanical and electrical work in the Confederation Building, east block."

Then he added his own observations:

That's the extent of it. No mention of ongoing renovations to other departments to house the Premier's office during renovation period.

Cochrane’s observation on the whole exchange highlights a crucial part of the problem the Premier’s Office is having in communications:

Two comms people - TWO - failed to volunteer the info about the renovations to the 4th and 5th floor to house Premier's staff.

If the public works department was doing the renovations to deal with structural problems in the tower – as Cochrane also tweeted -  then the story was simple to tell and simple to justify. By burying the facts, the public works department Premier’s Office chose a lie by omission where the simple truth would have been enough to end any further inquiry.

Nor would they have to rely on completely false statements like the one in public works minister Paul Davis’ release late on Wednesday.

The renovations are to the electrical and mechanical systems in a building that is more than 50 years old.  “Unlike the previous Liberal administration in the 1990s,” said Davis, “we are not undertaking cosmetic renovations exclusive to the Premier’s Office at the expense of needed repairs.”

Davis makes it sound like the building had not been fixed up since it opened in 1959.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brian Peckford’s Conservative administration built a major addition to the Confederation Building in the mid-1980s and at the same time started a systematic renovation of the original Confederation Building.  They started in 1985 with the Premier’s Office on the 8th floor of the tower.  According to a former political staff member, they waited until the House of Assembly was closed and moved the Premier’s staff to the House on the 9th floor.  The Premier moved into the Speaker’s office and the staff camped in the adjacent government member’s caucus room.

In that case, the renovation took the building back to the bare walls.  They installed new electrical and mechanical systems and changed the configuration of the floor. 

With the Premier’s Office done, renovations started in the lower floors and continued up through to the top of the tower.  The renovations included relocating the House of Assembly from the 9th and 10th floors to new space in the north wing of the Confederation Building east block.  The vacated space became offices for branches of the Executive Council.

Another major structural renovation included construction of a new stairwell in the southwest corner of the tower. The stairwell provided an emergency exit in the event of fire in addition to the stairwell on the north side of the building.

Construction on most of those changes went on after normal working hours. Your humble e-scribbler knows because he worked in the Premier’s Office at the time and lived through it. 

With the House moved, the work schedule then called for changes to the sixth, seventh and eighth floors to complete the work started almost a decade earlier. The work to the sixth and seventh was a complete reconstruction from the bare exterior walls inward. On the eighth,  the changes included construction of a new, larger boardroom,  a private waiting area for the Premier’s personal office and a new office in the centre of the suite to replace a narrow, cramped and largely dysfunctional boardroom built during the 1985 renovations.

The office didn’t shut down, incidentally.  Nor did people relocate except for the three or four of us who were moving off the floor altogether.

The issue came up in the House of Assembly.  The public comments of both former Premier Clyde Wells and the Conservatives at the time are on the record for all to read.  Here’s one comment by Wells when asked by Tory Bob Aylward why the renovations to the entire tower were going on during a time of financial hardship.

Mr. Speaker, on reflection, if I had known that the [difficult financial] circumstances would continue to be so difficult for so long, and the recession would have persisted for so long, and the effects of the fishery - if I had known and foreseen all of those things, I probably would have tried to stop the contracts and stop the renovation that was in place.

The safety features of it [like the new stairwell] would be difficult to stop, because you have to consider the lives of the people who work there; but it may well be that with hindsight I may well have tried to stop some of the other things. As a matter of fact, I have given some instructions now to take a look at what remains in the schedule of renovations that was originally developed for this building, as to what remains to be done and whether or not we can stop some of those and allow the building to function safely without going through with those renovations.

If, as Davis alleges, the public works department  didn’t make other changes in the 1990s it was likely because the office had been stripped bare and rebuilt a decade earlier.  To suggest, as Davis does, that the changes were limited and superficial, well, that’s simply not true.  One can on attribute these comments to a gross lack of  information coupled with an excess of partisan zeal on the part of the person who wrote Davis’ release for him.  All that useless poll goosing and the texts from Paul Lane would be enough to drive people wonky.

Of course, none of that explains why the Premier’s Office  lied about the current situation.

Nor does it explain why there doesn’t seem to have been any reference to these electrical and mechanical changes before now. The original news release about renovations in 2009 only talked about changing windows and the associated  bits of the building.  Last November, Paul Davis only talked about windows when the escalating cost of renovations came up in the House:

One of the significant differences – when you go into a renovation project, Mr. Speaker, sometimes the costs can be much greater than someone would expect it to be. It is not like new construction, you are going into what you sometimes are not fully aware of what is inside. What happened, Mr. Speaker, is that early on we thought the small amount for the limestone that encases the windows would have to be replaced, it turned out that almost 100 per cent of limestone needed to be replaced and that escalated our cost.

Is there some other reference to a project that will cause such a major disruption to people in the Confederation Building for 2014?  Maybe your humble e-scribbler missed something.  But frankly, given the response from local media, it sounds like lots of people never heard about these renovations until now.

Now that the story is out there, the Premier is also telling her usually extravagant version of reality.  If you believe her, a floor that is four floors or more below the roof is full of leaks every time it rains.  She also claims that a consultant offered complete replacement of the building as a serious option.  Kathy Dunderdale’s nose didn’t grow during the scrum with reporters in Corner Brook, but seemed awfully anxious to get people to believe that there was no story.

What Dunderdale actually described of the renovations, though, at about the 3:30 point of the scrum is not about significant interior changes.

That’s telling.

And at 4:10, she confirms that there is nothing happening on the 8th floor that hasn’t occurred throughout all the rest of the Confederation Building.

Between 3:30 and 4:10, Dunderdale talks only about what the contractors have done on every other floor of the building so far:  they wrapped the building in tarps, covered the interior side of the windows, and then did the exterior replacement and refurbishment. Here’s where the story has another interesting turn.  In every other government department, workers stayed on the job.  Even the people in offices and at desks near the windows stayed working.  They didn’t move to other parts of the Confederation Building even if it meant they had to wear coats and blankets during the winter months.

How come both Davis and the Premier invented a story about previous neglect of the building’s maintenance?

So how come all the people in the Premier’s Office are moving?

Maybe the answer to those questions is why the people in the public works department Premier’s Office felt that they couldn’t just tell the full story, completely up front when a reporter asked them about renovations in the Premier’s Office.   


* corrected.  Tweet from David Cochrane, 21 Feb:  response not from Premier's office. From transportation and works.