03 February 2014

Amnesia #nlpoli

This week we should find out when the provincial Conservatives will have their leadership convention.

The talk around town late last week was that the crowd Danny Williams once called a Reform-based Conservative Party would be looking at May or June.  One of Williams’ former staffers turned up on local television on the weekend talking about the problems the party was having finding a hall, what with all the concerts and conventions and stuff on the go.  Steve Dinn talked about having to postpone the leadership convention to some time in the fall, maybe.

What a contrast to what the Progressive Conservative Party used to do.  

Premiers Quit in January

Frank Moores announced on January 19, 1979 that he planned to resign as soon as the party could find someone to replace him.  The party held a convention on March 17, 1979.  The race attracted 10 candidates.  These weren’t imaginary ones like most of the current people said to be considering a run at replacing Tom Marshall. After three ballots, the convention delegates elected Brian Peckford to replace Frank.

Brian Peckford announced his resignation on January 21, 1979.  The party held a leadership convention to find his replacement on March 11, 1979.  Five real candidates duked it out and after three ballots, the delegates picked Tom Rideout.  Tom lasted 43 days as Premier.

Flip ahead a few years, 25 to be exact, and some Conservatives are talking about having to push off the leadership for a total of six months or more. And rather than having 10  - or even five -  real candidates, the Conservatives have only one declared hopeful in Bill Barry.  They might wind up with Shawn Skinner, the former cabinet minister but that remains to be seen.  After that, the list of likely contenders gets thin.
We might wind up with a total of three vying to be Premier.  A mere fraction of what they used to get. 

And only one of them from within the caucus, let alone cabinet.  Hardly a stunning endorsement, by any measure.

The winner will face the task of “re-branding” the Conservatives, as the modern jargon would have it.  On television, they call it a make-over.  New duds.  Different haircut.  Maybe a change of shoes and socks.  Then off to the polls to see if the punters will buy it and vote the same crowd back in.


It might work.  Memories are short.  Look at that video, again.  There’s Frank Moores 35 years ago talking about how the province was leading the country, the old days of give-aways were gone and all that stuff.  We are hearing the same things again, as if all that stuff 35 years ago simply never happened.

Over the past decade, memories seem to have gotten shorter than they ever were.  Maybe it has something to do with the number of Premiers we’ve cycled through. We must pay attention to who the Premier is because  - the pundits agree  - we must measure all things by who the leader is.  One goes.  A new one arrives.  Everything changes.  There is no continuity - no overlap - between the two.

To give you an idea of how things have changed on this leader front, consider that we are now on Premier Number 11, heading toward Number 12 sometime later this year.  That fellow Moores we spoke of a moment ago was Number 2; that is, he was the second Premier since Confederation.  The fellow who replaced him was Number 3.  Your humble e-scribbler worked for Number 5 for seven years and for Number 6 for seven weeks or so.  Number 6 was still in office in 1999.  That was 50 years after Confederation and we were only up to Premier Number 6.

In the 15 years since then, and before that 15th year is out, we will have had another six Premiers.  In the first 50 years after Confederation, we averaged one Premier every 8.3 years.  In the past 15 years, we have been getting a new Premier on average every two and a half years. Newfoundland and Labrador has not cycled through first ministers like that since the 1920s. 

Think about it.

For another example of how difficult it has become to remember, consider the commentary by Telegram editor Russell Wangersky on this week’s edition of OPWDC.  When the conversation turned to Bill 29, Wangersky offered the view that the Conservatives were “victims of circumstance.” 

According to Wangersky, the Conservatives appointed a career civil servant to review the access to information law, you see.  He held public hearings and no one showed up. Then all these bureaucrats came to the commissioner and gave him lots of suggestions on how to fix their problems with the access law.

The commissioner took their advice since it was pretty much the only feedback he got.  He put it in a report.  The Conservatives accepted the report – presumably because they had no choice – and there you have Bill 29. The people of the province are beating them up for something the bureaucrats did. 

Felix Collins:  victim.

Think about *that* one for a second.

That is a wonderful story of how Bill 29 came about.  And yes, the Conservatives were victims of circumstance. The circumstances, though, were entirely ones the Conservatives created.  Wangersky’s story is nonsense, in other words.

The Conservatives did not pick a career civil servant by accident. They put thought into it.  Nor did they find out long after the fact that all these departments and agencies had suggested to their commissioner the many ways to block access to information. Nor was it an accident that the politicians accepted all the recommendations and added a few more to create even more ways to hide information from the public. They are the government, for crying out loud. 

The Fusion of the Partisan and Non-Partisan

Had Wangersky wanted to find out how the Conservatives set up the review commission, he could have simply turned to his left and asked fellow pundit Dinn.  Tell us, Steve,  Russell might have asked, how it was that your old boss picked this fellow to head up the commission.  We had the chance for the inside story, not Wangersky’s fairy tale. 

You see, Danny Williams was still the Premier when the Conservatives appointed John Cummings as the commissioner in March 2010.  Williams didn’t bail until December so his former deputy chief of staff could have given us lots of insights into why the Conservatives chose Cummings. All someone had to do was ask him a question.

Steve also could have enlightened us on the Conservatives’ attitude about public freedom from information. It goes back to 2005 with efforts to block release of public opinions polls in defiance of the black letter of the access law.  The attitude carried on through the Cameron inquiry, the purple files, the fibre optics review, and the $10,000 for copies of publicly-delivered speeches.  In essence, Bill 29 was the culmination of a decade of Conservative policy.

Steve could have explained it to us.  He’d have dashed the illusion of a separation between leaders, though, and that wouldn’t fit the illusion he and his fellow panellists were working with.  As much as some people like to pretend that each Premier is hermetically sealed from the one before and after, the truth is something else.  In the case of the Conservatives since 2003,  there is no separation at all.  Kathy Dunderdale dated her personal political legacy from 2003 for a reason.

Besides their own policy, there’s another reason why the Conservatives didn’t question the need to restrict public access to information.  The Conservatives have so fused the partisan political staffers with the public servants that  the Conservatives don’t see any reason to question the advice they get from the bureaucrats.

Basically, the Conservatives’ argument about Bill 29 was built on the same foundation as their argument about Muskrat Falls:  their “smart people”  told them it was a good idea and so they did it.  There was no way for the Conservatives to to take advice from outside the bureaucracy without destroying the philosophical foundation of the administration. So they ridiculed, derided, and attacked anyone who disagreed with them. And, as with Muskrat Falls, they accepted bad policy as if it was good just because it came from their trusted advisors.

If the reporters on David Cochrane’s “pundit” panel wanted to ask about the mingling of the partisan and the non-partisan, they had a really interesting fellow sitting there with him.  Dinn could have talked about Ross Reid and Len Simms, two partisans holding down public service appoints. 

And if they really wanted to have some fun, they could have asked about the political staffer in the Premier’s Office  who used to double check road paving to make sure it was handed out on a correctly partisan basis.  Not based on need, mind you, but the partisan colour of the district involved. Conservative districts got one amount.  Opposition districts got a lot less. 

That little tidbit about the political control from the Premier’s office came to light when Tom Rideout quit cabinet in May 2008 in a dispute over road paving.  At the time, Danny Williams called it “normal” to have a political staffer keep an eye on where the paving cash went.

The Echo Chamber

The Conservative “re-branding” Steve Dinn talked about this past weekend might work. It will depend, for the most, on whether or not people just forget things. Among other things, they’d have to forget that the people who are currently in cabinet are the same people who have been there over the past decade doing all the things that have pissed them off. 

Bill 29 upsets people.  It could be a touchstone, a symbol, a metaphor for some people.  Or it could be that people remember how it went down. They might recall the long history of suppressing information, the arrogant dismissal of any dissenting opinion, and the poll manipulation.

Ditto Muskrat Falls, another issue the pundit panel spoke of as if Steve Dinn had never been associated with it in any way. In that kind of a situation, where people on a panel just chose not to ask certain questions, the folks who aren’t on the inside of political echo chamber in the province might be persuaded to believe it was an issue that came and went with Kathy Dunderdale or that – as ludicrous as it would sound today – that the Conservatives were just hapless victims of some wacky circumstances. 

Maybe everyone will develop amnesia, too.

Could happen.