30 April 2014

White Knight #nlpoli

The Alberta Conservatives are looking for a new leader. The old one quit last month amid a caucus revolt and a loss of popularity in polls.

Former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is interested in the job, as are a few provincial cabinet ministers.

A source close to the campaign told CBC that Prentice will make an announcement in a few weeks “at which time he will outline his vision for the province.”

According to the Calgary Herald, some of the likely contenders might drop out once Prentice confirms that he is in. According to the Herald:

Political analyst Duane Bratt from Mount Royal University said with Prentice now running to be the next premier, he expects the PC leadership contest will “not be competitive” as the former MP gains support from across the party.

Unlike other would-be candidates from within the Tory cabinet ranks, Prentice won’t carry any of the baggage of the unpopular decisions tied to the Redford government, he noted.

“He’s coming in as the white knight,” said Bratt.


29 April 2014

Decisive Leadership in Action #nlpoli

How hard can it be for someone to figure out when they want to start a job?


A job you want, mind you, not one you have been forced to take a gunpoint.

Apparently, Frank Coleman has finally figured out when he wants to start being Premier.

He has settled on July.

Sort of.

28 April 2014

Kremlinology 46: Premier Peek-a-Boo and the Dog Whistle #nlpoli

In a scrum with reporters after a public meeting about the Corner Brook hospital last Thursday,  Frank Coleman showed he has picked up the tendency of some politicians to talk about themselves in the plural.

The reporters asked about Coleman’s tendency to shun media interviews and to pop up here as if he were playing peek-a-boo. 

“We” had a strategy, Coleman told them,  of talking to the “family” first and “we” would get to everyone else after.  Coleman contrasted that with the opponent he wouldn’t name who spent a lot of time talking to “mainstream media” instead.

That’s a noticeable choice of words – “family” and “mainstream media” just like it is curious the way he referred to what will happen when he becomes “leader”.

25 April 2014

Cognitive Dissonance #nlpoli

People like things in life to fit together.

When things don’t fit together, people get upset.  They get fidgety.  They try to make things fit together.

It’s an idea regular readers know from other posts.  Take this bit from a post from 2012 as a good example of how some people react when faced with a situation where what is happening doesn’t fit with their pre-conceived notions. The context was a decision by then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale to refuse to meet with the parents of a boy who had  died tragically.

Prepared Statements and Unprepared Politicians #nlpoli

CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show is so off-put by politicians who issue prepared statements that they’ve found a former journalist turned journalism professor to discuss the growing trend not only in this province, but elsewhere.  Interviews are important, said professor, because then journalists can ask questions and get more information.

If CBC really wanted to get into this issue, they wouldn’t ask a journalism prof.  They’d be asking someone from the public relations or communications side of the street.  That person could explain the value of using many approaches to send information, not just the prepared statement.

You see,  prepared statements themselves aren’t the problem. They aren’t necessarily part of some growing and troubling trend, either.

24 April 2014

Plan 9 from Columbus Drive #nlpoli

Some enterprising political science graduate student will be able to write a brilliant doctoral dissertation a few years from now on the parallel ideas in provincial politics and popular situation comedy.

She will find fertile ground in the Big Bang Theory, especially the episode the in which Sheldon explains a complex idea in physics theory using the analogy of a cat in a box that may be either alive or dead based on a random earlier event.

Nalcor, for example, is like a giant box filled with Erwin Schrodinger’s cats.

23 April 2014

Strategically Unwise and other political own-goals #nlpoli

Depending on which interview you listened to on Tuesday,  Tom Marshall would be hanging around as Premier until the end of the summer.

At least.

That’s the VOCM story.

Marshall will run the place for two full months after the Conservative convention in early July while Coleman runs around the province attending all sorts of summer festivals.

Meanwhile, on CBC,  Peter Cowan said in his report on Tuesday evening that Marshall expects to hand over the Premier’s job shortly after the Conservative party meeting in early July.

Which is it?

That’s a good question, but there’s no clear answer.

22 April 2014

Four days late and a few dollars short #nlpoli

Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman did speak to the Telegram on Monday evening about the controversy that has been raging all weekend over his views on abortion and what that might mean for public policy in the province.

Coleman chose to issue a statement on Friday that didn’t address the central issues.  He was silent all weekend and unavailable to other media all day Monday.

That only made Coleman’s problem  of a big lack of legitimacy and credibility  all that much worse, of course.

Late on Monday, Coleman has tried to put the controversy behind him, but he will have a fair bit of work to do.

Crazy Train Wreck #nlpoli

Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman was off in Toronto on Monday – reputedly undergoing intensive media training -  and so he wasn’t willing to talk to reporters about anything, least of all the controversy about his views on abortion.

When Bill Barry dropped out of the Conservative leadership on Thursday, Coleman became the leader by default.  The only thing left is for the party insiders figured out when they wanted him in the job.  That’s not a joke.  That’s pretty much what Coleman said last week after Barry bailed.

Other than that, Coleman issued yet another official statement rather than talk to people.  And when controversy erupted about his support of the province’s Right to Life group, Coleman issued another statement.

Memorial University political scientist Stephen Tomblin offered CBC some scathing comments on Monday about Coleman’s performance thus far.

21 April 2014

Budget basics: Dealing with the Debt #nlpoli

Public sector pensions in Newfoundland and Labrador are underfunded.  There’s not enough money in the fund account to cover all the likely money they’d have to pay out to people when they retire.

But make no mistake, the province’s public sector pensioners are not in any real danger of losing their pensions as a result.  That’s because the Pension Fund Act guarantees that the provincial government will make up any difference between the money owed to pensioners annually and the money available from the fund.  Unless some provincial government in the years ahead changes the law governing the pensions, people will get the money and benefits they’ve been promised.

The provincial government isn’t going to default on pensions any more than they are likely to take the completely irresponsible advice some might give them to change all the plans immediately - unilaterally if necessary - to make them defined contribution plans instead of defined benefit plans.

It’s important that people remember that because there is a concerted effort going on at the moment to mislead people about public sector spending generally, and pensions in particular.

19 April 2014

Legitimacy and Credibility #nlpoli

In the crude, modern way of putting things, shit got real for Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman on Friday.

The Telegram’s James McLeod tweeted Coleman’s response to a question about whether Coleman planned to do this year what he normally does on Good Friday and participate in the anti-abortion march in Corner Brook.

Here’s what McLeod tweeted:

Media preview

And then Twitter exploded.

18 April 2014

The Further Adventures of Premier Peek-a-boo #nlpoli

Frank Coleman didn’t speak to reporters about the Conservative Party by-election loss in Virginia Waters.

Someone wrote up a prepared statement and sent it to reporters later on.

The Western Star caught up with Frank Coleman on Thursday after Bill Barry bailed on the rigged Conservative leadership election.  Barry said the process was “disingenuous”.

Coleman begged off any detailed comments
“So, I’m just trying to figure this out myself,” said Coleman, who noted he’d barely had time to discuss it with his team.
Coleman said his communications co-ordinator would be issuing a media release later in today.
Coleman doesn’t have something substantive ready to say.

Instead, someone writes up some comments for Coleman.

Is this a pattern yet?

Man of the People update:
A paraphrase of Coleman's comments, offered by an e-mail wag:  "When asked about the withdrawal of his only competitor, his friend, and neighbour, Frank Coleman told his local newspaper that he'd have his communications director send them a prepared statement."

The Fix Was In #nlpoli

Bill Barry, in the Western Star, on the Conservative leadership show he quit on Thursday:

“I just chose to recognize that the leader has been selected by the party insiders.”

“But if they’re going to do that, why have a convention?” he asked. “If the determination is going be made before the debate happens, and before an event happens and people are going to all head in one particular direction, why go through the process? It seems disingenuous to me.

Read the rest of Barry’s comments in the Western Star exclusive.


Experience still counts #nlpoli

Now that Frank Coleman is the de facto leader of the provincial Conservative party, there’s no reason why Coleman can’t be in the Premier’s Office with his new cabinet in place when the House of Assembly resumes its current sitting in early May.

Absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Coleman can appoint Tom Marshall as the deputy Premier or leave whomever Coleman appoints as Government House leader to stand in for him until Coleman can get a seat in the legislature.

It’s really simple.

And when the budget is done,  Coleman can head down to Government House and ask the Lieutenant Governor to issue a writ for a provincial general election to be held by the end of June.

There is no reason for Coleman to delay going to the voters to ask them for a mandate of his own to govern the province as Premier.

17 April 2014

Pearl Necklace #nlpoli

Mount Pearl is alive with rumours this week that Steve Kent is trying to cross the floor (back) to the Liberals.

Kent’s open dispute with the education minister Clyde Jackman over school re-organization in the bedroom city seems to have been the catalyst for the flurry of rumours.

Now it could all be nothing, except for the fact that Kent’s fellow Mount Pearlers…Pearlites…Pearlies…whatever … know that the former child mayor has a reputation for changing his political affiliations when it suits.

16 April 2014

How not to bolster public confidence: the umpteenth Nalcor edition #nlpoli

The folks at Nalcor held a media briefing at 11:00 AM on Tuesday.  it was supposed to be about the release of the independent engineer’s review of Muskrat Falls done as part of the federal loan guarantee.

You may recall this was part of some great confusion a few months ago when the provincial energy department answered an access to information request by saying they didn’t have a copy of the report only to have it emerge that Nalcor had had the report since the previous November and briefed at least a couple of cabinet ministers on it in the meantime.

That led to a bizarro series of telephone conversations between energy minister Derek Dalley and the Telegram’s James McLeod that just added to the sense that Dalley  - among others – had no idea what was going on in the world. Later on the provincial government announced they were creating yet another form of Nalcor oversight regime all built around informing the public. That turned out to be a whole lot of nothing at all and, to cap it off, Nalcor missed its commitment to issue a financial update at the end of the last fiscal year. (March 31)

Not a very good way to bolster public confidence in a company after the Nalcor-induced blackouts in January.

15 April 2014

The Virginia Waters Come-Back Myth #nlpoli

Danny Williams said it.

Tom Marshall said it.

In the Virginia Waters by-election the Conservatives were trailing by 15 percentage points and managed to come back and tie it up in the matter of a couple of weeks.

Marshall embellished the story in his most recent interview with David Cochrane.  Supposedly the Conservatives were trailing from the start and some unknown people expected the Conservatives to lose the Virginia Waters by-election.

The Conservatives claim they came from behind to tie it up but there is no objective evidence that the claim is true.

14 April 2014

Budget Basics: Unfunded Pension and Benefits Liabilities #nlpoli

While the provincial budget for 2014 was all about spending government money, the budget speech did raise one issue that the provincial government appears intent on cutting dramatically.

A key component of the province’s net debt relates to unfunded pension and other post-retirement liabilities. Despite an investment of more than $3.6 billion, the liabilities have continued to grow. As of March 31, 2013, they accounted for 67 per cent of net debt. By 2016-17, they will account for 85 per cent of net debt – almost $9 billion.

The provincial government has been talking about the unfunded pension and benefits liabilities for a couple of years now.  It’s a hot issue among business groups like the employers’ council or the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. 

As regular readers know, the board of trade is keen to deal with the unfunded liability, too, even if the president or whoever wrote her column in last week’s Saturday Telegram don’t appear to understand what it is all about.

For whatever reason, business groups get quite agitated about public sector workers and their pensions.  Other public debt doesn’t get them quite as worked up and, as the board of trade demonstrated quite clearly, there’s a fair bit of misinformation about the unfunded pension liability.

In this second post in the Budget Basic series, let’s take a look at public sector pensions and put them in a wider context.  Misinformation never leads to good public policy but right now, pretty well all the anti-pension commentary is based on some amount of misinformation.

11 April 2014

Premier Peek-a-boo #nlpoli

Pretty well every Conservative who is anyone in the province turned up on Wednesday night at Danny Breen’s by-election headquarters.

Every Conservative, that is, except the fellow who is the heir-apparent to the leadership.  Frank Coleman wasn’t anywhere to be seen according to reporters at the headquarters after the polls closed.

It turned out that Coleman had shown up at around 7:00 PM, an hour before the polls closed, looked around for a bit and then left.  Apparently, he had better things to do.  He didn’t speak to reporters about the by-election loss. 

Instead, Coleman sent out a written statement.  If he gets to be Premier, someone wrote on Coleman’s behalf,  Coleman would welcome Breen as a candidate in the next election. 

In ordinary circumstances,  people would likely consider Coleman’s actions to be quite bizarre.  But then again, these are not ordinary circumstances. 

10 April 2014

Ripples #nlpoli

The provincial Conservatives lost a crucial by-election in Virginia Waters on Wednesday, but not for lack of effort.  The could not possible have pulled out any more stops to try and win the seat in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Even on polling day the Conservatives mounted a prodigious effort and the last couple of days before the final vote, the Conservatives had every cabinet minister, caucus member, and political staffer doing whatever it took to find every possible vote.

They came close, but the Conservatives lost

And that simple fact will have enormous implications.

09 April 2014

Major Muskrat Costs Missing #nlpoli

As of April 4, Nalcor was “still in the process of negotiating and letting some large contracts for the [Muskrat Falls] project.”

That’s the reply the Telegram got from Nalcor about missing the Muskrat financial update the company was supposed to issue at the end of March.

Haven’t got the information yet.


Well, that’s a bit troubling in itself, given that Nalcor is supposed to be reporting monthly to the provincial government on project costs.  So if Nalcor is telling the provincial government that sort of information they can tell the people who are paying the bills – the local taxpayers – the same information, without any deletions or omissions.

And if the provincial government had any stones, they would insist that the Nalcor board not deliver any bonuses to the president and the corporation vice presidents until the company sorts out its financial reporting.  Ed, Gil, and Dawn would be spitting out real numbers  pretty damn fast if someone actually held them accountable.

No one should hold their breath waiting for that, of course.  At least, not any time soon.

Anyway, if Nalcor won’t report its costs accurately and on time, here’s a little tidbit to hold you over.

astaldi muskratAstaldi is the company that won the tender last year to build the Muskrat Falls dam itself. The company and Nalcor valued the contract last fall at CDN$1.0 billion.

You can see that in the screen capture from Astaldi’s 2013 year-end financial report, released at the end of March.

The company reported the CDN$1.0 billion figure as well in its third quarter report released last November. There’s also a mention of payments on Muskrat Falls that would come before the end of Astaldi’s fiscal year:

Payments expected from Italy (Rome Subway Line C, Milan Subway Line 5) and Canada (Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Project) are forecast to decrease net debt levels by year end to approx. €800mn [from 896 million]

Lovely stuff.

But hang on.

What’s the exchange rate on the Euro these days? 

Well, friends, if you plug that 822 million Euro valuation Astaldi gave the project into a currency converter you find out that it works out to CDN$1.24 billion, or 24% more than the project’s face value at the time Nalcor announced the tender award last October.

That’s a hefty cost increase in a very short space of time. Now Nalcor has something else to explain besides just why they are tardy – yet again – with their project reporting.



08 April 2014

Budget basics: debt #nlpoli

Board of trade president Sharon Horan wrote in her Telegram column last weekend that the unfunded pension liability will make up 85% of the provincial government’s debt not to long into the future.  That will be up from the 75% of the public debt it makes today.

There you have proof that even the president of the largest business organization in the province does not understand the first thing about the state of the provincial government’s finances.

Public debt is a really basic idea that you have to know if you want to understand public finance.  And you need to understand public finance if you want to have a useful say in how the government is running things.  That’s what the folks at the board of trade want to do, one would expect.

And yet Horan got it wrong. 

Not a mere technicality.

But dead wrong.

So if the board of trade can bugger up public debt, let’s see if we can walk everyone through the notion in a way that we can all understand.

07 April 2014

Electricity “review” a waste of time, money #nlpoli

Now we know why it took the provincial government so long to release the “review” of the provincial electrical system that former Premier Kathy Dunderdale made up off the top of her head when people were trying to take her head off over Nalcor’s giant blackout in January.

The “review” is going to involve nothing more than a description of the existing electrical system and other systems across Canada.

There’s nothing in the request for proposals – not a commission of inquiry (!!!) – that people in the provincial government either don’t know already or should know.

And since this will be just another consultant’s report, the consultant has no legal ability to obtain detailed information the way the public utilities board or a public inquiry could.

There also doesn’t appear to be any provision for a discussion of the regressive, monopoly system the provincial government created in 2012 because Muskrat Falls isn’t the cheapest way to provide electricity for provincial demand.

What’s the point of examining the province’s electricity policy if you don;t actually look critically at the policy and propose alternatives?

Yes, folks, it is a waste of time.  And you know it’s a waste of time because they released word of the request for proposals after normal working hours on Monday.  It’s a new version of “take out the trash”.


Repealing Bill 29 #nlpoli

The Liberals proposed a motion during last week’s private member’s day that the government repeal Bill 29.

Meanwhile, at the Telegram, legislative reporter James McLeod has been waging a one-man crusade to get everyone to stop trying to repeal Bill 29.  Bill 29 actually fixed a few nasty things,  according to McLeod.  For example, rather than force reporters to chase after ministerial briefing notes,  Bill 29 banned release of them outright:

When Bill 29 came along, it created a specific exception to end this game. Now, the government could withhold any document which was “a record created solely for the purpose of briefing a member of the Executive Council with respect to assuming responsibility for a department, secretariat or agency.”

Then there is the matter of requests for information that the bureaucrats think are “frivolous and vexatious.”  The example McLeod uses to endorse that part of the bill is odd.  He filed a request for documents about the cod moratorium.  The Telly dropped the request when they discovered that a couple of days after getting their pile, the government proposed to release the whole pile on the Internet.  That wasn’t a frivolous request, incidentally, but McLeod holds it out as a justification for that bit of Bill 29. 

04 April 2014

Horsefeathers #nlpoli

While people have been agitated about comments on Twitter,  the Premier has been dazzling the politicians in the House with his explanation of the marvellous financial position of the provincial government under the Conservative Party.

On Monday, the former finance minister buggered up the amount of dividend that Nalcor will provide thanks to Muskrat Falls.

On Tuesday, he corrected himself and noted he meant all of Nalcor instead of just Muskrat Falls. That just made matters worse, though.  You see,  the Premier’s comments didn’t exactly jive with information one of his colleagues talked about in the House a year or so ago.  That’s not including the fact that much of the money the Premier attributed to Nalcor was actually coming from oil that the people of the province gifted Nalcor with for nothing.

On Wednesday, the Premier went for the hat-trick with a discussion of debt.

03 April 2014

Enormous dividends #nlpoli

Back when he was in another cabinet job, Premier Tom Marshall made some comments about dividends from Muskrat Falls.

Let’s take a look at them.

02 April 2014

Premier Confusing #nlpoli

Premier Tom Marshall has been in cabinet since 2003.  He’s held pretty well all the big portfolios connected to Muskrat Falls, including natural resources and finance.

He should know details about Muskrat Falls backwards.

That’s why his comments in the House of Assembly on Monday caused such a stir:

01 April 2014

Political Parties and Ideology in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli

If you haven’t read it already, flip on over to Drew Brown’s blog coaker’s ghost and check out his post called “much ado about nothing.”

Drew discusses some recent events in local politics and makes two major points:

  • There isn’t much of an ideological difference between the Liberal and Conservative parties in Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Maybe this explains why the activists for the parties tend to fight among themselves so aggressively.

There’s more there  - and Drew is always worth your time - but those are the two points to take up here.