13 September 2014

Disconnection Trending #nlpoli

Tom Marshall got lots of coverage for his little ego-stroking farewell in the tradition of his ego-stroked predecessors.  The media advisory billed it as a thank-you to public servants and by jingo the local media reported it extensively and called it exactly that.

The one who organized the little show for him got a nice parting gift from her current boss.  Marshall appointed Kathy Dunderdale’s former communications director, whom Tom kept around, to the most senior communications position in the provincial government on Friday.  Milly Brown will be assistant secretary to cabinet for communications. 

Brown succeeds another of Kathy Dunderdale’s former communications directors,  Glenda Power, whom Kathy rewarded with a sweet little promotion in 2012.

There are a few things about this and the other goings-on the weekend that are worth mentioning because they are part of the pattern.

The most obvious thing about this appointment is that Kathy Dunderdale holds the record among Premiers for cycling through communications staff.  She went through four directors in as many years and at least as many “press secretaries.”  For good measure she even added a bunch of other people to her staff towards the end to do things like Tweet furiously. 

Kathy –and maybe her communications people – thought that communications was their big problem. Lots of conservatives have said the same thing. They were going down in the polls because people weren’t getting the message. They changed around bodies.  They tweeted frantically.  They paid an international consulting firm a nice chunk of money to change the way their news releases look.

Other than that, nothing changed. 

Down they went in the polls.

That doesn’t mean the Conservatives didn’t have a communications problem.  That remains one of several problems they have.

What’s interesting is that amidst all the talk of change,  the one thing they never changed is the people.  They just shuffled them around,  in the case of Glenda and Milly and a bunch of others.  In Glenda’s case,  she’d probably still be there until Tom rather heartlessly fired her and bunch of other people who worked for him.  No one knows for sure when he did it late one Friday afternoon, but tom seems to have been on orders from someone connected to Frank Coleman.  Tom kept Milly and his own personal aide but the rest got the gate.

The communications strategy,that is, who told what to whom, where, when, why, and so on, seems to have remained largely the same from Kathy through to Tom. The people who actually came up with the strategy and put it into action stayed, as well, even though everyone goes around talking about how the strategy wasn’t working.

Bit of a disconnect there.

So now Tom has rewarded Milly for her work by sticking her in the highly influential and also highly partisan work by giving her a shiny new title and a pay hike. That partisan thing is the next thing worth noting.  Supposedly, the assistant secretary job is part of the public service.

Not partisan. 

The Premier’s Office job is, by contrast, the one conspicuously partisan job in the bunch.  By shuffling people back and forth between the partisan and political with such ease, Marshall and his predecessor have shown that they see no real distinction between the one and the other.  There is a huge distinction, but what you need to notice here is that Marshall and his predecessor don’t.

It’s the same as the distinction between the departmental directors and the one in the Premier’s Office.  The department directors and junior staff are supposed to be non-partisan jobs. On paper, they are.  In practice, though, they aren’t.  The best thing you can say these days is that there are a mixture of people in there:  some are conspicuously biased in favour of the current party running government. Others are just doing their job.

One of the first challenges for any future administration of another political stripe will be picking apart the two.  It’s the same throughout the senior ranks of the public service.  The Conservatives have blended the public service and the partisan staff together to the extent where it is going to take a while for a future government of another stripe to weed out the partisans.  It will be critical to find those whose only qualification was their partisan or personal allegiance.

For those who might think this is only a party colour thing,  consider that Milly’s not safe in her current spot, either.  Unless Tom’s worked out a deal with his successor or Milly has some connection to the new Premier and his staff,  Milly could find herself like her predecessor:  out on her ass.  Those assistant secretaries are “at pleasure” jobs, meaning that you stay in it at the pleasure of the Premier.  That’s how Tom could so easily put a gun between Glenda’s eyes and pull the job-ending trigger, then later stuff Milly into the same job.  Someone else will be holding the gun next week and Milly better hope the gunslinger doesn’t have a lot of rewards to hand out.

Friday was like a feast of disconnections.  There’s the communications one,  the partisan-public service one,  the ego-stroke ostensibly for everyone else.

For good measure, Tom brought out a few others. He told reporters who attended the thing on Friday, he couldn’t understand how people started saying they were so secretive when they were so open.  Clearly Tom has been asleep the past few weeks.  His own commission appointed to review the access to information laws has heard story after story of how the administration Tom’s been an intimate part of since 2003 went to all sorts of lengths to hide information from people.

On Saturday,  Telegram columnist Randy Simms even helped turn it into a weekend of disconnects.  Greats books someone needs to write, according to Randy.  That’s not the disconnect:  too many politicians go to their graves never having written their memories of what happened during their time in office. Tom Marshall should write a book, if only to explore the idea he mentioned on Friday about the Conservatives coming into office thinking they knew it all and then finding out they didn’t.  He could then explore that bit of self-awareness to the point where he helps understand how throughout their time in office the Conservatives said one thing and did another.  he could include the bit about figuring out they didn’t know everything and yet rejecting any advice that didn’t conform to their preconceived notions.  Even if he just told us who finally figured it out and who didn’t,  we might be able to explain lots.

Randy’s nominee for great books to get – Danny on Danny – would be boring.  It would be like this fictional documentary the NFB has produced.  Creatively titled Danny, it’s all about Danny, of course – what isn’t in his world? -  but the beauty of it is that you get to see all sorts of other people talking about how great Danny was, too.  it would be amazing, Randy:  amazingly dull,  amazingly self-absorbed and,  amazingly untruthful.

Amazingly untruthful would a good way of describing another of things about the time Danny and Tom spent in office.  Randy said that Tom ‘was the first and apparently the only finance minister in our history to actually manage money instead of ever-growing deficits. It brought new challenges to the job because everyone had their ideas on how to use that newfound cash.”

Amazingly, after a decade of having this administration’s actions financial records in his face,  Simms can still credit Marshall and Williams for things they didn’t do. They didn’t produce the $19 or $20 billion from oil revenues that they spent over the past decade.  And they didn’t have any ideas others didn’t have. Most people wanted the boys to spend all the money they had and Tom and Danny were only too happy to oblige.  That’s why we have a government that has had more revenue than any in our collective history and yet has set record levels of public debt and deficits.

Yet Randy praises Tom Marshall – who presided over most of the gross mismanagement – for not producing deficits and for managing publicly money correctly.

Disconnected with a capital D.