22 September 2014

Edges #nlpoli

The Premier’s Office issued a couple of news releases last week about what someone they called the Premier-Designate would be doing. 

The first release was a curiosity.  The second one made the whole thing very strange since it was plain that Paul Davis would be attending these events as a sort of Premier-in-waiting,  replacing Tom Marshall. 
Paul Davis is a member of the House of Assembly.  He’s also just been elected the leader of a political party.  But in terms of the provincial government itself, Paul Davis is an outsider.  The news releases issued by the Premier’s Office called Davis Premier Designate, but that’s really just a name people have stuck on him because they don’t know what else to call him.  It isn’t an official title by any means

What’s more, there’s never been a government of the type we’ve had since 1855 anywhere in the world whose been in Davis’ spot.  It’s highly unusual, to say the very least. But when it comes to the crowd currently running the place this is very familiar.

What’s going on is pretty much the same thing that happened with Frank Coleman.  Coleman told Marshall to fire all the staff in the Premier’s Office and appoint a couple of Frank’s people into key jobs.  Tom did it.  At the time,  Marshall insisted that it was all part of the transition to the new premier,  that Marshall had made the appointment,s and that it was all normal.

Except that the Friday Night Massacre wasn’t anything close to normal.  Until then, we’d never had a case where the people who would be working for a future Premier got into the office and started working before their guy had the legal authority to hold the office.  Not only had such a thing not happened in Newfoundland and Labrador going back to 1855 but,  there’s no similar case dating back any number of centuries anywhere in countries that have the same Westminster-style government we run.

Some people, Tom included, have tried to explain all this away as just a bunch of friends working things out among themselves.  One big happy family.  No big deal. 

Except that it is a big deal.

It’s a big deal because we don’t really know the limits of what is going on. We have no idea  where the edges are.  Tom was willing to let Frank determine who worked in the Premier’s Office.  What else did Frank get to decide or have a hand in deciding?  We don’t know.  Tom may well have gone along with the whole thing because Frank was supposed to replace him. As it turned out, Frank did a runner.  Now Tom’s royally pissed about that, as you can tell by his public comments

These days, Tom is pissed.  He’s tired.  He wants out.  That theme has turned up in a bunch of recent news stories.  And while Paul Davis has said he’d make the actual transfer of power sometime within two weeks after the Conservative Party convention, that’s not good enough for Tom.  Davis appears to be moving into the office piece by piece already, as a result.

A couple of speaking engagements and a photo opportunity with a guy dressed up as Ronald MacDonald aren’t about to bring on a constitutional crisis tomorrow.  But they do raise a few questions worth considering.

The first is the issue of the edges.  What has Tom been letting these fellows  - Frank, Paul, and their associates - do under Tom’s signature? 

Tied to that is the second question, namely accountability. Tom’s got the job.  His signature is figuratively or literally on any decision. But who actually made it?  If we needed to trace back ma decision and find out who was responsible, you can imagine the confusion that would reign. That might be less an issue if Davis actually takes the oath from the lieutenant governor sometime next week.  But in Frank Coleman’s case, he might have been running the place under Tom’s warrant for Heaven-knows-how-long before he got around to visiting Government House.

Third, we’ve got the question of of authority and legitimacy.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have governed themselves since 1855, except for the few years of the Commission. Our constitution vest formal executive authority in the Queen, presented in Newfoundland and Labrador by the lieutenant governor.  We administer that authority – in the words of the Constitution Act -  “according to the well understood principles of the British Constitution by the Sovereign personally or by the Representative of the Queen.”
Responsible government puts the actual exercise of that executive authority in a cabinet made of elected members of the House of Assembly who are responsible to the House. The legislature is ultimately responsible to the people.

What we had with Coleman was a case of someone without a seat in the House wielding executive authority in practice, while someone else had the legal authority to do it.  In the Davis case, Paul’s been subbing for Tom with a trumped up title.  He’s a member of the House but Paul isn’t in cabinet. A member of the cabinet stands in for the Premier even on these ceremonial occasions because a cabinet minister is one of the people who legally has the authority to act in the place of the Premier in certain instances.
Paul isn’t exactly anyone off the street, but then again, he hasn’t put all the necessary checks in the necessary boxes to be able to be the fill-in Premier.  If this was an isolated case, then we probably could all pass it off as nothing.  Excepted it isn’t isolated.  Tom treated a complete political outsider much the same way.

Fourth, and last, we have to wonder if this is another indicator of the fundamental changes in the way government runs that have happened since 2003.  Danny Williams diminished the place of cabinet ministers to the point where they were just figureheads in some cases.  He ruled with a form of court government, in the way Donald Savoie has described.

Since Williams left, things have shifted.  The cabinet appears to function these days as a loose association of individuals. The Premier still holds key powers but the cabinet doesn’t respond quite the same way to the more recent Premiers the way they did for Williams. In a couple of areas,  the Premier’s power seems to be somewhat limited.  The Premier hasn’t been able to restructure cabinet,  for example. Kathy could only to add to the numbers, not reduce them.  She also didn’t seem to have any real control over budgeting.  The largely fictional austerity budget seems to have been run in an extremely loose way, with minister setting their own paths.  One – Darin King – screwed up completely but Kathy Dunderdale couldn’t discipline him by firing him, as the infraction warranted.

While post-Danny premiers haven’t been able to reduce cabinet,  the individual ministers themselves have controlled when they left.  That would explain the way ministers have just left office whenever they felt like it lately. The consequence is that the premier has spent inordinate amounts of time running people down to Government House or the court house to get someone sworn in as the the minister of this or the minister of that.  They can’t seem to get it co-ordinated and Tom either hasn’t been arsed to sort things out or just knows he cannot do a damn thing about it.

It’s a curious turn-about since Williams’ day in that respect.  It’s all the more reason to see what actually happens when Davis finally gets around to naming his own cabinet.  Davis might do it on the day he’s sworn in, but then again, Davis seemed to suggest last week he might go with the current cabinet for a while. That’s another bit of oddness since everyone else who has taken on the job of Premier has managed to sort out his office staff and appoint a cabinet within two weeks of winning the job in an election.

With this crowd it’s hard to know where the edges of anything are.