01 September 2014

Family reasons #nlpoli

The story flopped out on Friday morning,  broken by VOCM, based presumably on information that came directly from Charlene Johnson herself.

We can presume that because as the rest of the newsrooms caught up to VOCM,  Johnson confirmed that the story was generally true.  As CBC reported, “Johnson said she wants to leave because of family concerns. Her husband now works overseas. As well, she is the mother of a young daughter.”

The eulogies for her political career were quick and generally laudatory. Some picked up on the line from her commentary that she was leaving because of family considerations and pronounced it entirely right and just.  Her husband was working out of the country and her young daughter was just five years old. 

Good for you, girl, they clucked in paternalistic approval.  Someone claimed out that Johnson had broken new ground by being the first politician to give birth while in office.  She’d challenged the conventions, so the claim went, and forced the legislature to consider new rules about parental leave and responsibilities.  The political panel assembled for this week’s On Point over at CBC all thanked Charlene for her years of service and wished her well.

All wonderful stuff, except that “family reasons” is an excuse so worn out from over-use and, as in Johnson’s case, misuse, such that it is not a cliche.  “Family reasons” is beyond that.  It is now a code word for something else.

And everyone knows it is bullshit.

Now as with all bullshit there is a tiny kernel of truth to the “family reasons” excuse Johnson is offering.  She and her husband have,  as VOCM reported, sold their house.  He has taken a job overseas although we do not know how long the fellow has actually been either living away from Johnson and their daughter or commuting.  Some say it’s the better part of a year.  Regardless,  Charlene and her husband have evidently decided that there is some good opportunity available now that would let Johnson get out of politics.

Note, though, the flip side of that.  Before now, including an unknown period when Dad was in one place and Mom another,  they managed to carry on.   And for as long as the Conservative political fortunes were good and Charlene had a chance for a promotion or two, they were prepared to work with either the two cities thing or the mom-works-all-the-time-while-dad-is-home-more thing.

As quick as some people are to cluck approvingly of Charlene Johnson’s family reasons excuse for her current decision,  the reality is that the supposedly brave crusader took exactly two months off to give birth.

That’s it.

Eight weeks.

The Conservatives did change the law covering members attendance and performance at the House while Johnson was pregnant.  They  amended it in December 2008 to cover birth and adoption,  that is, before she gave birth, and was made retroactive in its effect to the year before that.

But she only took two months off.  Either Johnson decided to take that short a period with her new baby or her colleagues wouldn’t let her off for longer.  Either way,  it takes the wind out of the story that Johnson was a pioneer and crusader.  That’s as it should since the whole crusading mom angle is really just more of the same sexist puffery about Johnson’s more recent decision.

On that decision to quit politics, let’s recall that politicians with the job in one place and spouse in another are no different than lots of families these days who go through go through a period where the couple actually live two very separate lives. For politicians,  this is especially true in federal politics where the spouse who is the member of parliament or senator lives in Ottawa more or less full-time while the spouse and the rest of the family live in wherever they had been living before the politician first got elected or appointed to parliament.  Some do it another way, namely upping stakes and moving to the suburbs of the nation’s capital, but these days commuting is common.

You see the same thing at the provincial level. Politicians commute.  Cabinet ministers with their fingers on the purse strings and the rule-book simultaneously have sanctioned situations where they finance commuting back and forth to work from homes kept as far from Sin Jawns as Labrador or the west coast of the island. These days ordinary people still turn a blind eye to such spending as they did when news of the travel expenses of local cabinet ministers first came to light a few years ago.  Getting paid to travel from your home in one community at one end of the province to your work place in another is an extraordinary thing in just about any sense of the term, all the same. 

That brings us back to the real story from Johnson’s news,  the one the news media and local commentariat skipped over.  If Johnson and her husband had any sense her career prospects were still good,  odds are they’d probably figure out some way to keep the separate work countries thing going.  we can say that because of what Johnson did before now.  And what they have done before now is nothing special or laudatory:  it’s what lots of couples with small children and two spouses working do all the time.

We really have to look askance at the timing of Johnson’s announcement. There is a leadership convention in a couple of weeks. Regardless of why she is going, Johnson could have easily worked out a simple deal with the new leader  - whoever it is  - to shuffle her out of cabinet with her consent.  She could have stayed on as member of the district for a while, as well, knowing that her colleagues would give her some leeway in dealing with her family responsibilities, as they had promised.  Her departure would have slipped largely unnoticed and she could have gone on to her new life quietly.

Johnson’s timing is especially curious when we consider that she supports John Ottenheimer in the Conservative leadership race.  He doesn’t have a seat in the House and needs one.  The past few weeks, there’s been a rumour flying around that John would run in the seat held now by his brother-in-law Tom Hedderson and not in the seat guaranteed to be vacated by Tom Marshall in a couple of weeks.  Ottenheimer decided to put down that rumour by announcing he was firm on Humber.  But what if he could have run in Johnson’s old seat, and give the people of Trinity-Bay de Verde the chance to be represented by a Premier for the first time in just about ever.  We’ll never know now.  Ottenheimer made the choice publicly before Johnson let her story out.

Johnson pulled a Shea instead. The story by late Friday was not that Johnson was merely thinking about going as she had been in the morning, but that she would announce her resignation on Wednesday next week.  As such,  Johnson has pushed her story out a couple of weeks in advance of the leadership convention. She has robbed the new Premier  - whoever it winds up being - of any ability to manage the transition politically. She has also invited the inevitable, and largely correct,  inference that her departure has more to do with Johnson’s assessment of the Conservatives’ political future than about looking after “family reasons”   pure and simple.

The only conclusion we can reach is that Johnson is either completely politically tone deaf or she decided to shaft her caucus colleagues royally.  After all, the way she has unveiled her departure from politics, Johnson has not only highlighted the Conservatives’ collective political misery but, in effect, she painted her raised middle finger a shockingly bright shade of blue so that no one can miss what she was doing. 

Ottenheimer’s announcement had the effect of killing speculation that the Tories would face two by-elections this fall.  They  are disorganized anyway and the string of by-election losses has been severely demoralizing.  The leadership fight has tired out the weary volunteers, as it would anyway. One by-election they could do, especially if it was one they felt they could win, especially with Ottenheimer the Premier as the candidate. 

As a result of Johnson’s resignation, the Conservatives will have to fight two by-elections before Christmas.  Fight them one at a time or together, the impact isn’t any less on the Tory Troopers. If Ottenheimer isn’t the candidate in Humber,  the odds go up dramatically that the Conservative Christmas present this year will be two by-election losses back-to-back.  If Johnson didn’t mean to leave her colleagues with that turd under the tree, then she is more politically stupid than anyone with a decade in politics should be. Either that or she is giving her colleagues a blue shaft. Take your pick. Neither is very flattering, but the truth is, there’s really no other way to interpret the timing of Johnson’s announcement.

When you are done with that, step back and look at the pattern that’s emerging here.  What you have with both Johnson and Shea is another clue on top of the depressing string of by-election losses that the Conservative caucus is not so much a team as a loose agglomeration of self-interested individuals. This is entirely consistent with the way they have collectively run things since 2010.  It fits with the rather bizarre budget year in which Jerome Kennedy was some sort of facilitator not a minister and Darin King blew off his political toes, one by one, up to the knees and everyone else in cabinet just stood by and watched the show.

It also explains how things were before that.  Politicians like Johnson just did as they were told back when Danny Williams was leader.  Danny and his crowd ran everything, especially everything of consequence. The only job for others in caucus outside Danny’s very small inner circle was to read the prepared lines.  Do what you were told and everything was fine.

That’s largely how she got appointed to cabinet and how she took on one job or another afterward.  She was a loyal soldier to the leader.  She laughed and smiled as the Great Dan launched into his nasty, bilious spews in the House.  She thumped her desk enthusiastically at his every utterance. Competence was clearly never as important as compliance.  Johnson’s long service in cabinet and her promotions  despite her bumbling shows what Williams and the members of his his inner circle who. not by coincidence, succeeded him valued above all. 

Johnson adopted Williams’ trademark arrogance as easily and as unjustifiably as did Kathy Dunderdale. Johnson supported government secrecy as enthusiastically as any of her colleagues and, as SRBP noted just last year, she had a remarkable propensity for mucking things up.   She was Nicola Murray come to life, and in her last job, there is no question that she was to Tom Marshall what Kathy Dunderdale was to Danny Williams:  the stand-in.  Charlene Johnson has not set government financial policy since her appointment to the portfolio any more than Dunderdale ran natural resources.

Metaphor as it might be, her one lasting political contribution, the one thing Johnson could control was her exit from political life.  Johnson could not have made a more eloquent statement than she did even if the vast majority of people looking on seem to have missed it entirely.