26 September 2014

Premier Davis and the Dead Children #nlpoli

Paul Davis will get a lift down to Government House this afternoon and swear the oath of office so Tom Marshall can finally get out of politics.

It’s been about two weeks since Davis won the Conservative Party leadership and that’s a fairly typical period of time between election and taking office.  What hasn’t been normal is that Davis has been doing something in the Premier’s Office since last week.  He’s been standing in for the real Premier and we don;t know for sure what else he has been doing.

Davis doesn’t have a cabinet yet.  He’s going to name the cabinet and get them sworn in next week.  As for office staff,  Davis has named a chief of staff but there’s no sign yet of other names for other jobs.  One of the key jobs that is going begging is the person to run Davis’ public communications. 

There’s talk Davis will run a national competition for someone to take the job.  What would happen in the meantime – if he really goes that idiotic route – is anyone’s guess.  By the time they find someone to take the communications job, Davis’ political goose may already be cooked.

Davis is perhaps the only person ever to take the premier’s job who is – without question – not ready for the task.  The fact that key staff positions aren’t already filled isn’t a good sign.  What’s we need to look at in this post, though,  is what Davis hasn’t been doing and what that could mean in the longer term.

The Vacuum

His communications since the party convention should have been focused on two things.  First, Davis needed to make a speech to a major audience like the Board of Trade.  He should have done some media work as well, with a couple of longer one-on-one interviews. The aim would have been to define Davis and his agenda in the public mind.  Setting the agenda is an act of political leadership and more than anything else, it would have set the Conservatives firmly on the road to recovery. 

Education.  Health care.  Whatever it is that he plans to do, that’s what Davis needed to talk about.  Forget the internal party stuff.  People don’t care about it.  They want to hear about stuff that will actually make a difference in their lives.  Don’t talk about the Conservative glories of the past. That only matters to people already inside the tent.  Davis needed to reach out to people and talk about what interests them:  the future.

The second thing Davis and his team should have been doing is building excitement for the swearing-in ceremony for Davis AND his cabinet.  They needed to build up public expectations that something special would be happening soon.  Again,  the new cabinet with – hopefully – some fresh faces would be the confirmation of the promise of renewal made flesh. 

Instead, Davis did a few small events that were nice enough but not worthy of much media attention.  As such, most people aren’t paying any attention to him.  They won’t be paying much attention this afternoon either.  After all,  Davis has already been doing the ceremonial bit of the Premier’s job and for most people that makes it seem like he’s already there. The fact he is headed to Government House is now just a ho-hum thing rather than the culmination of a couple of weeks of build-up.

What’s worse for Davis is what Tom Marshall has been up to the past few months.  There have been so many people coming and going from cabinet that there seems to be nothing newsworthy in it at all. it’s a miracle any news room bothers to cover whichever Tory is minister of whatever today.  Why Marshall did this is an absolute mystery to anyone.  There was no legal need to do it.  The fact that he did bop downtown for a new minister every other day – that’s an exaggeration – made it all the more important for Davis to do a big show now.  The fact that he has missed all that,  just confirms that Davis and whoever is working with him just have no idea what they are doing.

There’s an iron law in politics:  if you do not define yourself, someone else will do it for you.  Davis hasn’t defined himself, except as being unprepared, and that is why some other event may stick to him just by virtue of the fact that it is there to fill in the gap.

Dead children are always news

That’s where we should look to the story of originally 26 and now 33 people under the age of 18 years who died while they were in some way officially connected to the provincial department of child services. The story came from an access to information request by the CBC.

When CBC presented the story, they were able to reveal that not only had 26 children and young people died, but that the House of Assembly official responsible for protecting children’s interests didn’t know anything about 20 of them.  The latest minister of child, youth, and family services – Sandy Collins – wasn’t even available to do an interview and whatever Milly Brown and the rest of the top people at government communications were doing, they didn’t find anyone to tell government’s side of the story.

The result was that people had very little information about the deaths at all.  CBC didn’t speculate.  They just reported what they had.  The failure by Brown – as comms director in the Premier’s Office –  and her boss, among others,  left everyone to fill in the gaps out of whatever they wanted to come up with.

Speculation is a cancer for media relations and, in situations like this,  people inevitably filled in the gaps for themselves with the sort of speculation that just eats away at government’s credibility.  In the back the backs of their minds,  people were likely thinking of Mount Cashel,  and Zachary Turner and all the other heart-breaking tales that have come from the provincial government’s child care services.  This department was supposed to stop that stuff but here, as it seemed, was evidence that the whole thing wasn’t working.

The government hasn’t done a better job of getting its version of events out in the meantime and this week, the story got new legs.  CBC reported that the child, youth, and family services department had turned up more cases of deaths they hadn’t previously found.  The department did the right thing by disclosing the information but the story itself suggested that senior management in the department didn’t really have any idea how many children had died while they were dealing with the department. 

Now to be sure,  there’s nothing to suggest at this point that government officials had a hand in the deaths by any means or measure.  The major implication of the story comes from the fact that the officials of the department seem to have dropped this information out there to CBC,  they don’t seem to be too bothered by the numbers, and, even with the latest set of figures seem to be just carrying on about the business of running the department in a decidedly cold, bureaucratic fashion.  That may be entirely incorrect but nothing that’s come from government suggests anything different.

The second thing that gave the story legs this week is news that the child and youth advocate has written to the Premier.  She wants amendments to legislation to require government departments to report child deaths to her.  Interviewed on Thursday by Canadian Press,  Davis said that he doesn’t think legislation is necessary but that he’d consider all the facts before deciding.   Davis gave a wonderful bureaucratic answer:  no rush to judgment.  Consider all the facts. The only thing missing from his line was that classic Humphrey-esque harrumph about “in the fullness of time.”

What he didn’t display is any obvious concern about the deaths themselves.  Davis gave much the same sort of answer during the leadership campaign when asked about them.  He had been briefed but didn’t seem to have inquired about them.  This may be Davis’ old police demeanour for dealing with hardship and tragedy. In that sense It’s perfectly understandable.  The problem for Davis is that he isn’t a cop any more. He’s a politician.  He’s the Premier. He needed to assure people that he would make sure things were done right and that anyone at fault would be sorted out. 

Davis mentioned a new committee specifically set up to look at child deaths in the province. They’ll be able to deal with these cases.  Davis was minister of the child services department in March when he and justice minister Darin King announced the appointments to the committee. 

Canadian press quickly pointed out that the department itself doesn’t believe the committee will address the 33 deaths the CBC found out about.  According to CP, the department pointed out that “the chief medical examiner reviews deaths of children who die while in the custody of a manager under the Children and Youth Care and Protection Act — but not necessarily those receiving government services who died while living with a parent or guardian.”  As the CP story also noted,  all but three of the 33 deaths occurred while the children were living with a parent or guardian, not in the custody of the provincial government.

That last bit is a piece of information that hasn’t emerged before now.  It might be in the original documents the department released to CBC but it isn’t obvious.  Still, it would have changed the perspective one gets on the whole issue of the deaths.  Would have changed, had it been included at the outset by someone speaking on behalf of the department to explain the information the CBC had.

Except it wasn’t because initially no one in the provincial government thought it important to explain anything to anyone.  Nature hates a vacuum and so people filled in their own feelings and interpretations in the meantime.  It’s much the same thing they will do to Davis.  As Premier,  if Davis doesn’t get a better grip on himself and on this issue of 33 deaths,  he will wind up being tied to the perception of government bungling in the deaths or of political indifference to them, even if that perception is completely it is completely wrong.