15 October 2014

What’s in a name? Justice edition #nlpoli

Premier Paul Davis changed the name of the justice department to “public safety”.  The local chapter of the Canadian Bar Association wrote a letter to Davis.  They complained that the government had changed the name of the department without making clear what the new department would do.

So after a couple of weeks of controversy, Davis added the word “justice” back into the department name.  He issued a news release late on Friday afternoon.

Some people think the name change is good.  Some think it is bad.  What’s more interesting is what the episode has revealed about the Conservatives with Paul Davis in charge.

Right off the bat, we know that renaming the department was entirely a matter of political posturing.  Davis said so after he switched the name again.  He told reporters that he’d been hearing concern around the province about crime.  So he changed the name of the department that deals primarily with criminal prosecution, the police, the courts, and prisons.  Still, it took Davis two weeks to deal with an equally superficial decision, namely to change the name of the department to add the word “justice” back in. 

Actual, measurable public safety hasn’t increased or decreased in the past three weeks with all the changes of words but, then again, the new name wasn’t supposed to change anything.  it was just supposed to make it look like the Conservatives were doing something.

Secondly, we know that this claim that some people are concerned about crime doesn’t match up with either the objective evidence or what the local police have been saying. Violent crime in the St. John’s area is actually going down.  We know that because the local police force has explained it all very well. 

In fact,  the new chief of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary held a news conference this past summer to explain a set of statistics that made it appear like things were bad in the metro St. John’s area.  He was evidently concerned that people understand what is going on so that they would not think the police weren’t able to fight crime already.

That suggests a third thing, namely that this name-change thing was done quite hastily by Davis and his people.  Davis turned up at the stabbing in Conception Bay South shortly before his swearing-in.  Local media took pictures of him on the telephone doing something.  Since the name change appears to have come up so quickly, it may well be that it sprang from comments Davis heard at the stabbing.

Fourth, that suggests that Davis and his team are operating at an astonishingly superficial level.  After a leadership campaign and then two weeks of transition,  the best that he could come up with as an initiative was changing the name of a department.  He changed the names of a few other departments as well, in case that had slipped your notice.  Ultimately, though,  this is a real left-Twix/right-Twix thing and nothing more. There’s no substance in it.

Fifth,  you can see in this confirmation that Davis has a big problem in his organization. He needed to have a major shift of direction during his swearing-in.  That should have been part of his desire to show a fresh start. It was a big moment and Davis blew it

Sixth,  a part of that organizational problem is in communications.   Even with a hasty decision, you can make some effort to give detail and explain the reason for it.  Davis’ people didn’t do that.  The official release is basically a series of simple, declaratory statements repeated twice.   But there’s no story in the release that explains why Davis renamed the department and what it was supposed to do. The Conservatives have suffered from a communications and management problem for a while now. This is a sign the problem isn’t going away.

Seventh, we have to wonder why a bunch of people, especially the local legal community, got so wrapped around the axle about a few words.  Well, as it turns out,  the name of the department was just a trigger for much greater frustrations that have been building up in the justice world for some time now.

They’ve suffered for some time under a series of dullard ministers.  Think about Felix Collins during Bill 29.  Think about Darin Luther King – that’s DOCTOR Darin Luther King to you – and his stupid budget cuts despite earnest, justified demands from his officials for more staff. 

And Felix Collins again.

Think problems in the prisons side of things with overcrowding in Labrador,  perpetual problems at the Penitentiary in St. John’s, and a notorious lack of movement on a new prison.

What wasn’t just old-fashioned stunnedness through several ministers was Terry French:  likeable enough but not exactly lighting any fires under anyone to fix the multitude of issues within the department.

Then he quit, suddenly.

Toss in the change of name for the department for entirely specious reasons. 

Cap it off with a bit of cronyism in a new, unelected, “unmarried lady” minister of a very junior vintage who can now legally appoint judges and Queen’s Counsel but who – under current law - hasn’t been practicing the third oldest profession long enough to qualify to even be considered for such an appointment, let alone actually get one.

Her opening week debacle  - to borrow a more recent Judyism – just threw a couple of telephone poles’ worth of extra embarrassment on top of the camel’s back already on the verge of breaking with years of accumulated frustration.

So yeah, for all those people still wondering:  changing the name of the department late on a Friday afternoon was a really important political move to show that Paul was listening. 

Everything should be good from here on.