25 November 2014

Experience and government #nlpoli

In the 1980s, local entrepreneur Craig Dobbin bought a batch of helicopter service companies across Canada and merged them with his own company  - Sealand – to form Canadian Helicopters. 

By the time Dobbin died in 2006,  CHC was one of the largest providers of helicopter support services in the world.

Not just Newfoundland and Labrador.

Or Canada.

Or even North America.

The world.

$1.5 billion is less than $285 million and other silliness

Two years after Dobbin passed away,  his successors sold the company for $1.5 billion.

Someone – it isn’t really important who – had a problem with the observation in a post on Friday about Danny Williams’ business background before he became Premier.  The post was about the fact that, unlike a century ago, Premiers these days come into office with virtually no experience in government.

The guy on Twitter professed no personal interest in the issue but, to be frank,  he defended Williams’ honour with an intensity that would make Steve Marshall blush. Williams, the guy said,  “led what was one of the biggest exits for any NL company. …no NLer in history had a bigger company that they had built.” 

No entrepreneur from Newfoundland and Labrador had sold a bigger company that he’d built than Williams?

Not even close to true.

Dobbin’s company – he ran it right up to the day before he died – sold in 2008 for six times what Williams sold his small, regional cable company for seven years earlier.  To get a real sense of the difference between the two, consider that Dobbin negotiated the purchase of five helicopter companies as he built CHC. They operated in different countries and Dobbin, in his time, wound up dealing directly and indirectly with all sorts of companies in all sorts of countries on pretty well every continent.

While all that is good fun, let’s get back to the point from last week. Recent Premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador have typically had far less experience in government than their predecessors before 1934.  While they all have different experience of one kind or another,  some of them have had far less experience in the kind of work in which government is involved.   That’s had an impact on how they have performed at least for the first year in office.  They’ve had to do a lot of learning on the job.  Some have had a steeper learning curve than others. 

Experience counts, in other words.

Davis’s First Week in the House

That leads us back to Paul Davis. While he has other personal strengths, Davis doesn’t have much personal experience running large organizations.  People have criticised his choice for chief of staff, but actually it was a very sensible choice.  As a former chief of the police force, Davis’ chief of staff should have lots of contacts within the administration and lots of scars from battles over policies and budgets. He should know how to make things happen or at least how to avoid some of the traps that a complete noob might fall into.

Davis made a choice that offset his personal shortfall. That’s smart.  The result should be that together, the team is stronger than any one individual. Teams are important in running big, complex organizations like a government.  A politician used to running a business by himself, or with only a few people who never questioned his judgment might well have made a very different decision. 

That also conveniently takes us back around to what prompted last Friday’s post, namely an assessment of Paul Davis’ performance in the House last week.  The focus was the question about European trade.  Davis fumbled at the beginning but by the end of the week,  he’d gotten it right.  As it appears, Davis was unprepared for the questions and tried to improvise a response unsuccessfully.  The Conservatives then had to spend a few days digging out of the hole. 

This sort of things happens in politics.  There’s nothing uniquely good or bad about it.  The fact Davis and his crew pulled themselves out of the shallow hole caused by the first fumble is good.


And there is bound to be a but these days.

The Rub

If Davis was a first-time Premier recently elected,  then this would be just a little pimple on the steep learning curve that – inevitably – goes with the job for any new Premier these days.  By the time the next election rolled around, Davis would have either made lots of fumbles or, more likely, racked up some successes.   He would be able to face the electorate with some confidence.

Davis doesn’t have the luxury of time, of course.  That’s the problem.  Fumbles like the one last week have an exaggerated importance by virtue of the circumstance.  Part of the circumstance includes, oddly enough, the perception that Davis and his colleagues have been relatively unsuccessful at things like dealing with the federal government when the truth is they have been significantly more successful than Danny Williams. 

People don’t think that way, as it seems, partly because of the huge mythology that’s grown up around Williams, most of it by his design with the active collaboration of all sorts of people in the business community and the media.  They keep alive a lot of fairy tales about Danny Williams,  like that he ran the biggest company ever sold in the province or Stephen Harper hates Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The first one is just nonsense and the second one is used to shift responsibility for Williams’ failures onto others. The one myth that arcs over them all, and the one doing in Davis and his crowd, is the myth that Williams was the most successful, splendiferous, magical, and amazing person the province ever saw.

Nothing could be further from the truth.