21 November 2014

The Apprenticeship of Constable Davis #nlpoli

People are looking back a century to the start of the First World War so,  on the political side, it’s interesting to take a trip back and see what things were like then.

The Prime Minister was a guy named Edward Patrick Morris.  He was a lawyer, popularly known as Ned.  By the time he got to the Prime Minister’s Office, in 1908, he’d been in the House the better part of 30 years and he served in cabinets under different premiers going back to the late 1880s.  Morris’ predecessor – Sir Robert – had pretty much the same sort of background.

Compare that to recent Premiers in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Politics and public life has changed considerably in the hundred years since Morris and Bond, but even by more contemporary standards  the premiers since 2003 have been relatively inexperienced.  Danny Williams had no political experience before getting a seat in the House in 2001.  He’d owned a small local cable company,  but Williams had no experience in managing a multi-billion dollar operations with tens of thousands of employees.

Kathy Dunderdale, Williams hand-picked replacement had a long career in municipal politics before getting to the House of Assembly.  She served in Williams’ cabinet for seven years, including a stint as his deputy before vaulting to the top job.  For all that, she seemed to have problems in grasping the nature of the job, especially when it came to connecting with the public or, as with the federal government, with other politicians.

Tom Marshall was a place-holder, but like the others, he had no experience of provincial politics before getting elected in 2003.

Now we have Paul Davis.  A decent, and earnest fellow, Davis was a police constable before getting into provincial politics.  He’d been a municipal politician, but like most municipal politicians,  Davis had little knowledge of issues at the provincial level.  He’s had a short stint in cabinet, in a number of portfolios.  Davis hasn’t really been in any one department long enough to demonstrate that he can manage a department and a problem.  And now he’s the Premier.

You can see the result of that in Davis’ performance during the first week in the House.  Asked about the European trade deal,  Davis was obviously not that familiar with the deal.  Rather than let the minister responsible for the deal take the lead,  Davis did it himself.

“We have not progressed to where we would like to have it at this point in time,”  told the House, in response to a question from opposition leader Dwight Ball.  Davis then switched to talking repeatedly about the “five pillars” of the deal. Outside the House, Davis told reporters that the lack of progress was “troubling.”

The next day, Davis turned the questions over to Kevin Hutchings,  the minister who has had the lead on the deal since the provincial government got heavily involved in the talks.  Hutchings took the line that the talks were underway, nothing was in jeopardy and the whole thing was still about two years away from being in place, anyway, what with the vagaries of international trade diplomacy.

That’s actually the answer to all this, by the way.

Before Hutchings got into that, though, Davis dodged questions from ball about whether Davis had met with the federal regional minister.  Clearly, he hadn’t.  You have to wonder why.

Wednesday night, Davis spoke with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  Davis told everyone about the call in the House on Thursday:

I can tell the hon. member opposite, the members of the House, and the people of the Province that I had another discussion yesterday with the Prime Minister regarding CETA. We had a very good discussion.

Davis got himself into trouble on the first of this by getting sucked into a ridiculous strategy of pretending he knew everything about everything.  Then, he got sucked into the old ploy of accepting the thrust of the questions that the deal was in trouble. That’s a classic amateur mistake, especially for people who don’t have a grip on the issue and who are more used to following than leading. They try to blend in with what appears to be the dominant opinion.  Davis knew enough to avoid accepting Ball’s question entirely but he gave into it enough to cause a problem.

The next two days wound up being about the Conservative effort to un-eff what Davis had effed up the first day.

But here’s the thing:  note that Davis hadn’t met with the regional minister even though, as it appears from some sources,  he had an opportunity.  Instead, Davis had to hear from the Prime Minister.  Now everything is okay.

This doesn’t make Davis look very leader-like in that he didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on.  He should be able to decide for himself if everything is fine or not based on his own administration’s goals. Instead, he had to hear from the Prime MInister that everything is okay.

There’s a more troublesome aspect to this, too.  It has to do with the fact Davis would only speak to the Prime Minister.  There is a general rule that like deals with like but, in truth,  the complexity of relationships with very large organizations like the federal government  often means that you can’t rigidly adhere to that rule.

Unless you are a complete knobby amateur with an ego problem.   Danny Williams tried that crap on during the 2004 racket, but even he settled down and dealt with someone other than the Prime Minister when he had to.  Williams, though, is a bit more complex because he also had a problem that only he could do everything and anything. 

In Davis’ case, you’d expect him to let ministers lead files.  That’s commendable.  The overall responsibility remains with Davis as first minister, so, you’d expect that given the chance to chat with the federal minister with regional responsibility for the province,  Davis would take it.  The fact that Davis didn’t have the meeting suggests his head is in the wrong place or that he’s getting crap advice.

For those who want to turn up their nose at this idea, recall that Davis’ efforts to avoid the question about the meeting are evidence that he is sensitive to the implication that by not meeting with the minister, Davis did something wrong.  if he thought that blowing off the meeting was a good idea, he wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to avoid saying that he’d not met with anyone about the deal.

Things didn’t go well for Davis in his first week in the House as Premier.  After Ball got off the trade talks on Thursday, he asked about the environmental liabilities for the old paper in mill in Grand Falls-Windsor that Davis and his colleagues seized in 2008 as part of Danny Williams’ scheme to grab hydro-electric assets for Nalcor.  it’s a big subject for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that they figured in the Auditor general’s most recent report on the provincial government’s finances.

Davis’ reply to Ball was that the environment is important, the mill is important, but that he didn’t have the current figures handy, so he’d get them for Ball.  All wonderfully vague and a clear sign Davis just wasn’t up to speed.

The first week in the House did not go well for Davis, at all.

Experience counts, you see.  And the lack of experience can become painfully obvious.