30 September 2014

Errors in judgement #nlpoli

March 13, 2014 was a Thursday.

Normal cabinet day.

According to Auditor General Terry Paddon’s report on the Humber Valley Paving contract,  Nick McGrath, then minister of works and transportation called his deputy minister at 8:45 AM and asked him whether he’d heard that HVP wanted to get out of their Labrador paving contract. (p.39) He hadn’t.

There’s no indication of how McGrath became aware of HVP’s problems.  According to Paddon’s report,  McGrath told him that he “may have” heard about HVP from colleagues. (p.54)  It’s all pretty vague.

The deputy called Gene Coleman at 9:15 AM, according to Paddon.  Coleman,  son of the erstwhile Conservative leadership candidate McGrath claims he had not heard of, confirmed the company “would not be going back to Labrador” (p. 54) in 2014, at least not without compensation.  Coleman indicated that without compensation,  HVP would want a mutually-agreed termination of the contract with the government. (p.39)

The Fairity Intervention

At 9:30 AM,  the deputy got a call from Kevin O’Brien.  He was calling about  the HVP contract, too, even though O;Brien had no reason to be involved.  (p. 39)  Asked by Paddon later how he became aware of the issue, O’Brien  - who was also an organizer for Frank Coleman’s leadership campaign - said that he had heard “colleagues” talking,  wanted to speak with the deputy about other issues but raised the HVP issue because of the potential connection to forest fires in Labrador.  (p. 54)   O’Brien was minister of fire and emergency services

29 September 2014

All our yesterdays #nlpoli

Someone in Paul Davis’ campaign has a quirky sense of humour.

They picked Bill Clinton’s 1992 election theme music for Davis to use as his walk-in music during the convention.  Let’s leave aside the eventual Bill Clinton of stains on little blue dresses and just look at the 1992 presidential election for a second.

Clinton was the Democratic Party insurgent tackling the other half of one of the more popular Republican presidents in a generation.  Ronald Reagan had run two successful majorities and passed on the legacy to his vice-president – George Bush – who had won handily in 1988.  Bush himself had become hugely popular after defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991 during the First Gulf War.  He’d faltered though, as the American economy faltered. The result was that Bill Clinton won the election in 1992 and ended Republican control of the White House after a dozen years.

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.

25 September 2014

No Privacy Protection in Marshall’s Office #nlpoli

Someone sent a request to the Premier’s Office for access to all “Email [sic], memos, letters, notes between Elizabeth Matthews and the premier’s office [sic] between June 1, 2013 and June 1, 2014”.

The Premier’s Office sent the person a couple of e-mails.  They deleted some information under section 30 (personal information) and section 7(2) of the Access to Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act. That second section basically allows government to sever information that is exempted from disclosure.

Read the completed access request and you will see the only thing they deleted was Matthews’ e-mail address.

Problem:  the entire disclosure violates section 30 of the ATIPPA. 

24 September 2014

Cabinet documents and deliberations #nlpoli

One of the big changes Bill 29 made to the province’s access to information law was to give a list of documents that could not be released under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act because they were cabinet documents.

Before then, the law in Newfoundland and Labrador, like the similar laws in the rest of the country merely said that people couldn’t get anything that would make public what the cabinet ministers talked about, in private, among themselves.  A British Columbia government policy manual explains why:

Premature disclosure of Cabinet deliberations inhibits the ability of Cabinet members to debate issues openly and freely, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Cabinet’s decision making role.

One of the reasons no one bothered to define a cabinet document and bar that from disclosure is that no one could really say what a cabinet document is.  People who’ve never dealt with cabinet or who have never had occasion to think about these things wouldn’t understand that how cabinet operates can vary widely from first minister to first minister.  The changes made in Bill 29 reflect how cabinet operates these days but Paul Davis or any of the ministers who come along later may run cabinet in such a way that most of those mandatory exemptions of certain pieces of paper won’t matter a bit.

There’s no firm rule as to who may sit in the room with cabinet.  Some administrations have allowed only  the clerk of the council and a deputy clerk into the room to provide administrative support.  Other people may come into the room and make a presentation but they get shuffled out of the room before cabinet discusses anything. In other administrations, they’ve had all sorts of hangers-on sitting in the room.  Most often, the extra bodies are senior political people from the first minister’s office.

At times,  the Executive Council hasn’t included everyone with a ministerial portfolio.  And on occasion pretty well every cabinet will throw everyone out of the room and discuss something entirely among themselves.  But there might never be a paper for them to read in advance, a note, a presentation or anything of the sort.

To give you a sense of how cabinets operate,  consider that, until 1989,  cabinet didn’t keep minutes like most boards and committees do.  Cabinet met.  They talked about things.  The only record of any decision would be the official “minute” issued by the cabinet secretariat and approved by the lieutenant governor.  That’s what made the decision the legal authority someone would need to carry it out.

Even the form of the minute varies.  These days,  it includes a list of people who get a copy.  There’s a number on it and the actual statement of the decision includes all sorts of references to the authority cited for making the decision. 

Go back a hundred years and you will find piles of these minutes.  They might be as little as a sentence or two.  The certified minutes, the ones that needed the Governor’s signature, were written out long-hand in a book the Governor kept.

That’s where things get interesting.  Note that the minute above refers to a meeting of the committee of the Executive Council.  The ones a century ago that your humble e-scribbler has been reading lately say pretty much the same thing.  That’s the another way of saying the Executive Council without the lieutenant governor present for the meeting.  These days it is unheard of for the Queen’s representative to attend any meeting of the council, federal or provincial, here in Britain or anywhere else.  A century ago,  a committee of the council – cabinet ministers without the Governor  - met to discuss all sorts of routine things, including budgets.

Back then, there were meetings of the Executive Council.  They took place at Government House and, as near as your humble e-scribbler can figure, they included the Governor. A good example was the meeting held at 3:30 p.m. August 7, 1914 to decide on the Newfoundland contribution to the war.  You can hunt for any record of the meeting in the cabinet papers and you’ll never find a mention.  We know it happened, though, because the Governor refers to to it in letters.  There’s a specific note in his type-written daily diary and the Prime Minister mentions it in a letter or two written around the same time.  We know they discussed a proposal drafted by the Governor two days beforehand, apparently based on discussions with the Prime Minister.  The version cabinet approved is not exactly what the Governor proposed.

There’s no record of that meeting, though, just as there is no record or any other meeting of the whole council during the period from about 1908 to 1914.  There might be others but YHE-S hasn’t gotten to them yet.

There’s nothing odd about that, by the way.  The British cabinet didn’t keep any record of decisions until after the war started.  There could sometimes be a huge gulf among ministers about what, if anything, they’d discussed and decided.  The only formal record of any sort through most of the 19th century was a letter written weekly by successive Prime Ministers to the Queen, for her information.  Even then, what the Prime Minister said cabinet discussed and agreed on might not be what ministers recalled.

Incidentally, for those who might be wondering about the endless trips to Government House to appoint ministers lately, you need only check the Executive Council Act to see that it wasn’t necessary:  “The Lieutenant-Governor in Council” – meaning the whole cabinet – “on the advice of the Premier may appoint a minister as acting minister for another minister during the absence or incapacity for any cause of that other minister, and all acts of an acting minister shall have the same effect as if done by the minister in whose place he or she is acting.” 

They’ve appointed acting ministers countless times over the past decade,  most often to cover off Charlene Johnson when she was on one kind of leave or another.  Tom Marshall could have done exactly the same thing as ministers quit for one reason or another. The only question is why he chose to swear in new ministers and shuffle his cabinet around all the time.


23 September 2014

Needed: a local think-tank #nlpoli

Anyone who was paying attention to these things has known for about 25 years that the province would face a demographic crunch starting ‘round about now.

Anyone who has been reading Bond Papers for any length of time will know that demographics have been a big issue your humble e-scribbler has been banging on about pretty much since the beginning in January 2005. Go over to labradore and you will find what is known in the professional analyst trade as a shitload of posts, graphs and other sorts of information about demographics.

Collectively, we’ve got a good handle on both the magnitude of the problem and the implications. The problems are already here and the deliberate lack action by successive provincial governments means we are substantially behind where we need to be to cope with the consequences of a rapidly aging population.

So it is that after studying all the stuff that people have already produced about the problems the province is facing, the good folks at the Harris Centre at Memorial University have concluded that we need – brace yourself – “additional research” in order to “get ahead” of these changes.

Ye frackin’ gods.

22 September 2014

Trouble getting SRBP? #nlpoli

Some people have been reporting problems getting SRBP through their Internet service provider or IT support team.

It isn’t clear what’s going on, but one of the problems seems to be a unique one confined to the provincial government’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

If you are having trouble getting SRBP,  drop a line to ed underscore hollett at Hotmail dot com.  Once your humble e-scribbler has a sense of the bigger picture we might be able to figure out how to fix the problem.


Edges #nlpoli

The Premier’s Office issued a couple of news releases last week about what someone they called the Premier-Designate would be doing. 

The first release was a curiosity.  The second one made the whole thing very strange since it was plain that Paul Davis would be attending these events as a sort of Premier-in-waiting,  replacing Tom Marshall. 
Paul Davis is a member of the House of Assembly.  He’s also just been elected the leader of a political party.  But in terms of the provincial government itself, Paul Davis is an outsider.  The news releases issued by the Premier’s Office called Davis Premier Designate, but that’s really just a name people have stuck on him because they don’t know what else to call him.  It isn’t an official title by any means

What’s more, there’s never been a government of the type we’ve had since 1855 anywhere in the world whose been in Davis’ spot.  It’s highly unusual, to say the very least. But when it comes to the crowd currently running the place this is very familiar.

19 September 2014

Political Definitions #nlpoli

Political conservatives like to talk about how government ought to be run like a business.  They talk about it so much that it’s odd, then, that they never actually do it.

Part of it has to do with language. They use words that appear to mean the same thing when, in fact, they actually have two distinctly different meanings.

Danny Williams is a good example of how that peculiar breed of politician.  The Old Man talks about the public money his buddies on city council gave to his hockey team as an investment. As a businessman, though, Williams means something different when he talks about investing his own money.

18 September 2014

No-brainer #nlpoli

Perhaps it is just Danny Williams’ ingratitude that pisses people off.

The multi-millionaire hockey team owner just got a massive subsidy from the taxpayers of St. John’s so that he won’t suffer any lost revenue.  It should be a no-brainer for the guy to say thanks to the people who have made him wealthy for the cash Williams’ buddies on city council handed him this week.

A simple “thank you” wouldn’t have hurt him.

it was a no-brainer.

But no. 

Instead, Ole Twitchy called the media together on Wednesday to whine, moan, bitch, and complain about those who don’t like giving tax dollars to people like Williams who don’t need it.

What a douche.

17 September 2014

No more give-aways #nlpoli

Danny Williams is one of the richest people in Newfoundland and Labrador.  He is a multi-millionaire who owns a successful hockey franchise in St. John’s.

Danny Williams makes a lot of money from the St. John’s IceCaps,  If he didn’t,  Danny wouldn’t be in the hockey game.

Good for Danny Williams. If his business is profitable,  then Williams’ business is good for the city and good for the province.  That’s the way free enterprise works. 

16 September 2014

The Ins and Outs of Newfoundland Politics #nlpoli

Ralph Champneys Williams was a career British public servant who came to Newfoundland as the Governor at the tail end of one of the greatest periods of political turmoil in the country’s history.

Sir Robert Bond went to the polls in the 1908 at the head of the Liberal to face his rival Sir Edward Morris, the Leader of the Opposition and head of a coalition of Conservatives and some others under the name of The People’s Party.

The result was a tied election.  Unable to form an administration that could survive the election of a speaker.  Bond went to the Governor to advise him to issue a writ for a new election.  The Governor – Sir Williams MacGregor – refused to issue the writ and instead called on Morris to form an administration.  He was in the same position, of course, and, when the House could not elect a Speaker,  MacGregor dissolved the House on Morris’ advice.  Morris went to the polls as Prime Minister and won a majority.

Williams arrived in Newfoundland in the wake of two years of political upheaval.  He found himself in a place that was likely very strange to him.

15 September 2014

Insider baseball, again #nlpoli

Paul Davis delivered one of the shortest victory speeches Saturday night of any person elected to lead a party in power.

Davis said very little but what he said might reveal much:

This weekend we started down a path, a path to rebuild the PC Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, and I ask all of you to work with us as we work together and continue on that path to rebuild our party for the future and prepare for 2015. [via The Telegram]

Davis wasn’t alone in saying that. Rebuilding the party in order to defeat the Liberals was a common theme.

After a while, though, it seemed a bit…well… odd.  After all, Davis was the leader of the party in power, with a majority of seats in the legislature.  Sure, the party is in second place in the opinion polls but that’s not the same as the result of an actual election.

14 September 2014

Premier Paul Davis #nlpoli

It took one more ballot than expected but Paul Davis is the new leader of the provincial Conservative Party and the Premier-designate of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Conservatives spent a lot of time talking about the value of the leadership in rebuilding the party. A majority of the delegates didn’t vote for that, though. Paul Davis was the candidate who talked the least about substantive change in the party’s direction as government.  At the convention, very few of the Conservatives themselves talked about change beyond getting the public to vote for them again.  That was Davis’ core message. 

If you go back to the Abacus poll released during the campaign,  you can see the results of the vote mirrored in the results.  Davis was the choice of a plurality of the respondents and had the support of a higher percentage of those who had voted Conservative in 2011. Of the three candidates,  all were the second choice behind the Liberal’s Dwight Ball as the choice for Premier.  The key thing for Conservatives would be that Davis was closer to Ball than either of the other two.

13 September 2014

Disconnection Trending #nlpoli

Tom Marshall got lots of coverage for his little ego-stroking farewell in the tradition of his ego-stroked predecessors.  The media advisory billed it as a thank-you to public servants and by jingo the local media reported it extensively and called it exactly that.

The one who organized the little show for him got a nice parting gift from her current boss.  Marshall appointed Kathy Dunderdale’s former communications director, whom Tom kept around, to the most senior communications position in the provincial government on Friday.  Milly Brown will be assistant secretary to cabinet for communications. 

Brown succeeds another of Kathy Dunderdale’s former communications directors,  Glenda Power, whom Kathy rewarded with a sweet little promotion in 2012.

There are a few things about this and the other goings-on the weekend that are worth mentioning because they are part of the pattern.

12 September 2014

The Spectators and the “Me” Generation #nlpoli

The official media advisory describes the event at Confederation Building this morning as an opportunity for Premier Tom Marshall to thank public servants “for the support provided by their work over his time as Minister and Premier.”

In reality, this is another one of the grandiose celebrations that have become the trademark of Conservative Premiers first elected in 2003.  Danny Williams gave himself an enormous going-away show when he decided to leave office suddenly and unexpectedly in 2010.  Kathy Dunderdale, Williams’ hand-picked successor, did much the same thing when she decided to leave office suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this year.

And now the third member of the Williams dynasty,  his trusty and well-beloved right hand, is going to make a grand spectacle of his own in the main lobby of the Confederation Building on this the occasion of his imminent departure from office.

11 September 2014

At last! #nlpoli

Without a doubt,  this is the most interesting, entertaining and revealing thing to come out of the Conservative leadership campaign.

This could probably use a bit of writing and editing to tighten it up, but fundamentally, it’s the kind of thing that distinguishes John Ottenheimer in a positive way in the leadership campaign.  Where Steve Kent came off looking a little desperate and nasty in his most recent debate appearance and Paul Davis has just flat out flat-lined,  The Big O just gave everyone a real glimpse of himself.  it’s the kind of thing that could swing some people his way, especially if it is part of a trend.

At last, there’s some sign of freshness and life in the Conservatives.


10 September 2014

Ragging the puck #nlpoli

The Conservatives will have a new leader this weekend. 

Tom Marshall will resign as Premier not long after and the new guy will take over. Terry French announced last week that he will resign from cabinet and leave politics “later this month.”  That fits too, because the new premier will need to swear in a new cabinet.

And at some point we’ll have an election

So when will that election happen?

Good question.

09 September 2014

Everything has a price #nlpoli

Danny Williams famously once said that at some point,  “principle converts to cash.”

When his old friend Tom Marshall named a court house after Williams,  the former Premier said this to reporters about his emotions: "I can't put a price on it."

He may not be able to convert his emotions to cash at this point, but how curious that he ties the two things together so effortlessly.


A fitting reminder #nlpoli

Tom Marshall has a few days left as premier so he figured the best thing to do would be to name the courthouse in Corner Brook after Danny Williams,  Marshall’s patron.

One of the reasons Marshall gave for his decision was that the province has not done as well as the time when Danny Williams was Premier. 

Marshall couldn’t have found a more fitting legacy for Danny Williams if he had really tried. After all,  The courthouse and Williams go together

08 September 2014

Trash, Give-aways, and Conservative Policy #nlpoli

Friday is trash day in the world of political communications. It’s the day when you slip out stuff that is unpleasant in the hopes people will miss it.

If you can slide in another story, like say the completely unnecessary appointment of a finance minister who will have the job for a mere two weeks or so, it’s possible you can bury one load of trash under another.

That’s what happened last Friday in St. John’s.

05 September 2014

They’ve got a little list #nlpoli

Justice minister Terry French announced on Thursday that he’d be resigning in a couple of weeks time to take up a job in the private sector.  French’s announcement looked like an effort to get in front of rumours that have been circulating for a while in some circles and that intensified in the past couple of days.  It didn’t look like a well rehearsed or planned thing.

This was also the same day that Charlene Johnson confirmed she is quitting politics to go live in Brunei where her husband has been working for an undisclosed period of time.  Johnson told reporters that she and her husband had actually decided over a year ago that she would leave politics.  It’s still curious that with all the work- and health-related reasons Johnson offered for taking a year or more to leave actually, she couldn’t manage to hang on for just a couple of days or weeks longer.

In any event, we found out that Johnson really wasn’t leaving now for family reasons after all.  There was some other reason for her to go, not that it matters at this point.  What does matter is that she has gone.  In a couple of weeks, Terry French will go and that means the provincial Conservatives will face three by-elections before Christmas.

04 September 2014

Voter Choice #nlpoli

When Kathy Dunderdale jumped or was flicked out of office in the first part of 2014,  CRA boss Don Mills issued a release covering his company’s February 2014 self-promotion poll that claimed that Tom Marshall was doing wonders for the Conservative party because public satisfaction with the government was up in the poll.

NL government satisfaction improves with new leader” said the headline. Unfortunately for Mills and CRA,  that headline connected up two things  - government satisfaction and new leader – in a way the poll data didn’t support.  You see, satisfaction went up the quarter before that as well, with the old leader.

There’s just no connection between “satisfaction” and the public choice for best party to form government or for best premier.  The Conservatives have strong satisfaction numbers and yet a clear majority of respondents want to vote for some other party to run the government and someone other than Tom to be Premier.

Skip ahead six months and Mills is at it again.

03 September 2014

Johnson to give colleagues the finger on Friday #nlpoli

Finance minister Charlene Johnson will be leaving politics on Friday, September 5.

Under changes that Johnson and her colleagues made to the provincial election laws, that means the Premier  - whoever it is at the time - will have to call a by-election no later than November 5 and have the by-election over by later than December 5.

He’ll also have to call one in the seat the current Premier Tom Marshall has said he will vacate as soon as is humanly possible after the Conservative leadership convention on the weekend of the 13th and 14th of September. 

Johnson’s resignation really put the screws to her soon-to-be former colleagues. They went from having to fight one by-election – which they stand to lose unless its Ottenheimer the Premier – to having to fight two, pretty much at the same time.  The problem is, the Conservatives don;t have the resources to fight two by-elections at opposite ends of the province on the same day. Unless Ottenheimer takes the leadership and runs in Humber East,  the Conservatives are likely to lose both by-elections before Christmas.

So much for morale.

Meanwhile, the double by-election makes it even less likely the new Premier  - whoever he is – will have a fall sitting of the House.  He’s more likely to put off the sitting until the spring, then unveil a new throne speech and a budget before heading to an election, if the polls turn around.  The official excuse won’t be about the by-elections:  it’s more likely to be some guff about having to  give the new cabinet (and an off-the-street appointee or two) the chance to come to grips with their new jobs.

Everyone will be waving to Charlene on Friday but in a few weeks time, they’ll be likely giving her back the finger she’s giving them this week,  family reasons, and all.


Pension deal = good news #nlpoli

Three things:

1.  The agreement to deal with the unfunded pension liability is a good thing for workers and for taxpayers.  It deals with a substantial financial problem, which is the bonus for taxpayers, while preserving defined benefit pension plans for workers, which is the big win for them.  The costs are relatively modest in terms of increased premiums, averaging, and early retirement age.

2.  This is only part of the province’s financial problem.  It’s the easiest one to deal with.  The others – Muskrat Falls and the embedded unsustainable overspending – are much larger financially and it will fall to the next administration after the Conservatives will have to deal with.  Coming to grips with them won’t be easy by any means.

At least Tom Marshall took care of the problem he created.  In an interview with CBC on Tuesday,  Marshall tried to blame others for the problem and claim credit for fixing it for himself,  but as with pretty much everything a provincial Conservative politician says,  nothing could be further from the truth. 

Efforts to deal with the unfunded liability started in 1997.  A decade later,  the problem with less than half the size it is today.  Instead of dealing with it then, Marshall began the program of fiscal mismanagement that ballooned the unfunded pension liability and added all the other financial mess that we’ll be cleaning up for decades to come.

3.  The St. John’s Board of Trade,  the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and other similar lobby groups should be ashamed for providing false information to the public while pretending it was truthful and unbiased. Even in an election year, some politician would be doing a public service by issuing an appropriate tongue-lashing to the crop of bullshit-mongers running those two groups.  The Board of Trade in particular has a lot to answer for.  They have screwed taxpayers twice;  first by being party to the Muskrat Falls mess and then by attacking public sector workers with falsehoods.


02 September 2014

Nalcor and the Eff In Way #nlpoli

Over at Uncle Gnarley,  JM’s at it again with the first of a two-parter on Nalcor and its problems with forecasting for Muskrat Falls.

Nalcor assumed that they would get 830 megawatts of electricity out of Muskrat Falls in the winter months when demand is highest.  That’s the number they gave everyone else and, as you can tell by the language Nalcor uses, it was an assumption, not a solid forecast.  Now they say they should be able to get 673 MW at Soldier;s Pond from Muskrat Falls.  That’s a difference of 157 MW, not an inconsiderable difference.

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.