20 May 2015

Brain Farts #nlpoli

Some people have a hard time with the idea that a great many political decisions are not the product of deep thinking, extensive research, and agonizing debate.

They come from brain farts.

captain_dildoYou can hear that pretty clearly in the most recent episode of On Point. The political panel talked about a couple of cock-ups by the Conservatives last week.

 In among the few nose-pullers the panel tossed out, the basic elements of the story were there.

Darin King didn’t know why the government had cancelled a major First World War commemorative project project in his department.  The Premier’s Office had responsibility for it, for some reason, and someone there forgot to tell King. So  - in classic brain fart fashion – King made up an answer that wasn’t even close to true.

Then someone in the Premier’s Office had another brain fart: send the Premier out to explain that the government had screwed up the planning so badly they left the key part – getting Turkish permission  - until the last minute.  In the meantime, they had no backup idea other than a government-issue plaque.

The same day that Davis was acting on that second brain fart,  cabinet minister Clyde Jackman was getting hammered over increases in tuition for graduate and international students.  Under pressure,  Jackman brain-farted the truth:  the government can’t order the university to do anything.

People were gobsmacked.

In the Premier’s Office someone had another brain fart:  send the Premier out to explain that each year the government threatened to withhold money if the university administration didn’t freeze tuition.  Yes.  It’s always good to confess to government threats and pressure that look a lot like blackmail.

Blackmail is so much better than Jackman’s supposed “inability to speak in short clips.”

Telegram editor Russell Wangersky understandably had a hard time with any of this.  He had to offer another explanation, like maybe that this was proof everyone in the administration was worn out. While that’s true,  it’s also true that the political staff and politicians were just doing the sorts of things they’d done before or seen others do.

It’s not just a Conservative thing either.  Brian Tobin was famous for brain farts.  His 1997 “health care forum” was exactly one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions.  Under pressure in the House about complaints on the west coast about health care, Tobin announced a forum during Question Period one afternoon. 

The problem was that, outside of the nurses’ union folks who’d suggested it in a meeting with Tobin two days before, no one else had heard of it until Tobin blurted it out.  They took a couple of days to put some shape on the idea and invite some people who they figured belonged there.

Inevitably, some people got left out and had to lobby hard to get in the door.  Not enough seats  was the excuses offered to some.  We’ll bring our own chairs was the reply.  Tobin was famous for making snap decisions. Tobin’s doppelganger Danny Williams used to make them all the time. You cannot make this stuff up although, Heaven knows the politicians very often do.

They were only playing LEAP-frog

Brain fart is about the only rational explanation for why the Liberals have endorsed Paul Antle’s publicity stunt as a major policy initiative.

After all, if the Liberals actually had economic development policies they’d worked up based on expert advice,  they wouldn’t need to send Paul and two tokens out to talk to a bunch of people to see if they had everything right.

They’d know they’d gotten it right.  And if, by some bizarro chance, the budget left all their experts gobsmacked, the Liberals would go back to the lab, tweak it themselves and ask some people to review their policies… privately.

Paul’s show – complete with a cheap-assed logo and an easily-risible acronym – looks like an effort to address questions about the Liberals’ apparent lack of policy.  The problem for the Liberals is that it doesn’t divert attention from the absence of policies as much as it  confirms that the Liberals don’t really have any.

And if they actually have good ideas, everyone will now be focused on Paul Antle’s meetings with the captains of industry,  the Captain and Tennille,  Captain Dildo (above), and whatever other closet genius Antle can think of.

Come the election reporters will ask for – and they should expect to get – the policies the Liberals have already,  the results of Paul’s “consultations”, and the revised policies the Liberals actually release.  people have a right to know how far off-base the Liberal’s original ideas were.  Frankly, the only way the Liberals can credibly announce policies in the fall would  be if they released the others now.  That way people can see exactly what they were getting.  otherwise, the Liberals would be leaving themselves open to accusations of just making shit up, come the fall.

As it is, if the Liberals had been serious about sending someone out to find solutions to the province’s economic problems by way of a series of town hall meetings, private sessions, and meetings with key individuals, they should have given the job to one person: Siobhan Coady.

A couple of years ago, Coady was part of the Liberal renewal team that consisted of Coady, Dean MacDonald, and Kevin Aylward. The boys turned out to be otherwise engaged so it was Coady who shouldered the burden and did the job on her own.

In this case, Coady has the national contacts and the business experience to get her own expert crew together and produce a report.   Her record speaks for itself.  The time to do this consultation would have been after the election, of course, when the team could give such a serious project the serious time it needs.  If this is really our last chance, as Paul Antle said last week, then surely the Liberals would want to give the right people all the time they needed to get it right.

You don’t have to think about this LEAP scheme for too long to realise it just does more damage to Liberal credibility than anything else. It doesn’t make any sense at all. 

No sense whatsoever.


Unless you think of the LEAP as a brain fart.

Ground Hog Day 2

What’s perhaps the most interesting part of the Paul Antle road show is how much Antle’s comments and the Liberal situation generally mirror the situation the Conservatives faced in 2003.

Antle told the On Point audience over the weekend that the Liberals plan to “grow our way out of the mess we are in.”  Williams said the same thing in 2003.  In the 2003 leaders’ debate, he famously told his former law partner – NDP leader Jack Harris – that he was all about “jobs, jobs, job.”

Better management.

Grow our way out of it, not through cuts or taxes.

Expand the government’s revenue base.

Increase the population and combat outmigration.

It took guest host Peter Cowan a couple of tries at the same question but Antle eventually allowed that the Liberals would have to “trim spending” and review all the services in government to make sure they were run efficiently.  This would “create efficiencies.”   Antle mentioned “alternative service delivery,”  which is code for more use of private sector companies to deliver public services.

Here’s what the Conservative election platform said in 2003:
One of the greatest barriers that have prevented the government of Newfoundland and Labrador from addressing the real world issues of job creation, outmigration, health care and education is the Province's weak and fragile fiscal position. Through the development of new business opportunities in the private sector and targeted government investment, a Progressive Conservative government is committed to increasing the Province's revenue stream. 
Unfortunately, it will take more than increased revenues to put our fiscal house in order. It will also require sound fiscal management of government's current expenses. Our fiscal policies will keep a tight rein on government spending, and orient new spending to areas that enhance economic growth.
In January 2004,  Danny Williams told the people of Newfoundland and Labrador how his administration would tackle the government’s financial problems. He described the government’s approach:
“First, we must regain control of our expenditures over a reasonable time frame. Second, even as we attempt to grapple with the deficit, government will also have an unwavering commitment to growing our economy, creating new jobs and expanding our revenue base.
The party campaign platform included a commitment to review every single government program in the hint for efficiencies.  While it didn’t last too long or deliver anything, the review started in January 2004.

No policy please.  We’re politicians.

The point here is not just that the Liberals and Conservatives have the same ideas.  That is too simplistic a point to bother with.  Rather, what we need to recall is that in 2003, the Conservatives not only entered the election campaign without a clear plan to develop and diversify the economy, their refusal to talk about policy actually became an election issue.

Conservatives will dispute that, but their 2003 campaign manual actually contained two contradictory ideas.  The first chapter was essentially a paraphrase of the 1992 strategic economic plan, right down to the commitment to a guaranteed minimum income.  The second chapter promised old-style megaprojects and diversification of the oil and gas industry as the way of the future.  The two thoughts didn’t fit together. 

In his post-debate commentary for CBC, political scientists Peter Boswell noted the lack of discussion of detailed policies in the campaign. Without any detailed discussion,  Boswell wondered, “how else can voters make a rational choice about which party to support? All three party leaders seem to be relying on a new mantra of “it’s the right thing to do” in support of whatever policy direction they are proposing. At one level, all three party leaders can agree on policy principles, but as the old saying goes, ‘the devil’s in the details.”

The Conservatives initially relied on Williams himself as their economic development strategy.  He created the Department of Business and named himself the minister.  In practice, Williams never did anything with the department.  His own deputy minister – not appointed until the middle of 2005 -  couldn’t get to see him for weeks and months at a time to find out what the department was supposed to do.

Ultimately, Williams gave the department to other ministers. Fairity O’Brien .had it for a while. Paul Oram held the job for a while. The only thing Oram accomplished was to demonstrate he knew nothing about the province and its economy. In interviews, the only thing Fairity and his successors ever seemed to do was increase the number of files on their desk. 

Before it finally vanished in one of the numerous cabinet shuffles of the past five years,  the business department had become nothing more than a vehicle to hand out bags of cash to companies who, almost unanimously failed to deliver any of the jobs, jobs, jobs, the government promised.

The Conservatives weren’t being coy in 2003.  They didn’t want to talk about policy in detail because they didn’t have any detailed policies.  The Conservatives got through the election and then started to figure everything out.

People got upset at the freeze Williams announced in 2004.  They didn’t like the cuts Williams promised. The Conservatives dropped in the polls.  So Williams and his colleagues abandoned their plans and turned toward spending in order to buy public approval.

The parallels between the Conservatives in 2003 and the Liberals in 2015 are striking. They are so striking in fact that people should go back and refresh their memories about what happened back then.  They might change their opinion of what happened then and what is happening now.