14 December 2015

Baker Ball's Dozen: three challenges facing the new administration #nlpoli

The new Liberal administration will take power later this morning.

Dwight Ball will lead a cabinet of 12.

This is only the fourth time since 1949 that we have changed the party governing the province. It’ the second time we have done so in this century.

The task ahead of the new cabinet is daunting. From 11:00 AM this morning, everything is down to the baker’s dozen of them. Here are the challenges they face.

Taking power

The transfer team and the new Premier have had the briefings but for the new cabinet sworn in this morning, the first taste of their new job will come later. That’s when they will get the briefings on their new departments and the responsibilities that go with them.

This is no small task. Unless you have been involved in it, you have no idea how daunting a task it is. Many of them will hear for the first and without any sugar-coating the truth of everything going well and a lot more going badly with the provincial government.

Taking the oaths that go with a cabinet job is one thing. Mastering the briefings is another. Mastering the department is yet another thing. And accomplishing the new goals the ministers face from their boss is another. The most experienced among the new cabinet will find the task a test of their abilities.

And finding a new staff to help with the job is yet another task they must complete quickly. Ministers will need a new staff to help with the department, in addition to the constituency staff they have anyway as a member of the House of Assembly. Will they take someone from the district, from the campaign, or will they find someone else?

That’s as much a question for the administration as a whole as for the individual members. Each administration has a raft of appointments of all sorts to make throughout every part of the government. They need to find people they can trust and put them in key spots.

The challenge they face in this aspect is twofold.

First, they must realise the need to do it. The provincial Conservatives, like their federal cousins, spent their last weeks in office slating away their people in all manner of appointments rather than leave them to the new crowd coming in. Thus far, the Liberals have shown no willingness to condemn the Conservative abuses and no inclination to dispose of the improper appointments.

The second task is to find new people to take on the jobs. That will take time. If the transition team has been working quietly for months – as it should have been – then the new administration can make those changes quickly. If, as it seems, they have only been tossed together hastily and relatively recently, then there is a big job left to do.

That might affect the second task the Liberals face, namely,

Setting the agenda

Every new administration has to lay out its priorities. Even parties coming through campaigns where they have laid out their agenda often stumble through the first few months.

In 2003, for example, the Conservatives had no real plan for what they wanted to accomplish. And so it was that it took them months to figure out even the simplest of things like what names they wanted to put on individual departments.

In the meantime, and indeed, throughout their first year in office, they faced the pressures from all directions to do anything except what the government party said it wanted to do.

In January 2004, this is how your humble e-scribbler described the Williams Party after a couple of months in office. “The Premier and the cabinet he leads are as good as any cabinet we have had. They are intelligent, capable and well-intentioned. People want to see their vision put to practice. They want Danny to succeed.”

And yet:
“The Williams government is remarkable because it looks like a party that is at the end of its life in power rather than the beginning. It doesn’t have control of the political agenda. Even something as simple as the long-awaited appointment of Doug House was announced and interpreted by CBC television rather than the Premier’s Office. Add that to the obvious confusion in the Premier’s messages, his testiness in answering media questions, and the lack of any meaningful signs of a change, let alone "“The Plan"”. The Stunnel, the Premier’s hobbyhorse, is the sort of ludicrous mega-project that seems more worthy of Brian Peckford in his last days than a newly- elected Premier with the well-deserved reputation of being a level-headed leader.”
As it turned out, Williams didn’t have a plan. He wasn’t so much level-headed as prone to emotional outbursts and snap decisions. That love of irrational megaprojects became the defining feature of his party’s time in office.

Like Brian Robin not even a decade earlier, Danny Williams’ party started out trying to get provincial spending under control. They plummeted in the polls and, as with Tobin, the politicians caved. They abandoned their original plans in the face of relentless pressure from public sector unions, business interests and ordinary citizens all of whom had something they wanted.

That’s why it will be so hard to tackle the third point, namely,

Getting to grips with The Problem

In 2003, the Conservatives faced a deficit that ultimately totalled around $900 million.

In 2015, the Liberals are facing a deficit in the current budget that is double that number and, in total is three times as large.

Some people have been pushing their agenda against a cancellation in the sales tax hike contained in the Conservative budget last spring. That was the budget that called for a 12% increase in government spending in the name of restraint.

A one percent hike in the sales tax would bring in about $100 million a year. Some folks are bothered the two percent hike won’t happen.

At that rate, government would have to hike the HST by 28 points to meet its current deficit. That’s 14 times the cancelled increase. And in case you haven’t figured it out, the new rate on goods and services in the province would have to be 41% (13 + 28) just to balance the books if the deficit was the same next year as it is likely to be this year.

That’s not going to happen, of course, because after a certain point, people would just stop buying anything but the essentials. By the time you have doubled the price on everything through government taxes, you’d be long past the point where Greece was a few months ago.

Now this financial problem has been in the news a couple of times over the past year. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Yet, for the magnitude of the provincial financial mess left behind by the Williams party, you still have the head of Turnings looking for permanent government funding for his organizations. Some folks at the university who want to see heavily discounted education also want the discount expanded and funding for the university increased. Those same folks are also upset that the university plans to eliminate subscriptions to periodicals few people at the university use but which would remain available to researchers.

Meanwhile, the public sector unions want everything to stay just like it is. Some business groups want government to control spending but odds are they will scream if subsidies to business got the chop. Everyone expects everything to stay just like it is now even though it quite obviously can't.

People don’t understand how severe the problem is, and if they do, the opposition to changes, and the actual costs of what it would take to fix the problem left behind by the Conservatives and their supporters and enablers make The Problem faced by the new Liberal administration that much larger.