17 December 2015

Changing the direction. Changing the tone. #nlpoli

A month ago,  a CBC “analysis” by David Cochrane warned against a band of Liberals running the government with too much power.

Two weeks ago,  another CBC “analysis” by David Cochrane told us that Dwight Ball was an “unlikely” fellow to be Premier who now faced an enormous task of dealing with the government’s financial problems based on a campaign platform that was, supposedly, “greeted with enormous skepticism in the final week of the campaign.”

And now we have the latest Cochrane “analysis” that tells us that the public service is liking their new bosses.  The administration has been delivering on “Ball's campaign promises of evidence-based decision-making and to bring [sic] stability to cabinet by ending the practice of frequent shuffles, thereby leaving ministers in place long enough to build command of their portfolios.”

What changed?

Well, it certainly hasn’t been Dwight Ball and the Liberals he led to a substantive victory in the recent election.

“Doing things differently”

As SRBP noted a couple of weeks ago,  some folks in the local media  - and the two opposition parties – hammered away at the Liberals for a platform that lacked in enough detail to satisfy them.  Those were the folks Cochrane meant when he referred to greeting the Liberal platform with skepticism.

What those folks had consistently ignored during the campaign was that the Liberal platform was not about the specific decisions the Liberals would make but rather about how they would decide.  This is consistently what Ball and the Liberals have been saying for a very long while.

Since taking office on Monday, they’ve been putting the talk into action.  Ball has been available personally to media, including a nice little interview in his new office with CBC’s Peter Cowan. Other ministers, like finance minister Cathy Bennett and justice minister Andrew Parsons have also talked about their portfolios and plans. 

Ball also released the mandate letters each minister received on Monday after taking office. The letters lay out Ball’s direction to each minister on everything from specific goals to how they will work with their colleagues and with their deputy ministers. 

“I expect you to develop a positive, respectful and trusting relationship with your Deputy Minister and the public service,”  Ball wrote to each new minister.  “I would also ask that you be mindful that Deputy Ministers, among their various responsibilities, are ultimately accountable to me, through the Clerk of the Executive Council.”

That’s a stark contrast to the relationship between the senior bureaucracy,  cabinet, and the Premier after 2003.  Danny Williams simply ignored his ministers and dealt directly with senior bureaucrats to impose his own direction on any issue.  During the Cameron Inquiry,  it was obvious Williams dealt very infrequently with the Clerk of the Executive Council.  In one case,  a deputy minister dealt directly with the Premier’s Office on the management of the breast cancer testing scandal.

The change in tone is already showing up in the departments.  Natural resources minister Siobhan Coady got to work extra early the other morning.  She stood at the main entrance of the department’s headquarters and greeted everyone as they came to work that morning.  That’s the sort of touch that reveals much about Coady’s personal style as much as it shows the extent to which the new administration is keen to change both the direction  and the tone of the government.

These are still very early days. It always takes a new administration a while to find its legs and for the genuine public servants in the Confederation Building to establish the sort of relationship they ought to have with a new government.  This is a time of transition and with power now firmly transferred from the old crow to the new,  the transition can take place.

The Churn and the Shuffles

The other things that hadn’t changed were the management practices of the crowd that ran the place before the Liberals.

SRBP has been writing for years about the extraordinary turmoil in the senior ranks of the public service after 2010.  It’s hard to run any organization when the senior managers are moving about every year to a year and a half. There’s little corporate memory in any department and the senior managers are just getting settled when they have been yanked out and replaced.

Since Danny Williams ran from the Confederation Building in 2010,  the ranks of the senior public service have changed about three full times. The current Clerk of the Executive Council averaged about a year and a half in any one job before she became Clerk in 2013.  She spent a merely 51 days in her appointment before she got the Clerk’s job.

Then there are the changes at the ministerial level.  While Danny was still around,m the Conservatives went through shuffles on a frequent basis.  In 2009, for example, they had three shuffles in eight months.  before the year was out, Williams shuffled his cabinet again.

The frequent changes during Williams’ tenure were so noticeable that your humble e0-scribbler actually analysed the pattern:
In the eight years between 1996 and October 2003, successive Liberal premiers changed their cabinets (major and minor changes) 11 times. 

In the five and a half years since the fall 2003 election, the current administration has made changes to cabinet 12 times. The bulk of that shifting came in the first term, with at least two changes in assignments involving some ministers roughly every six months. 
Over on the public service side, the relative numbers are even more dramatic. 
Liberals:  24 appointments over eight years. 
Progressive Conservatives:  37 in five and a half years or so. 
Now some of these announcements were onesies and twosies, that is one appointment at a time.  In other cases, like the one made today, the changes have involved seven or eight people in different departments.
During Kathy Dunderdale’s time in office, the key ministerial portfolios didn’t change as often as some of the junior ones. She tended to keep the same faces close to her.  Not surprisingly,  once Kathy left,  the top job went to another one of the Williams inner circle and they all picked a guy from outside who ultimately bailed out on them. In that same period, the Tories shuffled the cabinet frequently.  The same faces kept popping up in Conservative cabinets right up to the end under Paul Davis.

Lowest common denominator decisions

Cochrane’s unnamed public servant or servants apparently made some reference to the problems running the place when folks didn’t stick in one job for very long.  Well, what you’ve just had is a recapitulation of the analysis regular readers around here have been seeing since 2009 – at least – that have raised the issue a long time ago.

As for politically-driven decisions, that’s been fairly obvious as well for about as long a time as the other problems.  We can leave aside the Hurricane Igor decision to avoid allowing federal help despite the hardship people of the province were experiencing.  Let’s look at chronic issues.

The Conservatives abandoned spending control around about the time Danny Williams’ personal popularity plummeted in the polls in 2004.  They kept spending at levels they admitted were unsustainable starting under Williams and continuing right up to the last day in office.

After Williams left, they ran into a problem with having a whole bunch of followers but no one clearly in charge.  Jerome Kennedy ran into it and ultimately found the situation so intolerable he just quit politics. Lowest common denominator decisions became the order of the day.  In other situations, you had Kathy Dunderdale and her ministers at loggerheads in public over a major public policy issue,  the free trade talks.

Her successor didn’t fare any better in that respect.  Despite having  a working agreement with the federal government,  Paul Davis and his crowd tried to alter the agreement radically.  When the federal government – understandably – rejected their amateurish ploy,  Davis went public with wild claims that the local media repeated without question even though the evidence pointed out the holes in Davis’ story.


A few people in St. John’s might have had a hard time understanding the Liberal platform.  Voters evidently understood what the commentariat couldn’t grasp.

A few days after taking office, the Liberals have already started to make the changes they promised.  They’ve changed the direction of government and they have started to change the tone Only time will tell how things will turn out, but seems that after a couple of days things are already substantially different.