15 February 2016

Stepping on rakes: #nlpoli version

Premier Dwight Ball has changed his position. 

That’s the first thing.

Here’s the way James McLeod described Ball’s position on cuts to the public service.  It’s from the Saturday Telegram:
“We’ve met with some of the labour organizations and leaders right now, so what we’ve committed to — and it hasn’t changed — is attrition still remains as the primary source for us to see changes in numbers around the public sector, and a fair negotiating process,” Ball said. 
“Once we get into that fair negotiation, we will see then what direction the discussion goes.” 
Ball said job cuts in the government will be tied together with contract negotiations.
“They’re all connected, because it’s all where you save money and expenses,” he said.
Changing position is the smartest thing Ball has done since he hired Tim Murphy.

The second thing is that people will see the way Ball changed position as deceptive, deceitful, and dishonest:  precisely what Ball wanted to avoid.  It won't matter that Ball really isn't trying to be any of those things.  Ball’s fetish for consistency – always said that, always had the same position - is going to cause him even more trouble than he’s had so far. 

The implications are going to be huge even if all Ball has done in this recent version of events is added a few extra words to what he has said all along.  Indeed, everything is precisely as he said until now, Ball would argue.

Except that it isn’t.

Ball has been so consistent in his position until now that it was pretty easy to conclude that layoffs as the preferred approach meant no layoffs.  The fact that Ball kept repeating the "preference is for attrition line" after his finance minister started saying everything is on the table doesn't help matters either.  That just kept alive the believe that there wouldn't be any layoffs or cuts.

Ball’s new position is that layoffs - and all sorts of other cuts, presumably -  will come come out of negotiations with the unions.  That’s radically different from “attrition is our preferred option.”  Now there are going to be cuts and layoffs, where there weren't going to be any at all, before.

People will look at the new version and the old version and conclude that Ball lied before.  They will argue that he always intended to lay people off but just kept false hope alive with the false original statement.  That’s what happens when you take your original statement – attrition is the preferred option period -  and turn the period into a comma.  As in, “attrition is the preferred way to cut jobs,  but we are going to go looking for jobs and other cuts through collective bargaining.”  They may conclude he is gutless or stupid, as well, but it is the problem with veracity - truthfulness - that will cause Dwight Ball the greatest problem.

The third thing is that, when confronted with this change of position,  Ball tries to justify the added words with the claim that the situation we face in the new year has changed since the election.  He goes for the bullshit, in other words.  That just undermines his credibility even more. For good measure, Ball used a lot of conditional language to describe what theoretically might have happened in the fictional universe in the past had things back then not been so radically different than they are today.  No plain English from Dwight on this one and that is a bad sign, if he wants people to think he is being straight with them.

"The decisions that would have been made back in November based on $31 a barrel oil might have been different for a lot of different election platform items," Ball told the Telegram's James McLeod.


That’s your story?

The spring budget was bad enough.  And it was worse that all three parties basically adopted the budget with all of its insane plans and assumptions:  high oil price,  massive deficit,  12% boost in spending. The Liberals even went with a bit of short-term, politically idiotic populism with their opposition to a miniscule increase in the provincial sales tax.  After all, back in the spring, the Conservatives proposed to hike the tax after the election but still promised a cash deficit of 10 times as much as the tax would raise.  The Liberals opposed the Tory tax hike apparently because they thought it would be popular with voters.  Political experience would have told them to ignore the tax cut and hit at the evident financial mismanagement in the Conservative spending plan.  Besides, come the fall, they might well have had to do worse than hike the HST.  Ah, if only Dwight had received such advice and taken it.

What's worse again was that all three political parties went through the election with the same platforms they had from the spring despite the fact the financial situation was obviously going to be much worse. Incidentally, that's why SRBP said it was biased for some reporters to attack the Liberals for having ridiculous financial plans when all three parties had precisely the same stupid ideas about borrowing lots of money rather than face up to the financial mess.

The lot of them, especially the victorious Liberals, could only avoid reality for so long.  Before Ball was even sworn into office someone – Tories or public servants – leaked the revised deficit forecasts going into the briefing books government officials were making ready for the new Premier and his gang. Poof.  At that point, the old story about borrowing more and more to get over the bridge to Wade Locke's imaginary future of high oil prices was plainly seen for the nonsense it - and Wade's policy advice - had been all along.  Why Ball persisted with the tax cut nonsense at that point can only be put down to a combination of the fetish for consistency coupled with the idiocy of the spring tax-cut populism.

A month later,  the fall financial update confirmed the numbers that were already public.  Despite even that massive change in the province’s financial state the update revealed – a $2.0 billion accrual deficit, cash deficit worse again – Ball charged ahead with his promise to cancel a hike in the provincial sales tax.  What has happened since December is a marginal change.

At the end of all that, Dwight Ball is now faced with a very tough political situation made all that much worse by poor communication.  Tough policies made worse by poor communication is the subject of an article by Michael Gorman. He uses the example of the Nova Scotia Liberals.

The problem Ball faces, though, is not with communications itself.  Ball is in much the same sort of pickle that Kathy Dunderdale and even Frank Coleman created for themselves.  Nor is it the first time Ball has been in this sort of a jam. He had a disastrous first six months in 2015, for example. James McLeod has written in his recent book - Turmoil as usual - about Ball's problems.  Ball made changes in his communications staff but, as we have seen, the problems are fundamentally the same.

What appear to be problems with political communications are really political management problems. This fetish that Ball seems to have about consistency is a desire to always be right or to avoid criticism. Well,  in life,  both of those are hard to do. In politics, they are impossible.  That's not a problem with communications, though.  That's a problem with the way Ball and his senior staff approach problems.

Ball's problem isn't helped at all by the fact that he and his cabinet are relying on the same government apparatus the Tories built.  Government "communications" isn't actually about informing the public in order to gain and maintain their support.  Government these days is about uncommunication.

Politics is about power.  Knowing what is going on and why it is happening is not just a sign of power but it is power itself.  Government "communication" routinely obscures or omits crucial information in order to preserve power for those who have it and keep power from others.  Uncommunication comes up when there's an embarrassing issue to avoid.  Government workers obscure the truth behind fuzzy language. In the case of CETA,  the politicians hid the truth of the provincial government's action behind the completely false claim that the federal government had gone back on its word.

In that sense, Bill 29 was an expression of that government policy of uncommunication:  the public does not have a right to know. You can see precisely that anti-democratic idea in St. John's mayor Dennis O'Keefe's recent slip of the tongue about the need for his colleagues to keep secrets.  What he was talking about was the tendency of the current city council - copied from their provincial political cousins - to resolve all issues privately, in secret, and tell the public what often amounts to little more than a fairy tale rather than disclose the unadulterated truth.

Some politicians believe that telling people what is actually going on robs the politicians of power. They want to do anything they please with as little hindrance possible.  When people demanded more information or greater involvement,  politicians created things they used to call "consultation." Now they call it engagement.  Indeed, they have created a whole office to run it.  These are nothing more than elaborate exercises in political management that give people the illusion they are participating in the decision.

People aren't making any decisions at all, of course. One way you can tell that participants in "consultation" or "engagement" have no real power is by all the crucial information participants in the "dialogue" don't get.  During the Great Engagement of 2015 or the Even Greater Engagement of 2016,  has the government  - either Tory or Grit  - given folks a line by line set of forecasts for government revenues for the next five years? How about the debt information updated to the current figures, rather than the state of the world a year ago recently released by the Auditor General?

That's the sort of information key ministers would have. If you really want to know how ordinary citizens would solve the government problem you have to give at least some of the same information as the folks actually making the decisions.  The fact that government "consultations" never give real numbers to the folks involved is a sure indication that the whole exercise really isn't about making budget decisions.  Another sure indication is how , in the current round, the politicians have already excused something like Muskrat Falls from consideration even though the consultations are under way. "Engagement" is about keeping the punters busy while the people with power make the decisions somewhere else. It's about managing the public and protecting the power of those who actually have it.

What Gorman calls stepping on rakes is the political problem that happens when the political effort to manage the public doesn't work.  The spin doesn't work, as one of Gorman's sources puts it.  What happens in the really disastrous spin cases is that the politicians tell the public a story so transparently false that no one accepts it from the get-go.  Spin is a lie and, like all lies, the truth eventually outs. With bad spin, the truth stands right next to the lie making faces at it.

Gorman's sources also give him some really good advice about how to communicate bad news:  lay it bluntly on the line.  Don't spin.  Don't lie.

Add to that another simple idea:  deal with the issue at hand.  The advice in Gorman's piece is about announcing changes to a government program for seniors.  Gorman explains how the government got communications about the program cocked up.

The particular problem Dwight Ball and the Liberals have is that their communication about lay-offs in the public service in a bad financial situation actually isn't about dealing with the bad financial situation.  It's about something else,  like avoiding criticism or the fetishistic need to have never changed a statement, position or idea even when it obviously has change in response to new information.

Dwight Ball and Stephen McNeil stand a good chance of winding up with the same communications problem. Gorman calls it stepping on a rake.  Around these parts,  it's more like falling into a chasm. It's the gap that will get them, the gap between the issue and the message.  When the message and issue are the same, then the message is credible.  When there's a gap, you can have a credibility problem. People won't believe you.  Bigger the distance between issue and message, the wider the gap and the deeper the chasm.  You get the same result as stepping on a rake, but the smack in the face will feel more like you fell four or five miles before the rake hit you.