29 April 2016

Flying the checklist - Government's comms problem Part II #nlpoli

The Liberals under Dwight Ball have had a steady run of problems with managing issues, policies, and positions.  The current mess they face with the 2016 budget is really nothing more than a very big version of the problems they have had continuously for the past 18 months.

Last year, some Liberals thought they had solved the problems by changing around some people who had the word "communication" in their job title. Nothing changed. That confirms that the problem isn't at the level of the people they changed around. The problem is higher up the decision-making chain and has much more to do with how the Liberals look at the world than it is with how a particular staffer does a job.

That was the point in Tuesday's post.  Today, we are going to look at another aspect of the Liberal problem, namely the organisation they have taken over in government.

28 April 2016

Not fit for it, indeed #nlpoli

Once upon a time not so long ago, you would think politics in this province was a mash up of  Nineteen eighty-four and Animal Farm.

These days,  the Orwellian times in which Danny Williams thrived seem a kindergarten compared to the Franz Kafka novel which we now inhabit.

"Before any election the [Auditor General] should make public the financial state of the province,"  some fellow said on Twitter Wednesday morning. 

"This should be done yearly by a non-partisan person. hold the gov accountable, TO US VOTERS,"  said another fellow in reply.

"It's already done,"  said one of the Known Critics.  "It's called the Public Accounts [issued by the Auditor General every year]."

"REALLY???"  replied the US VOTERS guy.  "Liberals say this, PC'S say that.. which is it? who do ya believe?"

27 April 2016

Winston Churchill and taxes (revised and updated) #nlpoli

You have probably seen the quote and a picture of Winston Churchill flying around Facebook or Twitter since the provincial government introduced its budget in the House of Assembly a couple of weeks ago.

"For a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle."  Winston Churchill.

People don't like the massive jump in taxes and the creation of new fees and charges like the levy. They pass this around as their statement of protest.

Three things to know about the quote, besides the fact that Cathy Bennett used it in the budget debate last year to argue against a hike in the HST:

26 April 2016

MQO poll shows big Liberal slide #nlpoli

Just for the fun of comparison, here's the CRA polling results for a year covering the last time the provincial government saw a change of party and the new crowd introduced a killer budget no one expected.

The Conservatives dropped from 55 points in November 2003 to 33 points in May of the next year.

They only climbed out of the hole by abandoning their austerity program and launching a costly jihad against Ottawa.

Delivering a bad budget is one thing.  Delivering a bad budget very badly is something else entirely.

That's why, As bad as the polling numbers are for the Liberals in MQO's April 2016 poll, there is nothing in it that's surprising to anyone paying attention to local politics.

The Government's ongoing Communications Problem - the political side #nlpoli

To understand the communications problem the Liberal administration faces,  look at the first and so far only decision they have taken on communications to date.

Everything stays just as it is.

Nothing changes.

Nobody changes.

The official excuse a Liberal minister will offer when asked is that the cost of severance would be too great to get rid of them all.

But as bizarre as it was to leave directors of communications for Conservative Premiers in charge of communications for a new Liberal administration, the partisan bias of some of the folks in the jobs isn't the point.

The problem is that their entire approach to communications has been an obvious, dismal failure for five years.  Today, we'll take a look at the political problem the Liberals have.  On Friday, we'll dissect the Conservative mess the Liberals continue to use.

Ring access ruling blames wrong culprit #nlpoli

To understand why access commissioner Ed Ring's ruling issued last Monday was troubling, you have to know some back story.

Ring was ruling in an investigation over an access request for two reports that should be in the Premier's Office.  An access request for copies of the reports got the reply that the office doesn't have them.  The actual response used the bureaucratic phrase "no responsive records."

Whoever went looking for the records appealed to Ring, Ring's office investigated, and then the report came out.  Ring chastised the Premier's Office for not keeping better track of its stuff.  In essence, he laid the blame for the missing files on the current crowd in the office.

That's wrong.

25 April 2016

More worrying wobbles #nlpoli

You have to get very seriously concerned when a cabinet minister can't or won't answer a simple question that has only one, simple, direct answer.

Next week,  the provincial government,  the province's access to information commissioner, and some agencies will appear in court to deal with an application from the teacher's union and the nurses' union to roll back the clock on the public's right to know. Bill 29 did not go far enough for them.

The law says what it has always said:  the public can find out the name of the person in a public service position, the position the person occupies, and the remuneration the person gets for doing the job.  It's a fundamental point and the words are written plainly, in black letters, in the current access to information law, just as they have been in every access law since the first one in 1981.

Asked about the challenge to public access to information from some public sector unions,  Siobhan Coady told the Telegram's James McLeod "I will talk to Justice on what their position is, and I’ll have to get back to you on Monday."

How exactly can the minister responsible for the public's right to know not know what the government position will be?


22 April 2016

Not just another pretty face #nlpoli

Stan Marshall is the guy who should have been running Nalcor in the first place.

Well,  if you wanted to make a successful business out of Nalcor, Marshall is the no-guff leader you'd want.

Marshall's resume speaks for itself.  His knowledge of the electricity business is unrivalled in the province. His experience in running a profitable corporation and expanding it internationally is undeniable.   During his 20 years at the helm of Fortis,  as the Telegram's Ashley Fitzpatrick reported in 2014, Marshall grew the company's assets from $1.0 billion to more than $18 billion.

21 April 2016

Offense and Defense #nlpoli

If you're not on offense, you are on defense.

And in politics, if you are on defense, you are losing.

The Liberals wound up on the defensive yet again Wednesday with the resignation of Ed Martin and the entire Nalcor board.

To be sure, Williams-era appointees like Martin or former board chair Ken Marshall have been responsible for the mess that is Muskrat Falls. The province will be better off seeing the backside of them if only because they can no longer make a very bad situation they alone created all the worse.

The political problem for Premier Dwight Ball and the Liberals is in how Martin left.

20 April 2016

Getting while the getting is good. #nlpoli

As if on cue,  Danny Williams' publicist tweeted praise for Ed Martin as soon as news broke that Danny Williams' right-hand for so many years was leaving the energy corporation Williams created.

Almost an hour later, she flipped out a statement from the former Premier himself praising Martin, Nalcor, and Muskrat Falls in terms that were eerily similar to ones Premier Dwight Ball had used when he announced Martin was leaving Wednesday morning.

Reporters raced across town in a late winter storm to get from Ball's scrum to hear what Martin would say. Martin began with a recitation of his accomplishments and threw heaps of praise at the men and women of Nalcor.  He spoke in the most glowing terms of everything Nalcor was doing including Muskrat Falls.

And then he explained that he was leaving.

Time to go.

In 2010,  shortly after unveiling Muskrat Falls,  Danny Williams quit suddenly, unexpectedly too.

Time to go, he'd said.

Actions and words #nlpoli

The provincial cabinet has known since January - at least - that the powerhouse at Muskrat Falls is only 15% completed despite a huge payout to the contractor.

That's what Nalcor reported to the committee of provincial bureaucrats named by the Conservatives to get a report from Nalcor every now and again.  They can't do anything else except receive the reports and pass them on to cabinet.  They still do it under the Liberals.

The company hired by cabinet to conduct yet another review of information supplied by Nalcor that government already had included a little table of progress on major components at Muskrat Falls.  The powerhouse is a major component.

But it isn't on EY's table, shown at right and released earlier this month.  It's lumped in with "spillway" and shows it is supposedly almost 40% complete.

There's a lot of difference between 15 and 40.

19 April 2016

Responsibility #nlpoli

In the middle of all the screaming as the government unveiled its budget on Thursday,  the editor of a regional business magazine asked,  apparently in all seriousness,  "Biggest question of #Budget2016, How did NO ONE know that prev gov't spending was so out of line with revenues?"

Writing from her sabbatical in far-off England,  a CBC reporter with more than 20 years experience offered that the budget had "the reek of the wickedest hangover after a long, massive binge to end all binges."

"In 23 years in the biz,"  said the one to the other,  "what I'm seeing from afar looks like no other budget I've ever seen."  

"Same,"  said the other to the one.  "I've been following budgets around Atlantic Canada for 18 years and can't remember anything quite like this."

The simple observation on the second point is that we have seen budgets precisely like this one before, at least in the extent that it raised taxes and fees on all sorts of things.  We went through it routinely in the 1970s and in the 1980s and even into the early 1990s.  Budgets just like this one are well within the experience of both those observers' lifespans in this province and certainly within their professional lifespans.

So in observing the observers,  your humble e-scribbler found their shock a wee bit curious.  The only thing that was even more bizarre was the question about how no one had seen any of this coming.

18 April 2016

The Austerity Budget Pantomime #nlpoli

According to the Oxford dictionary, financial austerity means "difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure."

Reduce government spending.

Three key words.

The most important is reduce,  meaning to lower or to  lessen.

Keep that in mind.

15 April 2016

The Rasputisa and the 2016 Budget #nlpoli

The speech finance minister Cathy Bennett read in the House of Assembly on Thursday was as horrible as the reaction most of the province have been having to it.

That's not surprising given that the entire budget communications program was the product of precisely the same folks who delivered repeated political and policy disasters for the former Conservative administration.  And if that wasn't bad enough, everyone - the Liberals included  - picked the anniversary of the Titanic disaster to deliver a very hard budget.

To get a sense of the problems with Thursday's budget, take a look at two fine examples of just how politically tone deaf the speech was.

The first one:  "As our Premier has said, knee-jerk reactions have created mistakes that, unfortunately, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are paying for now."

Bennett's speech writer didn't give an example so folks will likely fill in their own.

14 April 2016

The Incrementalists #nlpoli

Today is budget day.

There's been lots of speculation flying around, most of it a confirmation that people have little real information about anything. If you have been paying attention, though, you can probably make a fairly good guess at what Thursday's budget will look like.

What follows is based entirely on what Dwight Ball and his ministers have done and said in public, combined with a general knowledge of the provincial economy, the budget process and that sort of thing.

Read this now and in a few hours you can see how close this is to the actual budget.

13 April 2016

The Rasputitsa #nlpoli

Before we even get into this, let's be clear:  the EY review commissioned by the provincial government was never, ever about cancelling Muskrat Falls.

Not even remotely or theoretically.

Dwight Ball said so in December:  "cancelling this project is not what this review is about.”

The provincial government just wanted the external contractor to give it a better sense of what the project would finally cost.  Faced with a record deficit on top of the government's financial problems, the Liberals wanted to know how much they were on the hook for.

That's it.

12 April 2016

Bring out yer dead #nlpoli

In the end there was something perfectly fitting in the way New Democrats dumped their failed leader.

Every pundit around and lots of New Democrats believed that Mulcair would easily pass the leadership test.  They figured he'd have no problem getting close to the 70% vote against a leadership convention.

Last fall, all sorts of people  - including a raft of New Democrats - assumed the party would coast to victory in the general election.  Just 30 more seats to go they told us just before the vote.

And in both cases,  the result was quite the opposite of what everyone believed.

11 April 2016

The value of inquiry #nlpoli

Information is good.

Information is the basis of knowledge.

Information is also power.

That's why people who have information don't want others to have it.

The power that comes from knowing is why some politicians, government officials and others, historically, have raised all sorts of objections to laws that allow people to obtain government information.  They like the fact that they have power and they aren't anxious to let others have it

09 April 2016

Sun burn #nlpoli

On Friday morning, Memorial University political scientist Amanda Bittner told a CBC Radio audience that the Telegram’s government-compiled list of public servants making more than $100,000 a year served no useful purpose.

Lists like this are often called "sunshine" lists after the first one, published in Ontario since 1996.

Bittner dismissed the results of a dozen access to information requests as nothing more than a "patchwork" of information in a  “random Google document.”

On Saturday,  the Telegram showed how stunningly wrong Bittner was.

08 April 2016

Bill 29 didn't go far enough: public sector unions #nlpoli

The teachers' union doesn't want the public to know the names of public servants in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The news late on Thursday is that NAPE - the province's largest public sector union  - and the nurses' union are thinking about joining the fight against the public's right to know who works for the public service and what they earn.

The teachers' union is going to court to try and block disclosure of the names of public servants in response to a request from the Telegram's James McLeod for a list of public service positions in which the person holding the job makes more than $100,000 a year.

McLeod is compiling the list because both the former administration and the current one have committed to publishing one but haven't done so yet.  Several other provinces publish similar lists of public employees who make more than $100,000 a year.

The teachers' union says it's okay to have the position title and income but we can't have the name of the person holding the job, even though that information is readily available under access laws in every province and the federal government and it's been legal to obtain in this province for 35 years. Neither the teachers' union nor any other public sector union has raised this as an issue in the 35 years since the first provincial freedom of information law passed the House of Assembly in 1981.

Doesn't make sense, right?

Of course, it doesn't.  At least, it makes no sense if you look at it from the public interest.

It only makes some sense if you understand that these folks complaining about public disclosure aren't concerned about the public interest at all on any level.  They are concerned only about their own interest.   Unions who have members who will turn up on the lists are defending positions every bit as as private and self-interested, in other words, as the people the unions have been quick to attack for running public-private partnerships.  The hypocrisy is staggering but, sadly, not surprising.

None of the folks criticising the public disclosure have offered a solid reason why the information shouldn't be public.  Most of what they've claimed are undifferentiated fears of what unnamed people might theoretically do with the information.  They might... you know... gossip.  or worse,  the complainers have just offered the view that adding the names is unnecessary or serves no "journalistic" purpose.

What's most striking about these complainers is not the fact they offer no substantive argument, nor even that they don't feel the need to offer an mature, coherent, intelligent reason for their position.  It's the intensity of their feelings, of their unfounded fear.

Many of the people making big money are professionals:  teachers, lawyers, judges, university professors, nurses and doctors. We all know they make higher salaries than the average. They went to school for a long while to learn their business and they work pretty hard.

In other instances, like say a lineman working for Nalcor,  their pay reflects the hard nature of the work they do.  Master mariners make good money.  The job they do takes skill and carries a lot of responsibility.  As for the rest, presumably they are well qualified for the jobs they have, too. teachers, for example, are paid based on their educational qualifications, responsibilities, and years of service.  There's a correlation between their merits and their compensation. For all these folks, the pay and other benefits they get were set by government, not them, and should be enough to compensate them for the work they do on behalf of the public.

Yet they act like they are ashamed of something or like they should be ashamed of something.  If these folks and their unions are indeed feeling a wee bit guilty then maybe we ought to do more than just publish a sunshine list. Maybe there is a bigger problem here yet to be discovered.

The last time someone tried to turn back the clock on the public's right to know we got Bill 29.  As it stands right now,  the province's public sector unions want to take us back to the time before the first freedom of information law.   Since they haven't offered a single good reason for their agitation, you really have to wonder what's driving their anxiety.


07 April 2016

Joining the access fight #nlpoli

As it turns out, the "commentary" on access from information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring is tied to a lawsuit coming from the province's teachers' union to block an access to information disclosure to the Telegram for a list of teachers and principals making more than $100,000 a year in salary.

The school district hasn't sent the requested information James McLeod as they know the teachers union application is coming.

Your humble e-scribbler filed an access to information request for the school district on Wednesday evening asking for a list of all teachers employed by the district and their individual salaries.  Simple list.  Send it out in a pdf.

Here's why SRBP joined in.

The teachers' union is wrong, as a matter of principle.

The public has a right to know the name, position, and salary of every person on the public payroll.


06 April 2016

A mess in the government access and privacy world #nlpoli

Two recent stories about the province's access to government information and privacy laws.

Both of them are essentially nonsense.

Short version for the new administration:  cock-ups in comms and access to government information helped destroy the Conservatives.  Since you've already got big communications problems, adding screw-ups in ATIPPA to the mix is just no good at all.

05 April 2016

Us and them #nlpoli

This is the story of two politicians.

One is a successful business man with major land developments in the works.  He got into politics to defend his people against foreigners out to exploit them. With a quick temper, a tendency to just make stuff up, and hair from the 1970s, the politician loves to attack the news media and liberals for undermining him in his selfless efforts on behalf of his people.

The other politician is Donald Trump

04 April 2016

Incompetence at city hall costs taxpayers #nlpoli

St. John's city council is in serious trouble.

They may not realise it yet.  Indeed, many residents of the capital may not realise it, but city council has made a series of decisions that residents will pay for.

They are all related to the budget.  While many of them lay at the feet of the finance committee, chaired by Jonathan Galgay, the whole council must bear responsibility for both the bad decisions but also for the deception that has surrounded them.

01 April 2016

Why Tom Mulcair is wrong... yet again #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Tom Mulcair isn't alone.

A lot of people have been making the extremely dangerous argument over the past few days that we ought to accept any claim or accusation based solely on the fact that someone made it.

They have been using the Twitter hashtag #Ibelievesurvivors to argue that we should believe any woman making an accusation of sexual assault regardless of anything else.