24 May 2016

Red Flags #nlpoli

If you want to understand the depth of Dwight Ball's political problem,  understand that as of Victoria Day,  Paul Lane - never the sharpest of political knives in any drawer - has gotten the better of the Premier politically for the second time in a week and the third time in a year.

The first time was when Lane managed to get Ball to accept him into the Liberal caucus as a perfect "fit."  That's no mean feat given that at the time Lane was a big part of the Conservative goon squad along with Steve Kent and Sandy Collins. Overnight, Lane went from being an enemy to a close ally.

The second time was last week when Lane managed to get out of the Liberal caucus with Dwight Ball's unreserved endorsement. Had it been up to him,  Ball likely would have kept Lane in caucus. As it is,  Lane got away without a single critical word from the Liberals.  They even allowed Lane to frame his departure right down to the point of letting Lane's old political ally Steve Kent tell the world the Liberals had resorted to tactless move of sending Lane an email that he'd been voted out of caucus.  

That endorsement has now given Lane his hat-trick,  allowing to emerge on Monday as an apparently credible voice opposing the government and its very unpopular budget.  Lane can say all the things the other critics have been saying but without the stigma of being a partisan. Lane is supposedly a disaffected Grit who wanted to stay with the Liberal caucus, instead of being a Tory or Dipper. Lane can criticise the Liberals with all the credibility of someone even the Premier and the Liberals agree with:  they don't like their budget either.

Lane and his closeted advisers were quick to capitalise on their good fortune. Lane posted a short message on Facebook on Monday  about the budget. He included all the criticisms of the Liberal budget, including Paul Antle's farcical LEAP tour last summer.  Lane knows nothing came of Antle's tour and until now, no one has been able to make any political use of this.  Lane knows what kind of reaction Antle's escapade got within caucus.  None of that is good for the Liberals, if Lane can make any hay out of it.

If that was not bad enough,  Ball took a second substantive political hit on Monday.  Des Sullivan published a simple assessment on Monday of Ed Martin's contract.  It's pretty clear the former Nalcor chief executive walked out the door with a severance package not covered by a plain English reading of his employment contract. No matter what actually transpired last month, what Dwight Ball told the public and what is true are two unmistakably different things.

Ball does not need another accusation of being untruthful given the flag controversy.  Ball claimed there was no policy on flying so-called "courtesy" flags at Confederation Building.  As it turns out, officials had a draft policy that they applied even if it had not been formally adopted by some unknown process. All that is on top of the running narrative that  - light of their budget plans - Ball and his colleagues lied during the election in order to get elected.  Any episodes where Ball appears to have been untruthful erodes credibility that he did not have a great deal of when he took office in 2015.

The Lane episode is just the latest in a string of political cock-ups, failures, and blunders for Ball dating back to January 2015.  The greatest one remains the spectacularly incompetent roll-out of the Liberal budget. Taken altogether they form the narrative of political incompetence that has accompanied them.

Ball and his advisers seem to think the current public mood will change on its own. The budget will likely pass this week and then the House will close.  Liberal strategists seem to think that, like Danny Williams,  time is on their side.  There are problems with that theory.  For starters, Williams could abandon his budget cuts knowing there was plenty of cash to come.  The Liberals have no promise of more cash.  Then there is the fact that the Liberals have more problems to come.  There's the gas tax,  HST hike, and the levy all of which haven;t started to come out of people's pockets.  Then there are the negotiations with public sector unions.

The biggest difference between Ball and Williams is that Williams didn't have a track record of screwing up. Williams and his team actually managed political events rather than floating along with them as Ball and his crew like to do.  Williams and his team knew nothing ever would fall into their laps.  Ball and his folks seem to have a childish belief that there is a political tooth fairy who will save them. They need to grow up.

Then there are the plan to continue cutting government spending for months if not years to come. The government is about to enter negotiations with the public sector unions to try and get agreement on layoffs to help fight the deficit.  Only Dwight Ball and his finance minister seem to believe this is possible.  Everyone else knows the unions would never agree to concessions even if the government had unanimous support of everyone in the province.

Against a government with virtually no political influence at all,  the negotiations will be be difficult and, in all likelihood very acrimonious.  The unions will step up their attacks and, in the end, the government will lose.  They will either cave in to the union demands and lose control of the government's finances or they will legislate an end to the confrontation, thereby reinforcing the narrative that the Liberals are deceitful.

The next few months should be very interesting. They are already expecting to do poorly in the next CRA poll and perhaps in the one after that. Expecting it is one thing.  Seeing the party in third place with Ball trailing both McCurdy and Davis would be something else. Then there is the possibility that Liberal politicians will get an unpleasant ride at their summer events.  The Liberals expect things will get better as they head toward the fall.   The red flags are already out to suggest that whatever political problems the Liberals are having are just getting started.