12 October 2016

Eeyore and the Blustery Day #nlpoli

Premier Dwight Ball stood up before a hand-picked crowd at The Rooms on Tuesday and told them they were there to help develop a strategy for the future of our province.  They would look over some ideas the government crowd had worked up,  sit around tables talking with "facilitators" as part of this gigantic consultation, and then the government crowd would figure out what the final strategy should look like.

In his speech,  Ball said that we were in the current financial mess because the crowd running the government before now had followed a strategy of strategies.  They'd have a strategy for ever problem. One year they came out with 10.  All developed according to the same basic formula:  issue - idea - consultation - cogitation - strategy.

The Liberals would do things differently, Ball said. How they would be different he could not say. Maybe it was that instead of doing a health strategy and a n innovation strategy and a fisheries strategy, Ball and his crowd were going to have One Big Strategy.

But somehow,  the same was different to Ball's way of thinking and all would be wonderful as a result.

There is a word for this, you know.


Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

But that is apparently what Dwight Ball wants to do.

Mind you,  he doesn't sound too thrilled.  Ball delivered his cliche-riddled remarks in the public portions of Tuesday's agenda in a tone that showed all the excitement of Eeyore full of enough ketamine to paralyse King Kong.  And what he announced was nothing to write home about.

This was supposed to be the big unveil of a reboot of Ball's troubled administration.  Unnamed Liberal insiders told CBC's Peter Cowan they would keep popular ideas and chuck unpopular ones overboard before the budget next spring. That made sense.  We haven't seen much of him since last spring and there's been plenty of buzz about the idea that his new staff would come up with something really big to take control of the agenda or change the channel or whatever other political cliche you might want to use.

What Eeyore actually delivered was a litany of tired ideas. Arguably their biggest idea - a new Public Tender Act - is actually something the Conservatives introduced in the House of Assembly but never finished. What Ball seemed most excited about - agriculture  - has been the great dream for economic development held by every government in Newfoundland since at least 1832.  In the 1930s,  the Commission thought agriculture was the way ahead.  They were wrong for lots of reasons.

There isn't a government since the 1880s that hasn't wanted to make Newfoundland  the next biggest thing for mining or oil development.  Even if this crowd could manage to streamline some of the regulatory hindrances to exploration and development,  the major problems are ones that are beyond the government;s control.

Offshore Newfoundland and Labrador remains a frontier, which means it is full of resources but all of them sit in expensive places to find and exploit.  The only way to make them more attractive to global investment would be financial.  we need higher oil prices, which the government here cannot move at all.  Alternately, the government could heavily subsidise the global oil industry by dropping royalties or introducing cash gifts. That would be hard to do given that the government is already heavily in debt and is planning to borrow a couple of billion every year until the markets won;t lend the government any more.

The ideas for improvements within government are all fine but would hardly produce a blip on the government's overall financial map.  This is a return to the old Ball idea that somehow he could manage the province's financial problems into submission using the sorts of things that make middle managers excited but that do nothing worth speaking of, strategically.

The rest of what Ball and his ministers talked about fell into one of two categories. They were either stuff they should just get on with anyway - like the education and health reforms - or stuff that are pure window-dressing. That is the annual meeting with aboriginal leaders.  At best, it is tokenism.  At worst it is patronising crap.

Nowhere was anyone talking about the massive debt burden,  the impact of demographics on the province, or anything else that is real. Instead, the government got a group of people interested in continued government overspending to get together and talk about ways to keep government spending. The key to agricultural development will be government cash.  The key to development of a groundfish industry will be government cash.  That is perfect because the current crowd - like the crowd before them  - are committed to a strategy of lowest-common denominator politics.  They need friends and the surest way to get friends is by spending public money.  The Conservatives blew through billions in oil cash. When that ran out, the Conservatives just kept borrowing. The Liberals - apparently - will just keep that rolling along.

On the television news Tuesday night, the damage caused by high winds and heavy ran led the broadcast.  But on both NTV and CBC,  Paul Davis' decision to resign beat out the government's Big Reveal. NTV relegated it to a script story. That's striking but understandable.

Davis' resignation opens up the prospect of serious political change within the next 12 months. Ball and the Liberals are in hard shape.  Ball himself is weak and exceedingly vulnerable.  Ball will survive the fall leadership vote but next year is uncertain. Meanwhile, Davis gave the Conservatives an unprecedented opportunity.

They will likely open up the leadership to a process like the one used by the Liberals.  This will give the Conservatives the prospect of new candidates and new supporters with new ideas going into 2019. If the Conservatives play their cards right, they could emerge at the end of 2017 with a reinvigorated party and a new leader up against a party led by the Premier with the lowest public support in history leading a government with chronic financial problems.

It's one thing for a storm to blow government news away. It's another thing for the resignation of an opposition leader to do the same thing. The Liberals should be much more concerned about this than they are.