28 January 2019

Turmoil, unusual #nlpoli

A petro-state with political instability is a pretty weird idea 
but then again we *are* talking Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Government in Newfoundland and Labrador brings in money revenue per person living in the province than any other government in Canada except Alberta.  It's been like that since 2009.

In fact, for a couple of years before 2009, the provincial government posted record cash surpluses based solely on the world price for oil.

At the same time,  though, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have seen an unprecedented period of change in the most senior positions in their provincial government.  Political and public service jobs have changed hands at an unprecedented rate.


The Tone at the Top

In the first 50 years after Confederation,  there were six premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Toss out Tom Rideout  - who held office for a mere 43 days - and you have five people who held office, on average for a decade each.

In the past 20 years, there have been eight premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador.  They held office for an average of almost three years (2.84 years).

In the decade since Newfoundland and Labrador stopped qualifying for federal Equalization transfers, there's been a new premier every two years, on average.

The table below shows the number of days in office for every premier since the first offshore oil production in 1997.

Premier
Dates
Days
Key Dates
Brian Tobin
1996-2000
1725
1997 – First oil
Beaton Tulk
2000-2001
120

Roger Grimes
2001-2003
996

Danny Williams
2003-2010
2584
“Have province”  - 2009
Kathy Dunderdale
2010-2014
1148

Tom Marshall
2014
245

Paul Davis
2014-2015
444

Dwight Ball
2015 -
1136


The Churn of Senior Managers

Regular readers will remember The Churn.  That was a rate of change of the most senior public service positions - deputy minister and assistant deputy minister - that was most pronounced in the provincial public service under Kathy Dunderdale.

High turnover in any organization is a matter for concern, regardless of the cause.  When it occurs at the top of the organization, there's a bigger cause for concern since the organization can lose its ability both to cope with immediate problems and plan for the longer term.

In government,  the offset for changes in the political side of things - the broad policy direction - is supposed to be offset by the continuity provided in the public service.  In Newfoundland and Labrador since 2009 - the period for which we have ready access to data - there seems to be a change in the public service's highest ranks that matches the change at the political level.

A search of the online orders-in-council data base turned up these results for the number of appointments made to the senior public service, by year. The numbers vary slightly from previous ones used here,  but the trending is the same.

Year
Number of Orders
% turnover
(out of 85)
Premier
2009
08
9
Williams
2010
31
36
Williams - Dunderdale
2011
46
54
Dunderdale
2012
57
67
Dunderdale
2013
51
60
Dunderdale
2014
19
22
Marshall - Davis
2015
20
23
Davis - Ball
2016
56
66
Ball
2017
60
71
Ball
2018
16
19
Ball

According to a Telegram story from 2012,  there are 85 positions in the senior public service that would be covered by these types of announcements.  There has been some fluctuation in the number of those positions over time.  There are fewer now,  for example, after some reorganization  during the Ball administration than there were previously.  That would make the more recent churn much more significant as a share of the whole public service than the earlier periods or than the current comparison shows.

The Revolving Door in the Top Public Service Job

The Clerk of the Executive Council is the head of the public service,  the senior public service policy advisor to the cabinet,  and the chief of cabinet administration. When it comes to continuity in administration of the government, the Clerk is a particularly important job.

The job has also tended to be fairly stable.  In the first 100 years of cabinet administration in the United Kingdom, there were 10 men who held the position comparable to what is known in Canadian provinces as the Clerk of the Executive Council. The same as been generally true in Newfoundland and Labrador, although, as in Britain, there's been a tendency since the late 1990s for Premiers to appoint Clerks with whom they were personally associated.  This was true for Brian Tobin, Roger Grimes, and Danny Williams.

That said,  Clerks have still tended to serve three to four years in the period from 1997 to 2016.  This is somewhat shorter than the average before that.  It is also unusual to have a new Clerk appointed by a new Premier, even though this was the case three times over the past 20 years.  Danny Williams' appointment of Robert Thompson in 2003 stood out because it combined a change of the party in power with a change in the most senior position in the public service.  In 2015,  as in 1972 and 1989,  the Clerk of the Executive Council stayed in place regardless of the changes in the Premier's Office.

Year of Appointment
Clerk
Premier
1996
Malcolm Rowe
Brian Tobin
1999
John Cummings
Brian Tobin
2001
Deborah Fry
Roger Grimes
2003
Robert Thompson
Danny Williams
2007
Gary Norris
Danny Williams
2010
Robert Thompson
Kathy Dunderdale
2013
Julia Mullaley
Kathy Dunderdale
2016
Bern Coffey
Dwight Ball
2017
Elizabeth Day
Dwight Ball
2017
Ann Marie Hann
Dwight Ball
2018
Elizabeth Day
Dwight Ball

The changes since the election in 2015 stand out even more.There have been four changes in the Clerk's position within the 36 months after December 2015. Given that the most recent appointee is also close to retirement, it is likely the Premier will have to make another appointment in 2019.  This is an unprecedented number of changes in the office of Clerk within such a period.

Implications

This is the starting point for a discussion.

The changes are happening for a reason.  The changes bring consequences.  we need to find explanations for this so that we may better understand, at the very least,  the relationship between these patterns and the decisions that have doubled the public debt since 2003. How do these changes relate to chronic overspending and Muskrat Falls?  How about the policy stagnation that persist in the province despite a change of party in government?

There are other changes in the upper reaches of the provincial government worthy of note as well.  Kathy Dunderdale and Dwight Ball have exceptional rates of change in some of their key advisory positions, noticeably communications (Ball has now surpassed Dunderdale) and chief of staff.  Are these related developments?

What does this mean?

-srbp

Next in the Series:  The Turmoil and Topsy Turvy