12 July 2019

The Slaughterhouse Five #nlpoli

Coupled with comparable high rates of staff changes in the senior ranks of the public service,  unprecedented staff turn-over in a critical part of Premier Dwight Ball's office raises questions that need to be addressed.

Premier Dwight Ball has entered the history books.

He has chewed up more communications directors than any Premier since 1972.

Word from the Confederation Building is that Erin Sulley, right, who left community television for the communications business only last October, is now the Premier’s Director of Communications.  It's the most senior political communications job in the provincial government

Sulley was host of Out of the Fog just before joining Ball's staff last fall in the media relations role. In what was a pretty clear conflict of interest, she also started writing a column for the Telegram at the same time.

Sulley's predecessor, Jason Card, quit the Premier's Office shortly after the election for a job in the private sector. 

Before his stint in the Premier's Office, Card worked as a staffer in communications with the provincial government.  In his spare time, Card was an actor, most noticeably as a guest on the CBC drama Murdoch Mysteries playing Guglielmo Marconi. That's a screen grab at left of Card in character.

His predecessor, Michelle Cannizzaro, left the Premier's Office for the mainland last year.  Before Michelle, the  communications office hosted a brief visit from a former federal public servant and hockey author named Andrew Caddell.  

Some will recall that Ball started off as Premier with Nancy O’Connor.  She never lasted his first anniversary in office.

Curiously, O’Connor’s departure was the last time Ball announced changes to his staff.  As with appointments other than deputy minister, Ball just stopped announcing them for no publicly stated reason.

If the goal was to cut down on the stories of the record-number of appointments in the public service that dogged Kathy Dunderdale, that didn't work out, as SRBP demonstrated earlier this year.  We'll get back to that in a minute.

Sulley is the fifth person to hold the top comms job in Ball’s office since December 2015.  That’s five in roughly 1300 days, which works out to one every 260 days or about every eight and a half months (based on a 30 day month). 

In practise, the departures have been less regular.  O'Connor lasted less than 12 months.  Cannizzaro was there for a little over two years.  Card held the top job from October 2018 to last week or the week before.  Now there's Sulley.

Without an official announcement there's no way of knowing exactly when Card left.  Sulley did not reply to an email inquiry from your humble e-scribbler on July 4 about this change, either.  The government phone directory still listed Cannizzaro in the director's job and Card as senior advisor on Thursday, with Sulley as media relations director.  It clearly hasn't been updated since late 2018.  

The official directory of media contacts changed sometime between Wednesday and Thursday this week to show Sulley in the director's job with ex-police media liaison Geoff Higdon in a job now called Director of Public Relations.  In itself, that is odd since those two directors titles basically describe the same job and put both people at basically the same level of authority in the organisation.  

A demanding environment, but still...

To put this in context,  consider that the previous title holder for staff churn - Kathy Dunderdale  - burned through three directors in 1479 days.  That’s one every roughly 493 days, or a little under 16 and a half months. 

Of all the other Premiers since 1972, only Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes had more than one communications director for their entire time in office. Tobin’s two directors covered 1725 days between them or roughly 28 months each, on average. Grimes’ tally of two in a smidge less than 1,000 days produced a rate almost identical to that of Kathy Dunderdale.

Working in the Premier’s Office is demanding in a way that few workplaces in the province are. It is, after all, the hub of everything that goes on within the provincial government.   The hours are long.  The pressure can be intense.

For all that, most Premiers from Joe Smallwood onward have managed to get through his very few changes of staff overall. While a few have had a couple of chiefs of staff - arguably the second most demanding job in the office after that of Premier - most have gone out of the office with most of the staff compliment they started with.  In the communications end of the shop, stability has been the norm. Think Frank Petten and Brian Peckford, Judy Foote and Clyde Wells, or Danny Williams and his future wife.

People do leave high-pressure communications jobs after a short period for legitimate, understandable reasons. What appears to be going on in Ball's office is something else again.  He has had a peculiarly high turn-over in his comms shop. And for the record, it is not just the top job. The rate of change in the other comms-related jobs during Ball's time on the 8th Floor has matched that of the director.

There’s  no apparent reason for the extraordinary churn in communications staff in Dwight Ball’s Premier’s Office.  Dwight Ball's communications directors do not seem to have more work or more responsibilities than their predecessors.  Arguably, they may have had less to do. 

There’s nothing like this high-speed churning in other first ministers’ offices across Canada either, except maybe Stephen Harper’s office.  So even there, we can't find a clue as to why Dwight Ball is going through communications directors at a rate double that of the previous record holder in the province  and four times faster than an energetic, media hound like Brian Tobin.  Danny Williams, who was perhaps the most attention-hungry Premier in the province's history, went into the Premier's Office with the same person who worked for him the whole time he was Premier and who still operates as his publicist almost 20 years later. 

You could see the workload in the Prime Minister’s Office killing off even the most hardened, capable senior staff like the folks in communications are supposed to be ranked.  No imagination involved.  But in the Premier’s Office in Newfoundland and Labrador, as tough a place as it is, the most creative mind is beggared trying to explain why one particular Premier should be in what seems to be a perpetual hunt for people to handle his communications.

The Implications

We may not know why it is happening but we can certainly see the consequences.

Cast your mind back to the January post linked above. Record churn in the senior public service over a couple of years for Dwight Ball coupled with a gob-smacking – and completely unprecedented - inability to hold onto Clerks of the Executive Council. 

Now look at the record of the government. The turmoil comes at a price evident from the government's poor public image, the Premier's chronic low approval ratings,  the government poor performance since the 2015 election in all sorts of polls, and its mediocre policy track-record. 

Normally political offices with those kinds of troubles change staff in an effort to bring a new approach to the task.  That we have seen all these changes in staff, including at least one policy power-hitter without producing any change in the government's communications impact makes it clear we have not seen changes in people to address chronic problems.  People come and go.  The problems persist.  The problematic approach persists, unaltered.

What we can say - to use a government comms cliche - is that, in all likelihood, Dwight Ball's pattern of communications directors will continue.  

Come the spring, just after the budget, there will be yet another departure, and another promotion.