06 January 2020

Patronage and pork #nlpoli

Think of it as classic political news in Newfoundland and Labrador.

VOCM headline: “Premier commits to fixing patronage issues in government”.

At the same time, some people in Western Labrador are  angry at the Premier for closing a small government office in Wabush.

In the VOCM news story, Premier Dwight Ball was referring to the controversy appointment he authorized at The Rooms. Many people consider that patronage because the person who got the appointment had previously been a political staffer in the Opposition office while Ball was Opposition leader.

What makes this a classic political story in Newfoundland and Labrador, though, is that no one sees the other job – the bureaucratic office in Labrador City – as patronage even though that’s what it is.

At the turn of the century, the provincial government relocated departments or bits of departments from St. John’s to other towns in Newfoundland and Labrador.  They called it “regionalization”.  The idea was to spread the “benefit” of government spending around the province instead of concentrating it in St. John’s.

We are not talking about putting a snow clearing depot for the west coast on the west coast.  We are talking about shifting the office of the fire commissioner with seven high paying jobs and putting them in Deer Lake, along with a bunch of people who run provincial parks. The aquaculture division of the fisheries department went to the coastal community of Grand Falls-Windsor, and the medical care commission offices – the folks who pay doctors for their services – went to GFW as well.

“You can do the work anywhere” was a common rationalization for the whole scheme and it certainly is true.  You *can* do these administrative jobs anywhere.  But it was more efficient in many cases to do them in St. John’s, which is, after all, the capital city and administrative centre of government. 

The convenience of face-to-face meetings, of bumping into people in the corridor and getting a quick answer to a question disappeared in favour of emails and the delayed responses that went with it, added long distance phone charges, driving and flying charges as well as hotel accommodations and meals, and a raft of other new costs that weren’t needed before. 

In the whole relocation process, departments lost senior staff who quit rather than relocate.  They paid travel and relocation costs that wouldn’t normally have been necessary and in more than a few cases, public servants who moved with their job lost money on the sale of their house and the purchase of a new one.  Departments who lost senior, experienced people, with a great deal of corporate knowledge in their heads, had to deal with an influx of brand new, less experienced people. 

In 2003, relocation became a standard government approach in places where the local private sector industry shut down.  The government pumped government jobs into GFW, Stephenville, and Hermitage when the local paper mill and fish plant closed down. On top of that, they also started to give ministers a duplicate office in their hometown as well as the cost of commuting back and forth to St. John’s for meetings.

No one has ever accounted for the extra costs involved in this scheme.  SRBP did raise the issue on occasion and one case did turn up in local media.  The travel cost for one minister alone – Fairity O’Brien – was upwards of $60,000 one year and 50% more than that again  a year.  O’Brien wasn’t alone.  Every minister whose residence was outside St. John’s got to live at home and commute to work at taxpayer expense.

Purists can quibble over whether this is patronage or pork-barreling. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it is the political norm and it is really the same thing:  public money spent for the political benefit of the political party in power or the local district representative. 

In the case of the Labrador Affairs Secretariat, putting its offices in Labrador is nothing but hollow political symbolism.  The main work of the secretariat is dealing with provincial government departments, all of which are based in the administrative centre at St. John’s. There’s nothing that the deputy minister - or anyone else in the Secretariat - can do in Goose Bay that couldn’t be done more efficiently in St. John’s.

And by the way, if you check the Secretariat’s annual reports, you will notice that while most of the staff are in Labrador, the deputy minister *and* the communications director are in St. John’s.  That’s a big clue that we are dealing here with pork and patronage and not effectiveness when it comes to delivering services to taxpayers.

Another clue is the department’s ineffectiveness.  Remember that Perry Trimper audio recording?  One of the topics that came up was a bridge in an area with the Innu Nation land claim area.  The public works departments had given the bridge a name – by the looks of things for a guy from the Labrador coast – and had apparently done nothing to consider involving the Innu Nation.  Bear in mind this happened when the Secretariat had responsibility for *both* Labrador and Indigenous relations and had the Premier as the minister.

This episode actually points to a bigger problem, namely the ineffectiveness of these offices whose job is to have one set of bureaucrats make another set of bureaucrats aware of things the second set of bureaucrats should know already.  In the case of the bridge naming,  the public works and transportation department from the minister on down had to be pretty well unconscious if not dead not to figure out that the name of a bridge within the land claim area – even if the claim is not actively being negotiated – might be an issue. 

Make no mistake.  There *are* problems across government in the way it delivers services to Indigenous people, women, children, the elderly, and francophones.  No matter how many of these offices you create to represent the interests of Indigenous people, women, children, the elderly, and francophones, they don’t seem to produce better outcomes for all those people.  You just wind up with more bureaucrats involved in a single job.  More people add cost, complicate the management and flow of information, and generally slow things down.

That’s one of the significant public policy issues tied to this story last week.  You can probably pick up a few more, including the point that this inefficiency and the pork - barrelling inherent in it contributes to the chronic overspending that led to the relatively minor step of shifting the office out of Labrador City to somewhere else.

Instead of discussing all those things, though, we are talking about the supposed indignity done to the people of western Labrador because this office got relocated.  And in another corner the Premier is talking about taking “patronage” out of government because he got into a controversy over a relatively minor issue.
No one is talking about how they all fit together and what we need to do to tackle the far bigger and far more important issues facing the province that are staring us in the face in these minor controversies.