Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

Employment hollowing

In the last 72 hours I've received some sad news and seen some wider disturbing patterns.

First, we've received news that a good friend of the family will be relocated in the new year to Alberta. He had hoped to complete one more major local project in this province and and then take his retirement here - he's been here a few years and grown to love it.

He leaves this province with reluctance.

At the same time I learned that another senior exec in the industry will also be leaving early in the new year to go to a new post overseas. His only choice will be whether to uproot his young family in mid school year or to leave them here until June. They have settled into the local community, their children are stable in local schools and they all have developed local attachments.

They also leave the province with reluctance; I wish I could have gotten to know them better .

Yesterday a job fair was held in St. John's which saw better than 9000* or so people head down to the Capital Hotel overwhelming Alberta employers who came on a recruiting mission to fill a crying need for bodies in the Alberta oil fields, particularly the tar sands projects.

I'm sure that those who get job offers, and there will be more than a few, will also leave the province with reluctance.

That raises issues which are demographic and labor market related. That's not even mentioning the political repercussions.

The emotional response to this job fair is worth noting. It's been all over the news and talk radio with a volume and intensity of response a level of magnitude higher than we've seen before for similar events. And the reason for that, I think, is because just so many people appeared at the fair with such little notice.

And the fact that it happened in St. John's. We expect an exodus out of Stephenville and Harbour Breton but we've been able to rest easy and say that at least St. John's and surrounding areas are doing relatively ok.

Apparently some 9000 local residents don't agree with that assessment - turns out St. John's can't take the hit after all.

All of these things taken together, the job fair and the exodus of senior executives, has important and subtle implications for the economic future of the province.

First there is no escaping the fact that all this movement of people is due to greater oil employment opportunities in other jurisdictions. We could have better opportunities here but Premier Williams feels we are better off awaiting a better offer in government royalties and equity.

In the meantime, we have low barriers to labour movement in this country and people are taking advantage of that - they have families to feed today.

Second is the hollowing out of the local oil-related employment knowledge base. Over the last 15 years or so, we had built up a critical mass of people with experience and knowledge in the oil/gas sector. They knew what they were doing and had a good sense of the best way to proceed in future projects. That kind of expertise base took a decade and a half to develop and now it's hemorrhaging away.

It won't build back up at the same rate it's bleeding now.

Finally, the companies whose senior executives are leaving the province may not be closing down shop - they leave skeleton crews of far junior people. That means the decision-makers are gone out of this jurisdiction so, for them, projects in this province are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

It also means that the left-behinds are farther down in the management chain than those they replace with less influence and input into future corporate investment decision.

We had big dogs located here because we had big projects to keep them busy. With no new projects in the pipleline, the big dogs are pulled to where there are big projects.

Oil/gas jurisdictions are a combination of oil/gas resource and the experience and expertise of the workforce to develop them. If we hope to negotiate any kind of industrial benefits in the future, we have to ensure that we still have a local industrial sector to take advantage of that.

Government royalties and equity does little to generate economic activity for anyone but government employees and only ensures generous make-work, income support and old age homes for the people that are left behind.

We should aim higher.

* Roughly the same number as voters in a typical provincial district, say Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi

Monday, October 30, 2006

Bye election blues

I don't live in the District of Signal-Hill Quidi Vidi but, If I did, I would vote for the NDP for what would be the first time ever in my life as a voting adult. My reasons have to do with disquiet over generally giving government another seat.

The fact that Mr. Jerome Kennedy is the candidate on the other side makes that inclination a whole lot easier for me to swallow.

I have never hidden my disquiet with the political skills, positions and abilities of the NDP but, for good or ill (and don't get me started on the ills), generally what you see is what you get.

And while Mr. Kennedy continues his self-definition as the independent man of action and thought, at least in the political sense (and that is really what's germane here) his record does not indicate anything like that.

You see Mr. Kennedy pins his persona as the outsider through his very laudable work as a director of the highly respected Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, and he was pivotal in getting the wrongful murder convictions of Greg Parsons and Ronald Dalton overturned.

Great work that was too - I tip my hat to him.

He also finds much traction for his "little-guy" role in his
charges of professional misconduct after a speech in July, 2003, where he opined that judges who "don't know what they're doing" are one of the many reasons why innocent people are found guilty.

Coincidently, that action echoes Premier Williams' attack on Judge Halley over the Ruelokke affair but no matter

But neither his work with AIDWC nor the attack on the judiciary nor his friendship with the arts community has anything to do with his appointment to the nomination of the PC Party in the seat of Signal-Hill Quidi Vidi.

It appears, from the perspective of an outsider, that it probably has to do more with his work on behalf of an organisation which, in effect has protected the financial interests of Premier Williams' former law firm and law partners as well as his past service to the PC caucus when it was still in opposition as their pet legal opinion for hire.

This work has received much less attention than his AIDWC and it's worth exploring in order to get a fuller view of the landscape.

To start, Mr. Kennedy is legal counsel to the Coalition Against No-Fault Insurance and their spokesperson.

Behind that organization is an interesting story.

You have to cast your mind back to 2002 when car insurance rates were climbing and the Grimes administration started an effort to reform the system. The response to those efforts was the rise of Coalition Against No-Fault Insurance headed by then-councilor Kevin Breen.

If that was all there was to it then it wouldn't be a very interesting story and I promised you an interesting story. The odd part about all this was that the Grimes administration never proposed a no-fault insurance system and was never going to; that was just never in the cards.

But that did not stop the coallition from waging a massive public relations war over the issue anyway.

At the time the leader of the Opposition was Danny Williams who was fresh out of his firm of Williams Roebothan MacKay and Marshall. That firm enjoys a wide reputation as the largest accident/injury law firm in the province and the overwhelming proportion of the firm's millions of dollars of income each year come from one kind of accident/injury in particular - car accidents. Therefore any substantive changes to the auto insurance system in this province would jeopardize this revenue stream.

Putative head Kevin Breen was always very careful to avoid revealing where the considerable sums of money came from to carry out their expensive campaigns.

Local rumors put the source of cash at the door of those with the most cash to lose.

In the end, the Coalition Against No-Fault Insurance was really a coalition to protect the car insurance litigation industry status quo, to preserve the income of accident/injury law firms and to take some pokes at a government already on the way out for partisan ends.

And today, Mr. Kennedy is their spokesperson.

Alone that would not establish a pattern of having carved out a secure place in premier Williams' pocket. There are also Mr. Kennedy's other forays into provincial political issues where he filled the role of Williams' apparently independent legal opinion for hire.

On December 3, 2001, the then-Opposition Environment critic Tom Osborne said in a news release that the Opposition has obtained legal advice that the Environmental Protection Act then before the House of Assembly violated the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In that release, St. John's lawyer Jerome Kennedy stated: "In my opinion, Section 94 of the proposed legislation empowers law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless searches in violation of the protection against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While the subsequent Section 95 does comply with constitutional standards for search and seizure, in my opinion, Section 94 can be used to obtain grounds to seek a search warrant under Section 95, thereby rendering the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure meaningless."

It's odd that the matter has not been raised since by either Osborne nor Kennedy. No House amendments have been proposed by the new government to right this wrong. I guess the matter just wasn't all that important an issue or principle.

But while one can easily accept Kennedy's expertise in the matter of Charter issues, Mr. Kennedy really stretched his credentials as an authority when he weighed into the matter of the House of Assembly debate on Voisey's Bay.

On June 18, 2002, the Western Star reported Mr. Kennedy's considered opinion that the House should not be debating the issue unless and until there was a legal agreement before it. In the story he stated "This agreement as it now stands is not worth the paper it's written on ... Why is the Premier engaging in a massive propaganda campaign to try to convince the average Newfoundlander that this is a good deal. Why not simply provide the information and let the people decide."

However, a cursory review of Mr. Kennedy's legal career would not lead you to believe that he has any special expertise in reviewing complex government-industrial mining benefit agreements. With all due respect, I'd call Mr. Kennedy in a heartbeat if I were wrongly accused of a heinous crime.

But his name would not be at the top of my list for reviewing complex industrial benefit agreements simply because there are just too many other names with much more experience and who do that kind of work all the time

Coincidently his position was almost identical to Mr. Williams' so it's hard to escape the conclusion that he traded in on his legal reputation to dispense an opinion for nakedly partisan reasons as an unofficial extra-opposition spokesperson.

All this makes the overall situation, and Mr. Kennedy, more complex and interesting than it first appears.

Other complexities has been the PC advertising and messaging machine aggressively taking dead aim at the NDP support base while the NDP play a defensive game of fighting to keep the arts community base.

Driving around the district you can't help but notice that no matter how good the PC air war is, the ground war has been weak. For many weeks, while NDP signs were hanging in windows, off houses and on lawns indicating true and deep party support, the PC signs were relegated to public lands. It looked as thought there has been a break in communication with previous PC campaigns in the district while the NDP's can rely on a continuity of campaign information over several elections - the NDP already know where there support is while the PC's started from scratch.

Some have mentioned to me that the campaign machinery is a "by-election in a box" run from outside the district.

No real surprise.

But in the end the factor that would decide where to place my vote is that I'm not sure the City of St. John's needs another MHA on the government side apologizing for their leader's policies, puffing wind up his skirts and passing him his shoe lifts to make him look even bigger than he is.

I think MHA Skinner already fulfills that role more than adequately I certainly wouldn't want to deny Mr. Skinner the opportunity to practice his skills when he does it so well.

The real voting question is this: How many independent voices from the government side have you heard lately?

I'd vote for Lorraine.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dirty politics

Just when you thought that politics was a game where the dirt angle was as fully explored as it could be, this article appears in the New York Times:

October 28, 2006

In Clean Politics, Flesh Is Pressed, Then Sanitized


WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 — Campaigns are filthy. Not only in terms of last-minute smears and dirty tricks. But also as in germs, parasites and all the bacterial unpleasantness that is spread around through so much glad-handing and flesh-pressing.

“You can’t always get to a sink to wash your hands,” said Anne Ryun, wife of Representative Jim Ryun, Republican of Kansas.

Hands would be the untidy appendages that transmit infectious disease.

Like so many other people involved in politics these days, Mrs. Ryun has become obsessive about using hand sanitizer and ensuring that others do, too. She squirted Purell, the antiseptic goop of choice on the stump and self-proclaimed killer of “99.99 percent of most common germs that may cause illness,” on people lined up to meet Vice President Dick Cheney this month at a fund-raiser in Topeka.

When Mr. Cheney was done meeting and greeting, he, too, rubbed his hands vigorously with the stuff, dispensed in dollops by an aide when the vice president was out of public view.

That has become routine in this peak season of handshaking, practiced by everyone from the most powerful leaders to the lowliest hopefuls. Politics is personal at all levels, and germs do not discriminate. Like chicken dinners and lobbyists, they afflict Democrats and Republicans alike. It would be difficult to find an entourage that does not have at least one aide packing Purell.

Some people find that unseemly in itself.

“It’s condescending to the voters,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat.

A fervent nonuser of hand sanitizer, Mr. Richardson holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for shaking the most hands over an eight-hour period (13,392, at the New Mexico State Fair in 2002).

Indeed, what message does it send when politicians, the putative leaders in a government by the people, for the people, feel compelled to wipe off the residues of said people immediately after meeting them?

“The great part about politics is that you’re touching humanity,” Mr. Richardson said. “You’re going to collect bacteria just by existing.”

Still, politics can be an especially dirty place to exist.

“Every time you’re with big groups of people, you’re going to be exposed to rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and the viruses that cause gastroenteritis,” said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and physician.

Mr. Coburn said he washed his hands whenever possible but did not use any antigerm lotions. Being a doctor, he said, he has been exposed to more bugs and, thus, enjoys greater immunity than most other people.

For what it is worth, Howard Dean, also a doctor and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he did not bother with the stuff, either.

“If you’ve had children, you’re immune to everything,” said Mr. Dean, a father of two.

As with most things, this places Mr. Dean at loggerheads with President Bush.

“Good stuff, keeps you from getting colds,” Mr. Bush raved about hand sanitizer to Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, at a White House encounter early last year.

Mr. Obama, who recounts the episode in his new book, says that after rubbing a blob of it on his own hands, the president offered him some, which he accepted (“not wanting to appear unhygienic.”)

Mr. Obama has since started carrying Purell in his traveling bag, a spokesman said.

It is not clear when politicians became so awash in the gel. In one semifamous cleanliness lapse in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton, who had just shaken dozens of hands at a tavern in Boston, was handed a pie but no fork on his way to the car. The ravenous Mr. Clinton promptly devoured it using his unwashed hand. He eventually became a serious user of hand wipes and lotions at the urging of his doctor, an aide said.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said he learned about hand sanitizer from observing Senator Bob Dole’s abundant use of it in his 1996 presidential run. Mr. McCain remains vigilant today.

“I use it all the time,” he said through a representative. “I carry it with me in my briefcase.”

Purell, which is made by GOJO Industries of Akron, Ohio, came on the market as a consumer product in 1997 and became popular in campaign vans, holding rooms and traveling bags in the 2000 campaign. Donald Trump, the billionaire germophobe who contemplated running for president, even distributed little bottles of it to reporters.

“One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands,” Mr. Trump wrote in his book “Comeback.” “I happen to be a clean-hands freak.”

Al Gore is, too. He turned his running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, onto sanitizer in 2000, and Mr. Lieberman became an evangelist.

“He said it was one thing he learned from Gore,” said an aide to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Rebecca Kirszner, who became a popular dispenser of Purell on a senatorial trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Richardson said that if he ran for president, as he is considering, he had no intention of conforming to the norms of his antiseptic peers.

“I just won’t use the sanitizer,” he said. “I’ve been offered it, but I’ve turned it down.”

This positions Mr. Richardson as the early hygienic maverick of 2008.

“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he said.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Even more on political advertising

Now that I'm on a roll, I might as well get a few more things out.

It's hard for a Canadian, let alone a NL'er, to understand the magnitude of the US political advertising industry. In the 2004 election cycle, television stations raked in more than US$1.6 billion from political ads aired by candidates, issue groups, and parties.

That's not a typo. That US$1.6 billion is apart from other campaign expenses like radio, paper literature, websites, rent, direct mail and other things a campaign spends money one. It does represent the lion's share of all US political campaign expenditures.

With so much at stake (high political office and power) and so much money being spent, there is a strong incentive to ensure that the money is spent as effectively as possible.

That means substantial investment in research - polling and focus groups. The research comes in at different phases in the process. Before the ads are produced, polling will test messages to see what might work and what might resonated with the target voters. Those results will shape and guide the ad's content, style, tone and messaging.

Once the ad is produced, it might go before focus groups for testing. This may lead to tweaking, scrapping or running as it.

When the ad starts to run, further polling might be done to evaluate results to see if people remember it and what impact it's having. Even after the ad run completes, some further research might be done to determine if it had lasting impact.

With US election timelines of 8 to 24 months, there's lots of time to be at that. In Canada and this province, election timelines are 60 days down to 21 days so we don't have the luxury of that much time. Our decision process are much more compressed and might have to change on a dime.

That's not to say that US campaigns take their sweet time at things. Even so US campaigns can still turn on a dime to take into account current issues in the news.

Here's a really good example. Keep in mind that the ad hit the airwaves within days of the story breaking that republican member of congress Mark Foley inappropriately contacted underage congressional pages with sexual messages and that the congressional leadership may covered that up. Minnesota's 6th District congressional candidate Patty Wetterling took no time to get these ads out.

Clearly her polling showed that the republicans were vulnerable on the issue. The republicans have tagged themselves as the moral party while assailing the Democrats as the party of degenerate defenders if not degenerates themselves. They were ripe for a counter-attack and Wetterling took full advantage of the opportunity.

Here's one a set from Tennessee - Bob Corker versus Harold Ford. It looks like a nasty race down there.

This one's low production values are intentional - it's supposed to look cheap and glib.

It sounds like Ford's polling showed that a class war was the way to go.

I really love this one. Corker skewers Ford for a variety of things in a very funny way:

More to follow . . .

Thursday, October 26, 2006

More on political ads

If you hasn't read it yet, check this post on the Michael J. Fox ad on behalf of Claire McCaskill, democratic challenger to Missouri Senator Jim Talent and then come back here.

Here's the Republican response ad:

Does it have the same impact? Not to my eyes; it's cheap and fast and just a desperate response to getting caught in a very small spot.

There's also this ad:

Like me, you'll be sucked into believing that it's a genuine ad until the very very end.

This is a good example of two new phenomena. The first is viral advertising. Ed has well covered viral marketing here and this ad is a political example of that concept. It has never run in mainstream media and it never will; it was never intended to.

The other phenomena is the home-made ad. This ad was done on someone's personal computer using little more than the standard movie-making package bundled with Windows XP and then posted to YouTube.

Just add wicked imagination and you too can do a political ad.

We will see more of these.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Political ad

I love political advertising.

The problem with most local political advertising is their overwhelming sameness. Partially it comes from the fact that too many candidates want advertising that looks like what they think political advertising should look like. Combine that with the pathological fear of causing any political contraversy and it makes for much dull and dreariness on the local front.

The other problem is that local advertising agencies, while experts in designing and selling the latest design for milk cartons, are pathetically useless at producing the kind of political advertising that has the required impact.

Finally, our local political culture has a bias against the kind of hard-hitting political advertising that you see in the US. That doesn't mean they won't work here. It just means you need to approach the issues differently.

Here is an ad that is definitely worth viewing.

This article
in the New York Times provides some background. The ad shows the actor Michael J. Fox calmly asking viewers to support stem cell research by voting for several Democratic candidates in Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin.

The previous paragraph does no justice in describing the devastating impact of this ad although you might get some inkling when I remind you that Fox has Parkinson's disease.

Take a look.

Needless to say this ad has drawn much republican fire. As noted in the Times, Rush Limbaugh rushed in to discredit Mr. Fox. The conservative radio talk show host told his listeners that the actor either "“didn'’t take his medication or was acting."” Mr. Limbaugh later apologized for the accusation, but said that "“Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician."

That doesn't change the fact that this ad has the Republicans on the run by intensely personalizing, through a popular and likeable actor, an abstract issue like stem cell research.

This ad does what good ads must do: it cuts through the clutter and makes the voter pay attention.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Voisey's Bay: Avant Moi, le Déluge

This is probably one of the most famous historical remarks of all time. While generally ascribed to Prince Metternich, he borrowed it from Mme. Pompadour, who laughed off the warning of her ministers at her extravagance by saying, "Aprés nous le déluge"”.

In the original context she meant that all could fall into ruin after her; she was here for a good time. Anyone who ever visited Versailles can see what kind of good time was had by her and her court. Looking around you'll quickly conclude that these people were fairly asking for a violent revolution. She was right in the end - after her came much ruination.

Since then the meaning has changed. Now it's often given to mean that the speaker is the main force staving off ruination. In other words, "without me, all will fall into collapse".

While Premier Williams has not yet explicitly expressed this view that I've heard yet (lots of time for that to come - the election is 12 months away), another closely related view has frequently been explicitly expressed: "Avant moi, le déluge".

For those for whom core french was a challenge, it means "before I came along there was ruination".

That should sound familiar because it was just about the first major public policy statement issued by this government. On January 5, 2004, Premier Williams went on province-wide television to tell us that we were going bankrupt, that there would be no civil service pay increase and, by the way, Happy Holidays.

Since there we have heard a steady diet of stories about how miserable and incompetent all prior government have been before this one came along. Just think about all the disasters: not just general fiscal disaster and the Upper Churchill but also the Hibernia deal (gave up royalties for jobs),the original Atlantic Accord (not enough power and/or money) and the White Rose and Terra Nova developments (just plain bad).

We didn't even have any sense of pride about ourselves until Premier Williams and company came along to give it to us. Now we have a shiny new brand to admire and keep us warm on cold winter nights.

And of course there's the Voisey's Bay agreement - Grimes' Crime.

Premier Williams always insisted it had loopholes big enough to drive a truck through. He was against the deal at the time and roundly condemned it every opportunity he had. And that was fair, he was Leader of the Opposition at the time and that was his job.

Recently there was the quixotic quest by the provincial government to bully the federal government into giving environmental indemnity to INCO at the original Argentia site for all possible problems for all time. In other words, an open-ended commitment by the federal government to remediate whatever environmental problems there might be from the past, present of future without limit.

Little wonder the federal minister demurred. Taking on that kind of limitless obligation would have been irresponsible. Still the province pushed the case to the wall.

To this day the Premier continues to condemn it for being a bad deal. Lately he's gone on to be more specific: he expresses doubts that the nickel smelter will ever be built in the province. And he's more than happy to share those thoughts on a moment's notice.

The problem is that he seems to be the only one who thinks that way. Inco has repeatedly stated in no uncertain terms that there will be a smelter here.

Mind you there was some question as to exactly where it might be. It turns out that the original location required many kilometers of pipe though several watershed areas to take away the waste. That was never an appropriate spot to situate it.

Since then the company has found another spot just a few miles away that avoids constructing an environmental disaster-in-waiting. They are moving forward with the paperwork and public consultations to make it a reality.

It looks like there is a very real chance that this province will suffer from having a cutting edge nickel smelter with all the associated employment and royalties whether this government likes it or not.

Now the government, with the shameful backing of the opportunistic official opposition, has issued a vacuous and bogus call for "compensation" for the town of Argentia because the facility will be going to Long Harbour instead.

In watching government raise one issue after anther and throwing up one obstacle after another, one has to wonder if the government is hoping to create enough problems so that INCO will finally say "That's enough, we give up, no smelter".

Then Premier Williams will have been proven correct after all.

And at no cost to any of us.

Except of course all the capital expenditures so far, some considerable operational spending, jobs that will stimulate the local economy and a ragged reputation as a jurisdiction hostile to business investment.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ethics, laws and government

In the interests of full disclosure, and this won't be news to my regular readers, I have worked within the political system from time to time. I have worked for and with provincial and federal politicians and prospective politicians.

One set of advice I'm always quick to offer is this:

  1. Never put yourself into a conflict of interest situation;
  2. If you break rule 1 then get out of the situation by eliminating the conflict.
Defense or stonewall on ethical issues always sounds hollow because the defense is almost always a legalistic one. A more fundamental problem is this: it is not enough to be ethically clean, one must also be seen to be ethically clean.

Unfortunately, basic ethical transgressions of government officials in this province are only defined in legal terms. That distorts our expectations.

So when the Commissioner of Member's Interests pronounces that it's perfectly ok for the Premier to appoint the legal representative of his family's oil/gas business interests, Bill Fanning, to a position which advantages those interests, he has provided a legal interpretation of the relevant Acts of the legislature.

That does not mean it's right, correct, proper or ethical; he merely means it's legal. Legal is a long way from appropriate.

You will hear from some a call for a revamped Act to close what is obviously a legal loophole. But the problem with that is that there will always be a way around any rules, regulations or Acts you put in place.

While there are always legal loopholes, there is no such thing as an ethical loophole.

In the end, this is an issue of ethics and a government which chooses to conduct it's behavior along the strict letter of the law is an ethically challenged one.

If you've ever gone sailing or boating, then you know there is a kind of sailor who, upon seeing rocks, will try to sail as close as possible to them just for the thrill. Other, more prudent sailors, will veer far away and not take the chance of running aground.

This government is that sailor who likes to skirt as close to trouble as possible. In fact, there is pride in that kind of behavior and media coverage is sought for it.

I was on the road the last few days and so was only able to review the last few days of the Telegram this morning. I was brought short by a story in Thursday's front page business section. It was a story the like of which I don't ever recall seeing before.

It came from the Aurora and the headline was"Sitting down with seniors: Building Committee introduces potential developer at public consultations".

The story went to describe the public meeting where Terra Nova MHA Paul Oram and his wife Karen Oram were in Labrador City last week to discuss the possibility of opening a seniors'’ complex. The Oram Group, the family company, already owns 2 seniors' homes and wants local support to open a third in the region. (K. Oram center, P. Oram at right)

Not only was a supposedly full-time MHA participating in public meetings to drum up support for a project of his family business, he was comfortable enough to pose for the media. In fact, the media coverage of his activities was a critical part of what he was trying to do.

I know that the quick response for the Oram defenders will be a legalistic one: he is not a member of cabinet and has broken no conflict provisions. And I'm sure that some will say that because he's up front and open about it, then it's ok. I am not saying that he has broken any provisions and he's certainly not trying to hide what he's doing.

And that's the problem.

Does anybody else see a problem with an MHA promoting his family's interests while still taking a public salary. And just to add a complication, it's in an area of business that many see as one where the government should be doing more rather than leaving it to the private sector.

When the cabinet and Premier consults with the caucus on important public issues facing the province (I'm not saying they do but they certainly claim to) such as the provision of senior's homes in the province, what happens then?

No set of laws or codes will ever eradicate ethical transgressions on the part of elected officials. We can only try to elect persons who have that internal compass that tells them what is appropriate and what is not. We can only hope for leadership from the top that guides all members of government to closely examine if their actions are correct or not.

But when the top dogs define what is appropriate purely in terms of what is legal then that is the recipe for future problems. When a government can't tell what is ethically appropriate from what is merely legal, then you have a government that you have to watch twice as hard.

And God knows you never want to let any government out of your sight for long.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dunderdale strikes back

Late yesterday, as the story of the appointment of Bill Fanning, trustee of Premier Williams' business assets to to the Bull Arm Corporation board, the spokesperson of the department of Natural Resources Kathy Dunderdale issued a stirring defense.

In part, she notes that:

"To suggest that Mr. Fanning would use his new position to benefit his private interests is not only offensive, it actually calls into the question the integrity of every private citizen who is appointed by the government to a board or agency," said Minister Dunderdale. "Mr. Fanning is an exemplary example of the expertise that is required on these boards as we continue to develop the oil and gas industry. To suggest that appointed individuals are using their positions to benefit themselves is extremely unfair, and that type of rhetoric will only serve to discourage citizens who have a contribution to make to the betterment of this province."

Seldom were more irrelevant words spoken.

First, nobody is questioning that Mr. Fanning is qualified to help develop the oil and gas industry. That's like government defending him because he's a good citizen of Newfoundland and Labrador. Nobody nobody cares about that because that's not the issue.

Likewise, nobody is questioning the motives of Mr. Fanning in seeking advantage for himself. He is a businessman and his job is to seek advantage for himself and his interests.

As it turns out, his business interests are also the Premier's interests. Specifically we are talking about the Spectrol Group to whom the Premier has guaranteed loans and therefore has an ongoing interest in how the company is doing. He needs the company to do well and be a sucessful business otherwise he will lose his investment.

And we all know how the Premier is about money: ours, his or anybody's.

That's the issue: the Premier has used his office to give the legal representative of his business interests an appointment that will advantage the Premier's personal business interests.

So far the Premier has been sucessful in clearly showing that he is beyond reproach when it comes to using his political office for personal gain. Whether this is a case of conflict or not, it does not pass the famous sniff test - this whole thing smells very bad.

And now we have found that the white knight's shining suit of armour has a mean and dirty dent in it.

So when Mr. K. Parsons goes to the media and says that this appointment is questionable, the question he should go on to ask is:
Are there any other qualified persons in the province who could be appointed to the board of the province's oil/gas infrastructure facility who are not also the legal representative of the Premier's family business interests in the oil/gas service sector?
I can think of a few.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Beware of crazy eyebrows

Kelvin Parsons, Opposition Natural Resources Critic and MHA for the District Burgeo-Lapoile, really showed us, and this government, what he's made of.

First a bit of background: on Monday Premier Danny Williams appointed his good friend, Bill Fanning, the CEO and chief operating officer and general manager of Spectrol Energy Services, to the Board of the Bull Arm Site Corporation.

Mr. Fanning is not only the Premier's business colleague (Premier Williams is a major shareholder in Spectrol), he is also the trustee of the Premier's business assets, including his oil and gas related business assets.

Bull arm is the largest oil/gas related infrastructure facility in the province and will be the center of any oil/gas development work in the future.

You can just imagine all the different ways that this creates conflict of interest as the Premier maneuvers his business interests, through this appointment, into a position of advantage.

One would think the official opposition would be all over this like white on rice.

But one would be wrong.

Instead, Mr. Kelvin Parsons merely complains that the appointment is "questionable". Apparently it's not reprehensible, self-interested, self-gratifying, self-enriching, self-advantaging, morally wrong, approaching corruption or any other of the possible accurate descriptions he could have used.

It's merely "questionable".

Then he really drove the nail in the coffin with the sparkling CBC radio interview this afternoon where he let loose a thundering condemnation that this appointment "raised eyebrows".

I guess we better all watch out for those raised eyebrows. I bet those raised eyebrows are used to devastating effect in the House. Little wonder the Premier puts off opening the House as late as possible - he's afraid of those raised eyebrows.

If this matter is "questionable", then are you planning to actually ask the questions? Or is merely pointing out that one could question the appointment, if one was inclined to do so, sufficient to deal with this issue?

Or has the matter been laid to rest with a single arch of those nasty raised eyebrows?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bad relations

You know the kind: that rich brother-in-law that you have to invite over for the holiday dinner because you share some common blood somewhere, even if it's by marriage. You don't like each other much but you are stuck with each other on special occasions.

And what does your wife tell you? "Be nice!" And so you act nice to each other for the time you are thrown into each other's company. You keep up appearances in front of the rest of the family because that's the right thing to do and because someday you might have to ask him for a favour.

This weekend Prime Minister Harper is appearing at the NL PC Party convention in Gander.

The message of the coverage so far has been consistent: Harper is going to speak and the premier is NOT introducing him.

It's worthwhile reviewing the process by which these stories would have started and reached wide circulation.

It would have started with an invitation to the Prime Minister from the local party inviting him to appear. This invitation cannot and would not go out without the explicit approval of the Office of the Premier.

In effect, he's there because the Premier invited him; it's the Premier's party and he gets to decide the guest list.

Then, in the days leading up to the convention, the good people who execute the public relations function in the Office of the Premier would have contacted each and every major media outlet in the province to let them know what was going on with the convention. They would message and massage in order to tune the coverage their way.

One item of information which would have been emphasized was that, while Harper was attending the convention and occupying a position of honour in addressing it with the support and consent of the Premier, the Premier was not going to introduce him.

That backroom media work was reinforced when the Premier goes out of his way to repeat his previous criticisms of Harper as a buddy of big oil. All this gets reported just as Harper arrives in the province.

You really have to admire that kind of smooth and gracious political adoitness.

It's kind of like bitching about your brother-in-law as he comes in the door and telling all concerned that he can come into the house for dinner but he's got to get it himself on a paper plate. Then you spit on his dinner just for good measure.

I've never found that public humiliation was the best way to win friends and influence people. Maybe the Premier has found more effective techniques of cooperative federalism than we've seen in this country so far.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Astroturf blogging for commercial ends

It's bad enough when we see political astroturfing for partisan ends (considered meaningless, free speech or insidious depending on who you talk to) but what about commercial astroturf blogging?

This story outlines the exposure of a we-love-Wal-Mart blog called Wal-Marting Across America, written by a couple on a cross-country jaunt in an RV.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Of Tories and bye-elections

I have to note the rebuttal from Responsible Government League here. Leaving the irony of RGL calling me "reactionary" for this post aside, I appreciate the main part of my posts being described as thoughtful.

I'm not sure the nature of the response except that it proves my point that the main source of complaints over the Liberal party withdrawal are the Tories who only show their reluctance at the prospect of a 1 on 1 bye-election.

As for thinking think in terms of "government" and "anti-government", it's pretty clear that this administration sees the world in terms of the syncophants versus the enemies of the people. You can guess which are which. That's not my preference but that seems to be the environment we live in right now.

It looks like official Progressive Conservative candidate for the upcoming bye-election in Signal Hill Quidi Vidi will be prominent local lawyer Jerome Kennedy. He received the nomination unopposed by any other potential candidate.

You would think that in a healthy democracy, when one party is so far ahead as the Tories are in this province, you would have wannabe MHA's lined up around the block for a chance to be the official candidate of the dominant party.

But no.

There were a few names kicking around in the last few weeks like Ian Carter and Mary Carroll who fought out the nomination last time as well as Ms. Valerie Marshall. A few days ago there was an official announcement that Derek Winsor, a school board trustee, would be seeking the nomination. And then just as quickly he withdrew.

I guess he just didn't get the memo that Jerome was the annoited one until recently.

There has been much public grumbling, in the meantime, that there's no Liberal candidate in the race and there isn't going to be. But if you listen closely you'll notice that the loudest and most persistent grumblings of "disenfranchisement" and similar such nonense* have been coming from Tories who never had any intention of voting Liberal anyways.

I can't help but wonder if the real source of discontent has to do with the bye-election now becoming a 2-way race where to win you now need a majority of the votes. It's a lot easier to win when you face multiple oppostion parties which can split the anti-government vote between them.

That doesn't mean the Kennedy won't win; it just makes that job harder.

* It's nonsense because giving a party leader a bye is not unheard of with many historical precedents to point to.

In any case, disenfranchisement has to do with either not being able to cast your vote at all or not being able to cast a vote for a particular party or candidate because a party or person is prevented from running - you force a person or party to run. Just because none of the Greens or the NL First or the Natural Law parties choose not to run candidates disenfranchises no one and insults those who are truly disenfranchised.

Branding - long and painful

The way government has introduced this wordmark has really made too much of what's really not much at all.

On one side, this wordmark (and it really is a wordmark and not a logo and definitely not a brand) is rather bland to my eye but it's not really so bad and will not rank the this government's greatest policy blunder.

It certainly will not cause cancer. Nor create massive unemployment, nor depopulate towns, nor shut down industries, nor stop offshore development in its tracks.

That's not the problem at all.

The problem for this government is that it won't *cure* cancer either. Nor will it be the magic bullet to generate new investment, jobs, tourism, jump-start oil development, reverse population migration or in any way cause a sea change in internal provincial psychological attitudes.

After all, if a wordmark was all there was to doing that then I'm sure some government somewhere, no doubt backed by those clever marketers at the CIA or DARPA, would have succeeded at this kind of radical psycho-social engineering years ago. In fact even those respected institutions never came up with an effective means of achieving those goals that did not involved the addition of LSD to the water supply.

And that's the problem - governing is hard, especially in this province. It's much harder than just issuing a wordmark because governing means taking hard decisions and making hard choices.

And since government can't resist puffing up this trivial wordmark matter into some kind of second coming, it opens itself to ridicule. That's not helped by the fact that the overall popular response can most charitably described as indifferent, if not worse.

Last night, one government minister (I missed the name) on Night Line with the ever charming Linda Swain said that "in 20 years this brand will be everywhere".

Minister, in 20 years we will be on our 5th or so brand after this one. You know the one: it will be a 3D hologram that plays music with embedded AI that can answer any tourism, economic or trivia question with a custom interface for each person based on biometric data derived from a deep-scan of face and clothes.

In this internet age the brand should available be around the world in 20 *minutes*. But so far Google News returns exactly one hit when searching "Newfoundland brand". It's a CP wire story apparently reprinted by a few papers across the country with a headline that's some variant of "Meat-eating plant the new '‘face' of Newfoundland."

Most of these stories don't actually show the wordmark.

My apologies - it might take 20 years after all.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The provincial bland


Today Premier Danny Wiliams' government allowed to escape released the new brand for the province, its government and its people.

The reasoning, it seems, is we needed to solve the problem of having 40+ brands in government and that we just don't have enough confidence in ourselves.

For a government which has had more success with selling sizzle than steak, this grand gesture is well in character and it's worthwhile looking here to see how the Premier justifies this exercise in his own words.

The response on the blogs and talk radio have been amusing and I look forward to the next few days to see what others think. A lot of remarks so far center on the three pitcher plants poking out of the top. What are they? people are asking. Best suggestions so far include aliens, antenna and bakeapples.

Other criticisms point out that the new wordmark is done in an attractive shade PC blue and that the "and" has mysteriously disappeared*. Others have commented that the font is a kind of childish looking celtic style in a province where it's a mistake to assume everybody is celtic.

One bright spark who will remain nameless came up with this alternative that they thought was the real intended logo.

I really like George Murphy's take on the issue here. I had no idea he was a poet!

Ed has a sort of little shop of horrors perspective.

WJM at Labradore has an hysterical take on the matter.

I would be remiss if I didn't include TownieBastard's comparision of the logo with parasites and space slugs.

Sue, of course, had must to say about it here and here.

This post at Blue Kaffee makes the point that the defining feature of the pitcher plant is the pitcher which is conspicuously missing from the logo. Imagine if somebody used a rose bush as a logo that omitted the roses?

Like the charming people over at Sure b'y, I don't think the new logo is particularly good or bad - it's just, well, bland.

But it does seem to me that anybody who says that the pitcher plant "grows in a natural environment where no plant should ever grow" clearly has never wandered through this province's wetlands. When you do then you understand that wetlands (bogs) are diverse and rich ecological habitats with everything from water fowl to aquatic and marine life to lush vegetation.

And I'm not sure how any government logo is supposed to inspire confidence in myself. I was already pretty confident in myself before this logo, or this government, came along. In fact, I can safely say that my sense of self-esteem and confidence really has nothing at all to do with policies undertaken by any government or who leads that government.

Confidence certainly does not come from a wordmark and if it does then the problems of the province are far too deep to be solved *that* way.

As a way of attracting business and investment into the province, it leaves much to be desired. Consider this: if somebody gives you a black eye, you'll be keen to avoid them the next time you see them even if they are better dressed. So having seen the treatment which the provincial government has accorded international companies like Abitibi, FPI and Inco among others, why would a brand-spanking new logo make a difference to where you invest?

Perhaps more care in managing substance would be in order.

Today in his media rounds, including the obligatory call to Bill ("Premier, tell us again why you are so awesome") Rowe, Williams said that the introduction of this new brand will be gradual as new vehicles are bought and new stationery is ordered. So I guess for the next 1/2 decade or so, the useful life of a government vehicle, we will be a province of 41+ brands instead of 40+ brands.

Congratulations to this government on simplifying this issue for us.

In the meantime I have my own thoughts on those three little things which float and loom above us. My only question is: peppermint or strawberry??


* At 1 million dollars to take out the "and", that means $333,000 for each letter. That's a serious cartage fee!