Thursday, November 30, 2006

Advocacy Advertising

I want to get away from the charming public policy hothouse that is the NL political environment and look at something completely different.

One part of the wider public affairs environment is the communications influence of the not-for-profit advocacy groups. Because they are not wedded to corporate bottom lines or political conventions, they are free to go where others fear to tread in their advertising. They can be creative and shocking, pushing the envelope of what is acceptable.

Partially they need to do that because of the need to hack though the clutter of the advertising cloud in general. Another key reason is that advocacy not-for-profits have less money to spend so they need bang for their bucks.

Here's a series of ads from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. These cover the dangers of drinking and driving. Be prepared: they will jolt you.

Not all ads are intended to shock but they are intended to provoke. This is a very simple European print ad warning of the dangers of childhood obesity. It's not preachy, technical or sappy but it does get the point across.

Finally, the anti-smoking lobby has produced some brilliant ads over the years exploiting the effect of tobacco to make the audience come up short. They have been highly provocative spanning every human emotion. They have to be memorable considering the slick and expensive pro-smoking ads they have to counter.

These ads from are rare combinations of shock and humor and are sort of a form of guerrilla advertising. They have put out many ads over the last 5 years or so and they are all worth viewing.

Here, they attack the tobacco corporations themselves.

Finally I leave the best for last. An enduring cigarette advertising icon is the cowboy - rugged, independent and free. The smoking cowboy was used to great effect in the movie Thank you for Smoking which I highly recommend as an insight into high-level backroom lobbying and communications.

This ad also uses the smoking cowboy - it's my favorite. It's a combination of chill and humor that's hard to forget. Watch the reactions on the faces of the people on the street to the singing cowboy; you can't rehearse responses like that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Attack of last resort - Shoot the messenger

I've never made it any secret that I like Minister Trevor Taylor: I like what he does, I like how he speaks and thinks and I like that fact that he calls it like it is. I thought he was the best Minister of Fisheries we saw in quite some time; it's too bad that his cabinet colleagues cut him off at the knees over Raw Material Sharing (RMS).

But now he's been put into the untenable spot of acting as the Minister of DTP*. He's doing the best he can but he's running out of room to play.

The best example of his running out of rope is from this CBC story (Revenge motivated fibre optic move: Opposition) which noted:
Taylor also criticized journalists for how the fibre optic story has been reported. He maintains journalists have blown the ties between the premier and the companies involved out of proportion.
If that was the only manifestation of government's displeasure with the media then I wouldn't bother mentioning it but it's not.

First some background: besides the official government spokespersons there are also the unofficial spokespersons. If politics is a war then the warriors include not just the regular army (ministers, PR flack, officials) but also their supporters - the irregular partisans who will go out under cover of being just another interested voter and defend the government to the hilt with arguments and other weapons an official spokesperson could not dare to use.

In this case, those irregular partisans appear as well-briefed plants on the talk radio shows of VOCM.

All the parties have these kinds of talk radio plants to a greater or lessor extent. It started under Premier Tobin, escalated under Grimes and has hit it's apex under Premier Williams.

The Bond Papers has already well explored and explained this phenomena so I won't get into any more detail than than but suffice it to say that this government not only listens to talk radio, it works to shape that public debate through numerous unofficial proxies.

In practice, it's the government plants that are better briefed, better organized and more motivated to go out and protect their patrons. Lately they have been very active and aggressive in their attacks on the critics of government.

That's not new.

But now their enemies now encompass the media itself and certain named media personalities, including Randy Simms (Open Line) and Linda Swain (Night Line) and that is new. You don't have to listen very long to either show to hear attacks on the hosts themselves.

They stand accused, by the partisan irregulars, in the court of public opinion of the political crimes of promoting bad news against government, giving comfort to enemies of the government and showing personal bias against the Premier.

And then when they finish trying to take Simms and Swain down a few pegs, with little luck I should point out, they move over to look for, and often find, a sympathetic ear at Back Talk with Bill ("Premier, tell us again why are you so awesome") Rowe where they can complain about the unfairness and bias of his fellow on-air personalities.

Before it was enough just to attack the viewpoints of other callers. Then it escalated to attacking the character of the other callers. Now it's open season on the hosts too.

In the end, these professional radio show hosts are being attacked for not getting into line behind government policies and for declining to act as unpaid government cheerleaders of the public airwaves. And to what end? I doubt that either Swain nor Simms will change their on-air demeanors to suit the designs of their detractors.

And that's the problem with the "attack the media" government strategy. Government and media live in a symbiotic relationship and they need each other. These kinds of attacks personalises a relationship that should be kept cool, detached and professional.

Every losing political candidate or government will go through a phase of rationalizing their defeat by blaming the media. In fact, the media is merely doing their jobs and when a government sees things in the media they don't like or find damaging to their credibility, government has only themselves to blame.

But the immediate issue is this: when a government has to descend to the level of hunting down and shooting the bearers of bad news, then we see a frustrated government that is well and truly running out of ideas for explanation and defence.

*DTP = Defending the Premier

Monday, November 27, 2006

Yet more pharmacists

I don't want to be all pharmacists all the time but this story is starting to spin out in fairly predictable ways.

Today is this CBC story (Eastern Health package could hurt other regions: pharmacists) which reads in part:

Sharon King, the executive director of the Association of Allied Health Professionals, said the effort would help prevent hospital-based pharmacists from resigning — but could create a drain for other regional boards.

"I would think those boards would probably be more concerned now, with Eastern Health addressing the problem, because they're at a high risk of losing their pharmacists to the Eastern board," King said.

You might recall that in my post a few days ago (No from above, OK from below) I asked the question:

Third, does this mean that we will now see a bidding war for pharmacists, not just between this province and others, but within this province between board jurisdictions? Will other regional health boards in this province feel forced to match this offer?
Apparently it just may mean exactly that. Except of course, for the fact that government will come riding in at the last minute to save the day; they will take all the credit for alleviating the chaos and confusion around this issue for which they are primarily responsible for causing in the first place.

Let's see how many other questions get asked about this issue.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Goodbye accrual world(?)

One of the great buzzwords leading into the last provincial election and since this government has taken office has been accrual accounting of the government books. This has come mostly from one Loyola Sullivan, the man of a billion numbers and the province's current finance minister.

Mr. Sullivan's concern with accrual accounting had much to recommend it. Let me explain a bit.

Over the years, government established a slew of regional bodies to take care of one thing or another. Most notably, we're talking about health and social services (through the regional health boards) and education (through the regional school boards).

An ongoing problem has been previous governments' shell game in not counting deficits and liabilities of those bodies in the overall books of government. And since the province is ultimately on the hook for any liabilities or deficits these bodies take on, it's only right that the province should account for that.

Think of it this way: when you co-sign for a credit card for your minor child, you had better get used to the idea that their liabilities are also your liabilities unless and until your child hits the age of majority and, chances are, even after that you'll continue to shell out.

One way the government keeps these matters in control is to limit the ability of regional boards to spend beyond its means and to ruthlessly make internal changes to clear out deficit problem when they do happen. Think about the times the province has called in outside management consultants into the western regional health board to see what I mean.

Then this staff pharmacist issue comes along. My understanding is that the situation was rapidly hitting a breaking point. It had long gone past from having enough staff pharmacists to having too few. There were places where going from having too few to having none in place at all was staring them in the face. The matter had to be dealt with and dealt with right now.

Then when the Health Board makes a move to put the issue to bed with a $1 million bonus payout, CBC said:
The largest health board in Newfoundland and Labrador has made a unilateral move to stop hospital-based pharmacists from moving away.

Sounds like a great piece of initiative on their part - brave and courageous, in fact.

All this is a long way to get to a simple question: has the province and Loyola Sullivan given up the faith of accrual accounting, and the basic lines of implicit accountability, in allowing the Eastern Regional Health Board to pony up an additional $1 million for pharmacist bonuses?

Is Minster Sullivan allowing the Boards to run their expenditures as they want without consideration of government's priorities?

Well, no, not quite. On November 16, CBC reported that:

Sullivan, who is scheduled to give a fiscal update Thursday afternoon that is expected to show the province is running a current account deficit, said the government cannot afford to deal with the pharmacists' issues this year.

However, he committed to review salaries next year.

More than a month before, on October 14, CBC reported that:

Health and Community Services Minister Tom Osborne said he is aware of the shortage, but asked them to postpone any job action.

"I would ask them to hold off on immediate action until at least I have an opportunity to contact the regional health authorities and we can put contingency plans in place," Osborne said.

So what we have in place today is a different kind of shell game than we've seen previously; we have a government that has performed the political equivalent of cheque-kiting.

You see Minister Sullivan wants to go through his pre-budget consultations "managing" expectations (playing them down so people/organizations/interests won't ask for more money) and preparing the ground his own priorities.

But the province is bleeding away pharmacists now.

So the shells start to move across the table: the stakes are the health of patients in the hospital system and the prize is $1 million in pharmacist bonuses.

Government wants to resolve this matter now with appearing to have too much money in a time when government announces a paper deficit. The Health Board wants to solve this problem because it really has to in order not to jeopardize the health of patients.

So was this truly a "unilateral" move as CBC described it? Was the Health Board brave and courageous in taking this bull by the horns? There's no reason to believe that.

I expect the Board went ahead and organised the bonus payouts to pharmacists with the tacit agreement of government. I expect it was also with the understanding that the Board will be reimbursed by government in the upcoming budget.

It's worth keeping in mind that no board in this province can make any decision anytime on any matter without at least the tacit approval of the Minister responsible or the Premier himself; any decision made by any board can be unmade at a stroke of a Confederation Building pen.

Sometimes it's convenient to rein in regional boards (overturning a school closing) and other times it's more convenient to let them run ahead until you are ready to announce a solution of your own.

There is nothing counter to any law, statute or regulation in any of this but it does show the willingness of government to play shell games with employees (pharmacists), very sick patients including cancer victims and with the boards to whom it entrusts to deliver services to the province.

And it's all for the political goal of managing the expectations of the upcoming budget.

And while it's not illegal, it does strain to the breaking point the ideas of openness, transparency and accountability; it's just another reason to look behind the news just a little bit closer.

Friday, November 24, 2006

No from above, OK from below

What does it mean when a government board or agency approves an expenditure that has been explicitly rejected by the provincial government which funds it?

In NL we have regional health boards which receive funding from the province (not enough, some would say) to administer health and social services in their region. They are given just so much money and no more. Some Boards have landed in deep hot water for over-spending.

One service that comes under these organizations is staff pharmacists. These pharmacists have been agitating and launching a work slow-down in order to bring up their wages.

The Minister of Health, Tom Osborne, has been unequivocal - no way.

You would think that would be the end of it but you would be wrong.

Now the Eastern Health Board has announced a plan to address the shortage of hospital pharmacists with an $18,000 bonus to be paid out over the life of the current collective agreement which expires in June 2008.

Considering that those bonuses have to be allocated out of money that is allocated to the health board by the province, you have to consider a couple of questions.

First, what line item is that money being taken from and what else is not seeing a much-needed $1 million?

Second, if the board can just allocate $1 million on this kind of ad hoc basis, then what kind of financial controls, or potential surplus, do they have in place?

Third, does this mean that we will now see a bidding war for pharmacists, not just between this province and others, but within this province between board jurisdictions? Will other regional health boards in this province feel forced to match this offer?

Finally, will the province reimburse the board for this unforeseen $1 million expense? If so, then why didn't they just cover it in the first place. If not, where is this money going to come from.

This can't be the end of this story.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful

You know those people - the beautiful people for whom all is easy. The kind that other people fall over themselves to clear obstacles, provide offerings of devotion or just to profess love.

These people never had to work at anything because they just never had to. They never had to expend any effort in planning because it all just fell into their lap. That's the way they expected it and that's the way people around them learned to expect it.

Then some time passes and the beauty starts to fade as the inevitable wrinkles, dings and nicks of time start to manifest themselves. Gifts get a little harder to come by and the adoration of the people becomes more forced. Whereas before people were content to bathe in the glory that is them, now people actually start wanting something in return for the adoration they provided in the past.

Even worse, now they have to start developing skills they never needed before - having to sell their ideas where before they were accepted without question. More and more of their efforts go into proving to people that they are actually useful to have around and that they're not just another pretty face.

Where the people previously accepted their bland reassurances without question, now their life has become wearying as the doubts mount and people take less and less for granted.

They start to become aware that while friends come and go, enemies accumulate with a new readiness and willingness to pounce where before they were content to stay out of the way.

Yesterday's glories recede into the past as the question of the day gets louder, What have you done for me lately?

Then a slow realization dawns: in politics there is no such thing as unconditional love.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Way too good to be true

From CBC
He said a competing network will lead to other benefits, but "it is not possible to quantify the benefits exactly because the number is so huge and so enormous that you cannot quantify it. It is in the hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," Williams told the legislature.
If even a fraction of this is true then it truly is hard to pass up a deal like this.

And if all of it is true then there are too many inconsistencies just on the face of this whole matter to accept easily. The fact is that claims like this raise more questions than they answer.

First, if a government can’t quantify the benefits of a public policy decision then government has no business making a decision to proceed. The only numbers too big to quantify are in rarefied and obscure corners of cosmological physics and even those practitioners can give you a number of some kind.

The fact that Premier Williams is willing to stake his reputation for good business judgment and his government’s reputation for competence on a public policy decision whose benefits are unquantifiable is hard to accept. He must make the effort to quantify the benefits otherwise it’s just gut instinct – a spectacularly bad way to spend public money.

Second, to whom do the benefits accrue? If they accrue to the 3 firms involved, then his decision to put public money into this project directly benefits, to the tune of hundreds of millions, his former business partners.

If this is the case then, protestations about legalities notwithstanding, this is an ethical conflict of interest on a monumental scale.

And if the benefits are so humongous as to be unquantifiable, then why did the partners need public money when private investors would have been lined up around the block for a small piece of this project given the enormous potential returns.

But if the benefits are to accrue to the public at large, how will they do so and where is the analysis showing this to be the case?

I’ve worked on public policy for prior provincial governments and I have had a hand in preparing materials for cabinet decisions. One this is for sure – nothing is left to chance and all claims of benefits are analyzed, researched and documented.

If the Premier says there are hundreds of millions of dollars of potential benefits, then that claim too has been analyzed, researched and documented by either outside analysts or internal resources.

So the question is this: wouldn’t it be worth releasing that analysis which outlines the millions upon millions of dollars of benefits, and to who they accrue, in order to put this matter to bed?

What could be sweeter, from the government’s perspective, than to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and to show the province that the complaints of Gerry Reid and the Opposition are hollow, politically motivated, empty and meaningless noise?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cool it!

When you watch the House of Assembly, or any other Legislature for that matter, you have to remember that you are watching a piece of theater.

Not all the time - some debates really are for the benefit of the other members. But most times the show is for the benefit of the cameras and the media and Question Period is at the center of it. It provides the most interesting drama because it's short, compact and conflict-driven.

For the media, it's the highlight of the House day - they show up for the sitting, watch QP, do their scrums with the MHAs afterwards and then, as often as not, head out to cover other stories.

I'm not saying that anything would change if the media devoted more time to covering other parts of the House operations. I doubt it would. But because the media attention is concentrated to that time, MHAs have every incentive to make the best of it.

One thing that's important to understand is that it's called Question Period and not Answer Period for a reason. A well-prepared Opposition will ask questions with the point of just getting the question on the record; whether they receive an answer or not is besides the point. Just getting the question out can be enough because they know a well-prepared minister will never get pinned down.

It's a game and when it's well played, it's really something to watch. If you ever get the opportunity, watch the Prime Minister's Question Period on Friday nights on CPAC. Prime Minister Blair stands up in the the mother of Parliaments and takes on questions from all comers. It is a true display of dazzling parliamentary virtuosity; he's cool, collected, informed and informative and dances like a master.

Part of the game is the emotional tone. Around here the Opposition acts outraged that they even have to raise whatever question they are asking and the Government acts outraged that the Opposition has the nerve to bring up something so inconsequential and irrelevant.

Sometimes they do vary the tone and veer into wildly different areas like umbrage, self-righteousness or they act affronted, aggrieved, incensed, infuriated, injured, insulted, scandalized, shocked or indignant

But most of the time it's just outrage and that constant diet of outrage can be wearying at times. It would be more interesting if the folks in the House could come up with something else but outrage is where they're comfortable, it's what they can do, so it's how they perform.

Most times it's just feigned - the Opposition *acts* outraged and the Government members respond in kind.

Then there are other times when the House becomes a well and true rat's nest of intense negative emotions, when members lose control and their cool and all sides get into things that they shouldn't.

There are some Opposition members who are masters at baiting Ministers and, especially, the Premier. They know just what buttons to push and just how to needle to make their victim spin out of control.

The game for the Oppostion is to make their victim lose control; the game for the victim is to stay cool and never lose control.

One of the giants of this game, on the victim side anyway, was the Rt Hon. Herb Gray. When the Opposition would ask him a question, he'd get up slowly and just start talking so the "Gray fog" descended upon the chamber obscuring everything, especially the issue at hand.

He never lost his cool and never become upset; he was a master of the game.

You only have to watch a couple of QP's of the local House to see that Premier Williams can be easily provoked into a high-speed top-like spin. And since his definition of what constitutes a "personal attack" is so broad (anything he's not keen to hear), it makes him especially vulnerable to provocation.

So when Premier Williams loses his temper and challenges a member to "repeat his comments outside" (more likely to see pigs flying overhead) and says "I'll sue your ass off", he has thrown up the white flag, announced to the world that he's lost control and that he's lost the argument too; he's given up the fight.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Govt in a bad spot

A dilemma is defined as having limited choices, only those choices and all of them are bad.

On the matter of the fibre optic deal and the Lobbyist Registration Act, this government is in a dilemma.

On one side, government can make the argument, and not without merit, that the Lobbyist legislation does not apply in this case when the partners in the deal put forward an unsolicited proposal for government to drop $15m into a cross-province fibre optic installation.

If that's true then what's the point of the Act, so goes he popular thought, if it doesn't cover things like this?

On the other hand if the Lobbyist Act does apply, and the principals of Rogers Communications, Persona Communications and MTS Allstream did not register, then the fallout will be unpleasant for government.

In fact the Lobbyist Act was a poor idea that was poorly executed to resolve a problem that was poorly understood; it solves problems that didn't really exist here (the stereotype of corporate giants wining and dining government officials to gain influence) and ignored problems that do (close connections taking advantage of personal contacts in a province where most people know most other people).

But since the Lobbyist Act was oversold as the solution and cleanup to all problems of undue influence without ever defining what the problems were exactly, the public has read into the Lobbying Act what they think it should mean. And many think it should mean covering actions that led to things like this deal.

The fact that is does not, at least according to Premier Williams and I tend to agree given the provisions of the Act, means government is in a bad spot.

The fact that it's a political problem as opposed to a legal problem doesn't make the matter less problematic.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Iqaluit bound!

It's that time of the year - the Nunavut Territorial Legislature will open this Tuesday. That means this Monday I start the flight north, through Montreal, to my little corner of the Iqaluit Suites Hotel. From there I'll commute across the street to my office where I'll edit and index the territorial Hansard until the legislature closes.

I'll be there some 3 weeks and then I return home. This is my third time up and I've enjoyed it more and more each time. Iqaluit is a town of about 8-9000. It seems like 1/4 are Newfoundlanders so I'm not long finding people from home. One of them is the irrepressible Townie Bastard whose appetite for chocolate Timbits I'll make every effort to slake.

This is the building where my office is located. It's a pic I took last time I was there (early June) at roughly 2am. This was as dark as it gets that time of year. Given the choice between almost 24 hours night and almost 24 hours day, I'll take the former anytime.

The Legislature up there is a fascinating institution, especially compared to our own House of Assembly, and I'll post more about that while I'm up there. Not only to they meet longer and more than ours does, their internal operations are very different reflecting a different political culture and priorities. Our House could learn much from them.

So if I'm a little more sparse in my postings here, that's why. I know some people might be wistful at that prospect but I know there'll be some who will be overjoyed. In either case, it won't last long.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

End of an era - Sprung lands sold

On November 15 the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation closed tenders for the Sprung lands in Mt. Pearl. For those of you who are too young to remember this notorious era in NL history, I direct you over to Premier Peckford's pickle palace, a CBC retrospective on the subject.

This scandal lowered the curtain on 17 years of Progressive Conservative administrations, and particularly on the Peckford government. A wave of public revulsion on the issue elected the Liberal government of Premier Clyde Wells which had the unexpected effect of profoundly changing Canadian constitutional history when he rejected Meech Lake.

A total of about 800,000 cucumbers were produced with a cost to taxpayers per cucumber of $27.50, compared to 50 cents for cucumbers produced out of province and sold in Newfoundland grocery stores.

In 2001, Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick wrote: "As scams to rake in government money went, it was the most embarrassing in Canadian history."

In the end the Sprung Greenhouse project exposed the conduct of the last years of the PC/Peckford administration as capricious and casual in its decision-making process, sloppy and self-interested in it's use of public funds, high-handed and vicious towards critical media and unrepentant in the short-sighted and wasteful expediture of roughly $25m of taxpayer's money.

This history should be taught to every student in the NL school system as a valuable civics lesson never to be forgotten. If we don't remember history like this, we are well and truly doomed to repeat it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Thank you for your support

So far so good in the Atlantic Business Magazine Expert Q&A.

Traffic to the site has gone up and so far I've had 5 comments/questions in only 2 days. Come check them out and if you have one of your own, please feel free to contribute.

And thanx very kindly to Liam O'Brien for his kind words. I'm sure his endorsement of a position of mine is as much a surprise to him as it is to me.

I still have a few more questions to answer so I'll get those out as quick as I can.

In the meantime, give the article a read - leave me a comment/question.

Talking points gone bad - The Jane Stewart award goes to. . .

I listen to the news and talk radio differently than the casual listener. I've prepared public officials for these media so I can recognize the telltale signs of preparation in what they say and how they say it.

If they have any talent and they are well prepared, it's a joy to listen to: concise, clear, informative.

If they have no talent and/or been badly prepared it can be torturous. Try listening to Natural Resources Minister Dunderdale with her "cross-sectoral" and "drill-downs" and "doing due diligence." She crams more meaningless buzzwords in fewer sentences than any minister I've seen in some time.

Does anybody remember the Jane Stewart/HRDC scandal? Who could forget the sight of federal minister Jane Stewart in a scrum repeating her same talking point over and over and over again like a mantra in response to different questions. She sounded like a broken record and in the process became the joke of the nation's capital.

Last night nearly 300 people crowded into the school's gym at Paradise Elementary to voice concerns on mould and to demand answers from Eastern School District education director Darin King. Apparently it's a big problem in the school. Walls have been torn out and you can smell a strong smell of mould as soon as you walk into the place.

All of Dr. King's public comments and media work so far indicates that he is badly implementing poor communications advice but the capper came last night where one notable exchange went as thus:
Todd O'Neill (a father): "Can you smell the mould?"

Dr. Darin King: "I'm not qualified to answer the question."

O'Neill: "You've got a nose, don't you?!?!"
This was just another manifestation of the same talking point he's been using all along - that mould is not his field of expertise and that he's just following the advice of experts.

But talking points are supposed to facilitate, organize and clarify the flow of communication, not impede it.

Dr. King must have missed that lesson.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs

Here is a great article on a very practical and mundane aspect of electoral politics - the removal of campaign signs after election day.

Around here it's not much of an issue at all. Within 24 hours or so of last year's municipal election, it seemed like every sign just evaporated overnight.

I know I lost a huge proportion of mine.

I hear many took them because they make great cabin insulation.

Here's hoping you had a warm and comfortable winter!

Public money in private sector - good or bad?

Atlantic Business Magazine has asked me to participate in their Expert Q&A under the headline Simon Lono to Atlantic governments: Stop gambling with the public purse.

This discussion questions the utility of any government playing with the public's money in the private sector announcing that, "In this online discussion forum, he challenges government hubris and cronyism vis-à-vis economic development in Atlantic Canada."

Give it a read - leave me a comment/question.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Telecoms, government and money - Welcome to the party!

CBC radio today broke the story that information filed by the provincial Chief Electoral Officer show that Persona donated $9,500 to the PCs in 2005 alone, while Rogers donated almost $12,000.

You can poke around here, if you'd like, and check how much people have given each party but I've already taken the time to summarize the information for you, my gentle reader.

The table shows the money given to the PC party or candidates by the telecom companies involved in the fibre optic network that has attracted $15 million from the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

It turns out that the relationship actually goes back further and totals a little more than the CBC story says. In fact since the year 2001 up to 2005, Rogers has donated $15,600 while Persona donated $10,700.

All these money values are donations to the PC party, the PC election campaigns or to individual PC candidates only.

Donations by both companies to the Liberal or NDP parties were $0 over the same period.

So what does this all mean in the context of the news of the last few days?

To start, let's be explicit about one thing - notwithstanding a clear flow of campaign funds from these two telecoms to the governing party, there is no evidence that this government, or any member of government, has done anything corrupt or illegal. That might seem counter-intuitive but it's literally true.

First, all the monies were correctly donated and reported. Unless someone comes up with evidence of under the table political financing, there is nothing improper or illegal in giving money to a political party, campaign or candidate.

Second, there is no evidence of any kind of quid pro quo. Unless someone is willing to swear that the monies were provided with the understanding that material favours would be provided by government in return, there is no corruption involved.

Third, unless and until it can be shown that Premier Williams or any member of his government or their families will materially benefit in a personal way from this deal, then there is no conflict of interest.

So, since there is no evidence of corruption, no evidence of conflict of interest and all funds were provided legally and above board, what's the problem?

The fundamental problem is this: government needs to be responsible in all decisions regarding expenditures of funds. When that money is being spent to support a private sector enterprise, the standards for scrutiny must go up and government must take extra measures to ensure that the decision is sound.

And when the money is going to support a private sector enterprise that is so close to prominent members of government, the case for the expenditure must be iron-clad, extra open and transparent and in every way beyond reproach.

Government should not be surprised that they are being reproached for this decision.

Not too long ago I covered this issue in a post called Ethics, Law and Government and my point then was that:
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.
That point still stands.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Branding - revisited

With all the recent talk about branding (not to mention all the misconceptions), I thought it might be worthwhile to have a quick review of concepts.

Interestingly, government communications as a whole seems stalled at stage 4.

(From Marty Neumeier and his book Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands )

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

High speed insanity

According to Benjamin Franklin, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

By this definition the provincial government, in the recent decision to pour $15m into a fiber optic link in conjunction with three private sector companies, is clearly insane.

In principle and in practice, the primal urge of any government to meddle in matters which clearly belong to the private sector is one that should be restrained. Every government thinks it's smarter and better able to judge this kind of action better than any government which proceeded it.

History shows that's nothing but unwarranted public administration and political hubris.

There are patterns to when governments decide to put public money into what would normally be private sector enterprises; I've come up with four obvious ones off the top of my head. I'm not sure which one of these possibilities is the case here but it's worthwhile looking at them:

1) To provide services or facilities otherwise unavailable or unaffordable.

Provincial ferries are a good example of that; we wouldn't have too many of them if we depended on profit-making companies alone to supply those services. The same applies to roads.

However, in this case, government is putting public money into a project with the express purpose of competing with a private sector company (Aliant).

Right now, fiber optic lines and services are available and affordable so clearly this project does not fall into providing services otherwise unavailable or unaffordable

2) To spur economic development out of frustration with slow private sector action.

Governments work on a four year timeline and are under pressure to show results by election time. So governments are often tempted to goose investment by offering inducements or enticements to hurry the process along.

This is a public policy mistake and history across provinces and governments of all stripes is littered with the skeletons of politically motivated development deals of one kind or another.

We are not unique - other provinces have been at it too. Bricklin in New Brunswick, for one and there's a very long list in Saskatchewan.

In this province, you only have to look at Smallwood's attempts at chocolate, rubber boot and orange juice manufacturing to see that. Never mind the Come-by-chance oil refinery, the biggest Canadian bankruptcy up to that time. That project would not have been built without direct government contributions and loan guarantees.

I can hear the chorus saying that it worked out in the end but the reality is that the people of the province lost millions of dollars on the deal and one of the main reasons it's viable now is because is went bankrupt with the province eating the loss.

3) To make unviable projects viable.

Government keeps referring to this $15m as an investment. If it's an investment (defined as money expended for a return), then why does government have to put up the money at all? Why is the private sector not jumping at this opportunity?

Government funding does not make unviable projects viable but merely brings unviable projects into existence. In the long run, the subsidized enterprise needs continued government support over the long run to keep going.

So government is faced with two choices as money starts to eventually bleed out. First, they can cut their losses, get out and cut the project loose to sink or swim on it's own. Since government is reluctant to admit error, generally government will take the second option of continuing to provide more money.

So either the project is a sensible one which can be handled by the private sector or it's an unreasonable one which should not be undertaken with public funds.

4) To reward friends/allies of any kind

I'll leave this possibility for discussion by others.

The fact is that this province has a horrible track record in putting public money into private enterprises of all kinds. Too much money for too long has been thrown away in one politically motivated vanity project after another. We only have too look at Sprung, a provincial embarrassment which brought down a government of 17 years, to see that.

I'm not arguing that there should be no money every put into infrastructure projects not should there be a blanket ban on public-private partnerships. There are times and places when those kinds of expenditures make sense.

But decisions on public contributions to private enterprise have to be held to higher and tougher standards than other public policy decisions. Public investment into the private sector represents a fundamental departure from standard government current best practices and should be very closely scrutinized for the particular effects on the industry involved, the larger effects on the economy and the general wisdom of allocating public funds in this way.

Our history shows that it's too easy to make bad decisions.

Part of the problem is the way government is selling this. The fact that Minister Taylor admits that this decision was put off until because of the political storm which would follow shows government can't find a sensible way to sell this. The fact that it was released under cover of, and as a putative response to, the Aliant fire which knocked out communications in the capital region shows they still haven't.

In the end, government's claims that this $15m will have anything to do with increased reliability of the provincial communication system or it have anything to do with a more reliable 911 service are false; these claims have been widely demonstrated as bogus or simple fear-mongering.

Additionally, one word that can fairly describe this project is cannibalism - there's already more than enough broadband capacity so now the costs of two separate systems will have to be spread over the name number of customers. I'm not sure how that will reduce costs for anyone.

More than a few observers have noted the opportunity cost in doing this. Every dollar spent on this is a dollar not spent on pharmacists, bridges, schools, etc and that's a political problem for government. You can't help but wonder if this government feels it has more money than it knows what to do with.

Any long-term observer of the local political scene will have to be dismayed at yet another government kicking money into dubious ventures expecting new and different results. What's particularly disappointing is that few would have expected this government to go down that well-trod path.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Happy Guy Fawkes night!

(Shamelessly stolen from Jon Gushue's DotDotDot)

The Current - a worthwhile read

I always liked The Current. It's a kind of a fearless smartass publication. Not quite Frank (thankfully! Frank is generally too much and almost always too personal for my tastes), the Current go where most local mainstream media fear to tread.

They have two fine articles this month on current affairs. One, on an incident outside the recent provincial PC convention I've already alluded to here.

The second is a longer piece called In The reign of Danny Williams by Greg Locke. It's thoughtful and incisive and not only because the writer took the time to quote me all over the place - he talked to lots of other people too like Ed Hollett, Michael Temelini, a MUN political science professor and Jack Harris.

Greg Locke is one of our better informed local commentators and his thoughts are always worth reviewing.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

You thought the Labrador highway was bad

Check out this images of a seriously bad road - just a Russian federal critical national highway; nothing too important.

So next time you cross the Trans-Lab road, just remember: it could be worse.

See here for more

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"I was told, this is Dannyland"

I worked for Premier Wells in a period when he too was topping the polls at stratospheric levels.

During the Meech Lake time, he was as popular, or more popular, as Williams is now. Not just that, he was receiving voluminous expressions of support from right across the country in the face of vehement and aggressive oppostition from a powerful federal government.

The office was dead center between two powerful and implacable national forces.

It was a tense, high-pressure and heady time . . . But. . . .

If I had tried to bully some senior national party official into line with some remark like "You're in Clyde country now", I can safely predict the response from our wise old Chief of Staff - a smack in the head, a kick in the ass and a scathing reprimand for tossing around the Premier's name around for my own self-aggrandisement and for showing such utter disrespect to a visitor to our province.

And I would not have wanted to predict how much flaming shit would have rained down upon my head should word of my remarks reach the ears of then-Premier Wells himself.

My, how political mores have changed over time.

New Telegram website

It's nice to see the Transcontinental group finally update the websites for their newspapers. I use newspaper websites a lot and the telegram was a frustrating and almost useless waste of bandwidth - very little news content or web features.

The new site looks a bit better but that's not saying much. It still falls way short of the standards set by many other news organizations. The design can fairly be described as ugly and busy with too many ads in too small a space. The content is still weak and seems to have little more, if any, than the old site did.

Of particular frustration to me is the expensive news archive. One piece from yesterday's paper, for example, was only accessible to me upon a charge of $3.95 for a mere 310 words!


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

By election day (results)

This is the post I did not expect to write - Lorraine Michael is the new MHA for Signal Hill Quidi Vidi succeeding Jack Harris in the seat.

This was the by-election that was their's to lose. The NDP were facing a high profile government candidate of an apparently very popular government and Premier.

A loss for Michael would have meant sitting out the next two or three House sessions before the next election. It would have left the NDP with only Randy Collins as the sitting MHA - a decent man who has other things on his mind right now other than fighting the good parliamentary fight. The NDP would also have lost critical staff funding for their parliamentary offices.

The next easy step could have been political extinction.

This was no small victory.

By contrast, this was government's test to win. Every surrounding seat for miles around is a very comfortable PC seat and the NDP is only a blip on provincial polls. They had all the levers of government at their disposal and all the city MHA's and ministers were brought out in a full-court press.

Nonetheless the evening belonged to Michael for a variety of reasons and associated repercussions. (Bond papers has also done an analysis worth reading.)

First, the results validates the decision made by Gerry Reid in not running a candidate. Under the circumstances, a Liberal candidate in the district would simply have handed the seat to Jerome Kennedy and the PC's. Reid gambled that the Liberal vote would go to the NDP rather than over the PC's and he was right.

This table (supplied by a poli-metrically inclined colleague) shows that to be the case: the previous Liberal vote went 8 to 1 to the NDP this time around.

Second, the by-election, from the initial announcement right from the moment of concession, had the Premier in the starring role and left candidate Kennedy as the supporting character. The campaign and campaign advertising was all about the Premier. This carried right up to when he and two staffers with Kennedy in tow appeared at the Michael headquarters to make the concession speech.

He couldn't allow his handpicked candidate the dignity of the spotlight to himself even in defeat.

By making the by-election all about him, the Premier has to be considered to have suffered a personal defeat. That would be his first political loss of any kind (unless you include the success of Fabian Manning in the last federal election) since becoming leader of his party.

Third, I believe a contributing factor was the job fair turnout of a few days before. I suspected that event might have political repercussions but little did I know how quickly they would be felt. There is no doubt in my mind that the sight of a line of 9000 people ready to head to Alberta for jobs sent a cold shiver up the spine of the city in general and the political establishment in particular.

That shiver mobilised the NDP vote to appear at the booth and made the PC vote disinclined to come out at all.

Finally, I have to tip my hat to Rick Boland and his crew. They ran a clean and (to my eye) flawless campaign in an uphill battle which met the ultimate test of quality - they won - and politics is a winner-take-all game.

This evening the Premier learned something that eluded him before: fastballs travel just as fast the other way around.

By election day (I)

I'll post on the Signal Hill Quidi Vidi election results later but for now I'll provide two small examples of campaign silliness in the current set of US elections:

In Alabama a candidate named Loretta Nall is running for governor for the Libertarian Party of Alabama. Part of her charming campaign swag was is a persuasive t-shirt featuring this:

If you want to check out her website it's here and you can support her campaign by purchasing this t-shirt as well as other items here.*

I kid you not.

When you've recovered from that, may I redirect you to this article in the New York Times on US candidates losing their cool in the late campaign pressure cooker.

Highlights include:

  • Representative Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican facing a strong challenge in what should be a safe seat, this week told an opponent who uses a wheelchair that she would slap him were he not disabled;
  • Representative Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee used his campaign bus to interrupt a news conference of his opponent in the Senate race.
Again, truth is stranger than fiction.

Go vote.


* Don't bother to send me hate e-mails - I don't make up this stuff.