Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cochrane speaks out

It's unusual for a prominent media personality provide an insightful longitudinal analysis of the public environment in any manner other than bland and innocuous.

Then there was the presentation delivered by David Cochrane at a recent Board of Trade luncheon. He was good enough to release the text of it to Meeker on Media so the rest of us who couldn't make it to the event could check it out.

Read it here, then read it again.

I've heard him speak before and he again touched on a favorite theme of his - in the conflict between politics and business, business stays silent.

And it's not for the reason you might think; business is not wholeheartedly behind the controversial business policies of this government at all.

Rather, as Cochrane points out, the local business community prefers to complain about government policies privately and to thereby vacate the public battlefield to leave the politicians dominant instead of participating in the debate on the best direction of the province.

When you take them aside to ask why, besides the fear of some kind of unspecified retribution for public criticism of the premier and his government, the most common reason local business leaders offer is fear of that magic number of 70% support for the premier.

The problem with that is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as the business community stifles itself and leave their position unstated, the government's point of view will always dominate because that's all that the population ever hears.

We have to remember that these popular support numbers don't always mean what we think they do and that they can change on a dime: in 1988, Premier Peckford received massive popular support for Meech Lake and just 12 months later Premier Wells received massive popular support while holding an exactly opposite position.

And while you would think the Boards of Trade or provincial Chamber of Commerce would have something to say about a government which has repeatedly turned down opportunities for economic development with bland platitudes about "no more giveaways", they don't.

Instead they respond with bland platitudes of their own and indulge in safe debates on a new statutory holiday in February.

And by doing that they let down their members, they harm the body politic by failing to exercise their role in the public life of our province and have no claim to call themselves business leaders.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The IEC: The bad and the ugly - No good here

Every half-way serious blog on NL affairs (and some silly ones too) are all abuzz over a great Telegram coup: a feature-length and detailed retrospective of the antics of the IEC.

I know I rag on them from time to time but the reality is that the Telegram stands head and shoulder above all print media alternatives. I tip my hat to them and especially the author, Rob Antle.

The full story is here (let's hope they leave it up for a while but reprinted below in case it's not).

If there was ever an argument for a full public inquiry, this is it.

Expect the fall-out from this story to carry on for a while assuring this government another bad week as we go into another by election.



ROB ANTLE, The Telegram
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Behind closed doors

The province’s MHAs privately changed the rules on their entitlements over the years, reducing transparency and accountability - and setting the stage for the spending scandal that now grips the province. Here's the story of how that happened.

The politicians on the legislative committee governing the House of Assembly were not pleased.

A newspaper article had dared to raise questions about constituency allowance spending by Newfoundland and Labrador MHAs.

The story questioned what the members were claiming as legitimate expenses - reportedly snowmobile suits, sweatsuits and running shoes, for example - and the secrecy shrouding the system.

The members of the Internal Economy Commission, or IEC, were so unhappy they considered compelling the newspaper reporter in question to appear before the bar of the House for questioning.

There he would testify; there he would reveal the source of his information.

This sequence of events did not happen in 2006, when Auditor General John Noseworthy began dragging the murky secrets of constituency allowance spending into the cleansing light of day.

Try 1991.

Reporters were asking questions about constituency spending 16 years ago.

But they weren't getting answers.

And the system was set up to keep it that way.

The politicians who made the rules would also enforce them, effectively with zero oversight.

As the years passed, MHAs quietly slid beneficial rule changes through the legislature. They ultimately passed a law allowing themselves carte blanche to bump benefits as they pleased, without even having to go to the House.

They also unanimously passed legislation taking the oversight of the comptroller general out of the claims process.

That same law change now infamously allowed the IEC to keep the prying eyes of the auditor general out of the books of the House.

Constituency allowances were surrounded in secrecy from the beginning. That secrecy grew worse over the years.

And a direct line can be drawn between that secrecy and lack of accountability and where we are today - with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary conducting no less than six investigations of former or current politicians and companies, and Newfoundland Supreme Court trial division Chief Justice Derek Green set to recommend changes to the system that allowed it all to happen.

Green will look forward, at the way things should work in the future.

What follows is a look back, at how we got here.


In April 1989, the Clyde Wells Liberals ended 17 years of Tory rule. A month later, new Speaker of the House Tom Lush announced the creation of a commission to examine MHA salaries and benefits - an initiative that dated back to the previous government.

According to Telegram reports at the time, Lush noted that Newfoundland politicians were underpaid compared to their peers elsewhere in Canada in virtually every area - salary, indemnity and allowances.

Former Memorial University president M.O. Morgan was selected to head the panel. Morgan said no public hearings would be held.

MHAs at the time received a sessional indemnity of $28,811, plus a tax-free allowance of $14,405. They were also entitled to a district allowance of between $1,200 and $6,000, depending on the geographical makeup of the area they represented.

The commission examined whether politicians' salaries and benefits were enough to attract "individuals of the needed quality" into public life.

The Morgan report noted the "dramatically increased" demands placed on MHAs by their constituents, and the growing complexity of the job.

"Steps must be continually taken to lure capable and competent men and women into the political arena," the report noted.

The Morgan report raised MHA salaries to $35,000, and the tax-free allowance to $17,500 - an increase of more than 20 per cent. The report advised tying future raises to those in the government's executive payment plan.

The commission acknowledged it could be criticized for setting the salary bar too high: "... there may be, no doubt, those who will protest that our recommended level of remuneration is too high, that it will in fact attract undesirables who have no desire to contribute but to receive."

But the panel stood by its decision.

More critically, the Morgan report wiped out the district allowance, and replaced it with a new constituency allowance system.

It set down the rules for members' travel - both to and from their districts, and within them.

The commission broke such expenses down into a number of categories. It recommended payments of per-diems for rural members when the House was in session. It also enacted severance pay for any MHA who served at least seven years. And it recommended payments for serving on legislative committees.

But most importantly, it advised the creation of an "accountable constituency allowance," with the IEC determining the amount.

The recommendations of the Morgan report were "final and binding."

The report's authors acknowledged that the constituency allowances, in particular, could be difficult to govern, especially in the realm of travel claims.

Their words would turn out to be prescient.

"We are aware, of course, how difficult it is to police expenditures where receipts may not be provided, as for car mileage, and the tendency for the public to mistrust. Though honesty cannot be legislated, exposure to the attempt to defraud should be reduced to the minimum possible.

"Receipts should be required, and if no receipts are submitted for certain types of expenditure, some form of verification should be provided. For what is at issue is not the honesty of the individual member, even though sometimes the odd case of false claims may occur, but the confidence of the electorate."

Years later, a committee of politicians would change the law, and make a mockery of that warning.


In 1990, the IEC - which is comprised of Tory and Liberal MHAs, a majority of them from the government side - set the maximum amount for constituency claims at $7,500.

The committee also imposed rules on how that $7,500 could be spent.

Up to $5,000 could be used for things like office rentals, secretarial assistance, furniture, equipment and office supplies. Receipts were required.

A maximum of $1,000 could be spent on non-partisan newspaper and radio advertising, flags, pins and Christmas cards. Again, receipts were required.

The remaining $1,500 was discretionary, but required receipts.

The $7,500 limit on constituency spending remained in place throughout the Clyde Wells era.

It did not include travel benefits, such as mileage and per diems.

Over the next number of years, the IEC made a number of decisions that collapsed different categories of allowable expenses into each other.

But for the most part, there appeared to be few changes that significantly bumped benefits during the Wells era.

MHAs even took pay cuts in the early 1990s, for example, when the Wells government brought in a severe austerity program.

But no details of constituency spending were made public, other than the total amounts spent.

And there were a couple of controversies generated by the new expense account regime.

On July 14, 1991, the Sunday Express first raised questions about how MHAs were spending the constituency cash. Then-Speaker Tom Lush rejected the newspaper's request for detailed receipts. The province's freedom of information laws did not then - and do not today - cover the House of Assembly establishment.

The IEC was so irked at the Express story it considered dragging reporter Russell Wangersky before the House to explain himself, according to a serving MHA at the time with knowledge of the situation.

Days later, then-NDP leader Jack Harris made public details of his own constituency spending. Harris won passage to the House in a December 1990 byelection. He spent $625 - $416 on a dictaphone, $113 on UNICEF Christmas cards and $95 on photography at Government House.

"I think the answer to it all is to encourage everybody to disclose (their receipts)," Harris said in 1991.

But that didn't happen.

Although the IEC did not make the reporter testify, the commission issued a withering refusal to further inquiries about constituency spending details.

Not much further public attention was cast on the constituency claims system until 1994.

Wangersky, then with the CBC, reported on a controversy involving Liberal cabinet minister Tom Murphy. Murphy represented a St. John's district and voted in the St. John's municipal election, but claimed his permanent residence was in Tors Cove. That qualified him for additional constituency cash.

The story made a splash, but Murphy vowed to quit politics before changing his residence in Tors Cove, and no action was taken.

A few months later, on April 12, 1995, members of the IEC "directed the clerk to prepare in detail a review of the various recommendations of the Morgan commission report with a view to rationalizing the system."

The calendar pages were turning. The Clyde Wells reign was drawing to a close, and the Brian Tobin era was set to open.

Many changes to the constituency claims process were in the wings.

And those changes would fundamentally alter the system - in retrospect, not for the better.


In early 1996, the IEC said it would reduce travel and constituency allowances for members.

But the commission also decided to proceed with a new "block funding" scheme for constituency claims.

Pre-1996, there were capped limits on claims in certain categories.

Post-1996, those category caps were removed.

Before, MHAs could spend a maximum of $7,500 on things like newspapers, advertising, pins, flags, office rentals and equipment.

After 1996, that cap no longer existed. If an MHA's overall allowance, including travel, was $15,000, they could spend the entire amount as they saw fit.

The new rules also clarified that it was OK for MHAs with a second home to claim accommodation expenses if that home was "within reasonable proximity of his or her district."

And they set the global constituency spending limits for 1996-97. The lowest were a number of St. John's area districts, at $8,000. The highest were Cartwright-L'anse au Clair and Torngat Mountains in Labrador, at $63,600.

The IEC also permitted MHAs to claim $2,000 per year from their constituency allowances without receipts, for "miscellaneous expenses."

In June 1996, the Tobin government passed an amendment to provincial law allowing the IEC to vary travel and constituency allowances "in accordance with rules made by the commission."

In other words, the IEC could make the rules, and change the rules, as it saw fit.


Two more years passed before members of the IEC again decided it was time to look at the constituency spending system.

The IEC created a sub-committee to review constituency allowances for "members who appear to be having difficulties with their allotments." Its three members were Tory MHA Loyola Sullivan, Speaker Lloyd Snow and Liberal MHA Melvin Penney.

The sub-committee reported back a couple of months later, in June 1998. Its report was adopted by the commission. But IEC minutes contain no details of what was actually in the report.

Later in the year, members of the IEC discussed, behind closed doors, a proposed salary increase for MHAs. The commission ordered that the IEC Act be amended to provide for the same wage hikes recently negotiated with public sector workers - seven per cent over three years.

Just how all parties went about legislating that change speaks volumes about how politicians preferred to deal with salary and benefit bumps.

On Dec. 1, 1998, immediately after question period - with the press gallery empty, as reporters scrummed ministers - Government House Leader Beaton Tulk introduced amendments to the Internal Economy Commission Act.

There was no debate. MHAs voted themselves a pay raise in 41 seconds, retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year eight months earlier.

In early 1999, the province went to the polls. The Tobin government was re-elected.

Soon after, the IEC again re-examined constituency benefits.

The 1999-2000 fiscal year turned out to be the time frame that put paid to any semblance of transparency and accountability in constituency spending.

Benefits would climb rapidly. More legislative changes were in the works to further thwart public disclosure of IEC decisions, and give the commission more power to make up its own rules on increased entitlements.

Meanwhile, the auditor general was taking an interest in members' constituency spending.

And that interest would set into motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the swirl of controversy that envelopes the legislature, and the province, today.


Shortly after the election, on March 10, 1999, the IEC decided it was time for another review of constituency allowances.

A sub-committee of the IEC - this time Speaker Lloyd Snow, Liberal cabinet minister Paul Dicks and Tory MHA Tom Rideout - was created to review allowances for the upcoming 1999-2000 fiscal year.

The IEC discussed that sub-committee report two months later, in early May.

The commission decided to adopt its recommendations.

Those included an increase in the "discretionary" amount of constituency spending - the cash payment not requiring receipts - to $3,600 from $2,000.

Other measures outlined in the report remained murky.

The commission "by order adopted another recommendation of the report of the subcommittee," but neglected to mention in meeting minutes what that recommendation was.

The IEC also raised travel rates, in accordance with increases adopted by Treasury Board.

Weeks later, the IEC reviewed a draft bill to again amend the Internal Economy Commission Act.

Within days, Government House Leader Beaton Tulk tabled Bill 19, noting that "we have unanimous consent in the House to do this under a certain condition."

Tulk noted that times had changed since the Morgan commission reported on MHA benefits and salaries a decade earlier.

"It has created some problems for us," Tulk noted. "The world has changed so much since then. We now have 48 members where we once had 52. There are provisions in the Morgan Commission which do not enable us as an IEC to see that members are given the kind of resources they need to carry on their duties."

Tulk stressed that bill was not aimed at increasing salaries.

"Basically what we are interested in here is creating a situation where members in the House generally can decide on the general apparatus they need to put in place so they can carry out their duties as members."

Loyola Sullivan, then Opposition House leader, said he would "certainly echo the sentiments there in this particular bill."

Then-NDP leader Jack Harris noted that the IEC needed "flexibility with changing circumstances" to look after the needs of the House.

The repeated emphasis on the salary issue was a bit of a Jedi mind trick - the previous year's amendment to the IEC Act had already legislated wage increases through 2001.

It was also a lie. Within days, the IEC raised salaries for some MHAs anyway.

Bill 19 gave the commission the unfettered ability to hand out cash to MHAs as it saw fit.

And it set off an orgy of IEC activity within days of its passage, as the committee did just that.


Bill 19 contained only three changes, but all of them would prove devastating to openness and accountability.

The first delayed the deadline for public disclosure of IEC minutes by nearly six more months, changing the accountability provision from sluggish to glacial. Some meeting decisions would now not be made public for two years.

The second effectively neutered the "final and binding" nature of Morgan-style panels examining MHA benefits. The change meant the IEC could now "implement the recommendations with or without the changes the commission considers appropriate."

The third gave the IEC sweeping powers: "The commission may make rules respecting indemnities, allowances and salaries to be paid to members and staff of the House of Assembly."

Bill 19 received royal assent on May 27, 1999.

Days later, on June 1, the IEC met. It used its newfound powers to distribute the wealth.

The commission launched a review of severance rules. It also increased salaries for MHAs holding specific offices, to match the general salary increases that the legislature had quietly voted for a year earlier.

The IEC gave raises to the Speaker, the deputy Speaker, the deputy chairperson of committees, the leader of the Opposition, the Opposition House leader, the chair and all members of the public accounts committee, and the party whips.

On June 23, the IEC raised the threshold on when equipment and furniture purchases would become property of the House, and not the property of the MHA.

The limit doubled to $1,000 from $500. Anything under $1,000 would now be the property of the politician, and not the public. But after three years, even items over $1,000 would become the property of the member.

The same day, the commission revoked the existing severance policy.

The IEC made all departing MHAs eligible for severance; before, only those who had punched in seven years of service qualified for payments. The commission also jacked up severance benefits, doubling the maximum payment to a year's salary. It also added severance payments for office holders of the House, such as the Speaker, House leaders and whips.

But the commission wasn't done there.

The IEC also created new positions for MHAs, with generous new salaries.

The parliamentary secretary to the leader of the Opposition would get a $14,500 stipend. So would the leader of a parliamentary group. Two caucus chairs would receive a cool $10,000 each.

The IEC also raised salaries for the government and Opposition whips to $10,000.

The chair of the public accounts committee got a bump to $10,000; the vice-chair, $8,000; and members of the PAC, $6,000.

To add the fiscal cherry on top, the IEC advised the Department of Finance that all of these sinecures would be considered pensionable income.

The hits kept coming.

On Nov. 17, the IEC created another new position - parliamentary secretary to the Government House leader. Salary: $14,500 per year.

On Nov. 24, the commission jacked up travel rates.

On Dec. 15, it raised all MHAs' constituency allowances for the nearly finished fiscal year by four per cent. The IEC also decided to review the allotments again before the beginning of 2000-01.

On March 2, 2000, it revoked years-old edicts against travel and accommodations benefits for public accounts committee members, allowing MHAs to make claims for additional cash.

On March 15, 2000, the IEC did what it appeared to do best - strike another sub-committee to review constituency amounts. The new sub-committee was tasked to do so for the just-ending fiscal year of 1999-2000, as well as the upcoming 12 months. Speaker Lloyd Snow, Tory MHA Tom Rideout and Liberal Beaton Tulk were the members.

The troika were told to "review the accounts of the House and if there are savings in other accounts to transfer those funds to the members' travel and constituency accounts where there is a demonstrated need."

In other words, the politicians would raid savings in other areas to give themselves additional expense money.

A week later, on March 22, the IEC tabled the constituency allotments for the 2000-01 fiscal year.

It also revised the 1999-2000 totals, even though that fiscal year was just days from being over, giving some districts a hefty bump in allowable spending. The higher totals remained in effect for 2000-01 as well.

Port de Grave, for example, had maximum constituency spending of $19,700 in 1998-99; the retroactive raise for 1999-2000 put the new total at $31,200. That's an increase of 58 per cent.

It was a similar story for other districts.

St. John's Centre: up to $14,500 from $8,100. An increase of 79 per cent.

Humber West: up to $39,500 from $28,400. An increase of 39 per cent.

The IEC also adopted another recommendation of the latest sub-committee: that the "discretionary" portion of constituency allowances be increased again, to $4,800 a year from $3,600.

That's the amount available to MHAs without receipts; the total did not include HST, effectively making it closer to $5,500.

The IEC also axed the monthly limit on "discretionary" funding.

In just nine months, between June 1999 and March 2000, the IEC voted to provide politicians with a grocery list of new benefits and entitlements.

It did so behind closed doors, with public disclosure delayed months or years from the dates those decisions were made.

But at the end of that period, in March 2000, an unwelcome visitor arrived at the IEC - the auditor general, Elizabeth Marshall.


Throughout the 1990s, the Internal Economy Commission - the group of Tory and Liberal MHAs charged with administering the finances of the legislature - altered the recommendations of an independent panel report on MHA remuneration.

They quietly bumped benefits. They reviewed changes to the act governing the commission - changes which gave the IEC more power, and subjected it to less oversight. Those changes unanimously passed the legislature.

In early 2000, the auditor general, Elizabeth Marshall, began an audit of House accounts.

The first reference to this audit is found in IEC minutes of March 2, 2000. According to meeting minutes, the commission decided to research the appropriateness of Marshall's request to look at the books.

The same day, the IEC asked officials to discuss with the comptroller general how the House's financial documents were handled.

Two weeks later, the IEC met again. The commission deferred its decision on how it would handle the auditor general's request.

The commission also told the secretary of Treasury Board to divide the functions of the comptroller general's office. The House of Assembly would handle its own accounts.

On May 9, the IEC reviewed draft legislation, which it then signed off on.

Three days later, the legislature rammed through changes to the IEC Act. All three parties supported Bill 25.

"I don't intend to belabour the points in this bill much except to say that some of the language that we see in laws governing the Internal Economy Commission Act dates back to Responsible Government days," Government House Leader Beaton Tulk said.

"What this bill clearly does is set out the duties of the IEC and the kind of duties that the IEC should carry out. They are more clearly defined in this bill. I would ask my colleagues to quickly move on passing the bill."

They did. It took about five minutes to pass Bill 25.

The NDP's Jack Harris said he was satisfied with the changes.

Then-Opposition House Leader Loyola Sullivan called the bill "pretty straightforward and pretty routine," noting that it allowed for annual audits and "increased accountability."

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Here's what that "straightforward" piece of legislation did:
  • changed the language of the law so that the IEC no longer required the approval of the finance minister for its spending estimates on things like MHA salaries and other expenses.
  • directed that all House spending come from the government's general pot of money, the consolidated revenue fund.
  • gave the IEC control over what documents would be supplied to the comptroller general in order for payments to be made, and prohibiting the comptroller general from questioning those documents.
  • allowed the IEC to choose who would audit the books of the legislature, thereby permitting it to bar the auditor general.
Not much happened for the next couple of years. The IEC continued to agree on more benefits.

In December 2000, it raised constituency allowance amounts yet again, this time by five per cent.

In August 2001, the IEC authorized salary increases of 15 per cent over 2-1/2 years for MHAs, officers and staff of the House. The hike matched the collective agreement reached between government and its public-sector unions.

Then 2002 came, and the impending release of a report by the auditor general.

That report would paint a much different picture of events than the one contained in IEC minutes.

And it prompted a promise by a politician - a promise that, when carried through, would ultimately break wide open the constituency entitlement enigma.


The official IEC version of events from 2000 was something like this - the auditor general asked to look at the books, the commission considered it, and ultimately decided an independent auditor should do the job. No harm, no foul.

The version of events outlined by the auditor general was less, well, routine.

In a report released in early February 2002, Auditor General Elizabeth Marshall said her staff had attempted to carry out a regular audit of constituency allowances two years earlier. The AG had always been granted access to such information, she noted. But this time turned out differently.

Instead, auditors were ejected from the House. The amendments to the IEC Act - changes that allowed the commission to bar the AG for good - whooshed through the legislature soon afterward.

The decision, Marshall noted, meant that she could not look at any supporting documentation for the $1.7-million constituency allowance budget.

Marshall told reporters on Feb. 1, 2002, she had concerns with certain expenses claimed by an MHA, involving artwork and wine. (Her successor as AG, John Noseworthy, would later shed more light on the situation, saying it involved purchases of more than $30,000 in artwork and over $5,000 in wine by a then-Liberal cabinet minister.)

Marshall said she had problems with the key changes to the act in 2000 - the removal of her staff and the removal of the comptroller general's oversight from the constituency claims process.

"Both of those processes have stopped, so in fact there's two steps backward in the accountability process," she said in 2002.

"Right now what is provided to the comptroller general is just sort of a blank sheet of paper saying please pay (this amount) to so and so."

The IEC was less than thrilled with this assessment of the situation. On Feb. 4, it issued a terse statement defending the 2000 decision to keep the AG out.

The IEC met three times between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11. There are no minutes of those meetings, other than the fact that no decisions were made.

On Feb. 15, the commission agreed that the Speaker would speak publicly on behalf of the IEC for its decisions.

Meanwhile, the Tory members of the IEC - Ed Byrne and Loyola Sullivan - were in a bind.

Their leader, Danny Williams, told The Telegram on Feb. 6 that he supported opening the books.

"They can retain their independent auditor and that's fine. I understand that is the course of action they have taken, but there is no reason the auditor general can't go in there," Williams said.

"How can I advocate openness and accountability and then try and hide members' expenses and members' allowances? I have nothing to hide, so let them go in."

The majority Liberal members of the IEC charged that Byrne and Sullivan supported the 2000 decision.

Within weeks, the IEC reaffirmed the decision to bar the AG.

Speaker Lloyd Snow indicated that stand got unanimous consent.

Williams, leader of the PC party, was against it, but was not a member of the IEC.

Sullivan contended he did not support the 2002 IEC stand to keep the AG out. But there is no reference in IEC minutes to any difference of opinion.

After the dust settled on the controversy, the IEC fired a shot across the auditor general's bow. In early March, it threatened the AG's office with a five-per-cent salary cut and an eight-per-cent reduction in operating expenses.

The most important outcome of the whole affair? Danny Williams made a promise - if he won power in the coming election, he would direct his majority members of the IEC to let the AG back in.

And when the AG got back in, some shocking details of what had been happening at the House of Assembly began to filter out.


On Oct. 21, 2003, the Progressive Conservatives swept to power with 58.7 per cent of the popular vote. Two weeks later, Danny Williams was sworn in as the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In March 2004, the IEC reviewed a report prepared by the new Speaker, Waterford Valley MHA Harvey Hodder. Its title would soon prove especially topical - "Accountability and its Relevance to Members' Constituency Allowances."

The newly constituted IEC began rolling back some of the benefits its predecessors had put in place.

The bulk of this activity took place in a meeting on March 1, 2004.

Firstly, the commission cut all constituency allowances for 2004-05 by five per cent.

It then cut the "discretionary" spending amount for MHAs - to $3,000 from $4,800. (A month later, the IEC would reduce that amount to zero, requiring receipts for all constituency expenses.)

The commission dropped the threshold on when equipment and furniture purchases would become property of the House, back down to $500.

The IEC also decided to develop a handbook of rules, restrict MHAs from having more than three months of their allowance in advance, and provide members with written monthly statements of their account status.

The commission issued a somewhat ominous warning - that "staff of members of the House and members themselves be knowledgeable with respect to the Conflict of Interest Act and where appropriate or where in doubt on the expenditure of public funds by way of constituency allocation, they would seek the advise (sic) of the clerk or the Speaker."

But most importantly, the IEC invited the auditor general back in to look at the books of the House and its officers. That action followed through on Williams' 2002 promise.

Subsequent meetings would also result in action.

On April 14, the IEC revoked its 2000 directive neutering the comptroller general, and directed that all claims again go to that office for testing.

It also ordered an end to the practice of MHAs carrying forward claims from one fiscal year to the next.

But this welcome infusion of accountability came to a screeching halt on May 12, when the IEC agreed to pay MHAs a now-infamous $2,875 constituency bonus.

Forty-six of the 48 took the tax-free, receipt-free payment - all except Williams and Elizabeth Marshall, now a Tory MHA. The decision was worded vaguely to hide public disclosure; the payment was only unearthed years later by the AG.

And, as 2004 ebbed into 2005, the auditor general's findings would begin to take centre stage.


In January 2005, Auditor General John Noseworthy issued reports critical of spending by child and youth advocate Lloyd Wicks and citizens' representative Fraser March.

Both were independent officers of the House; both were previously exempt from review by the auditor general.

Wicks stepped down in the wake of findings that questioned personal travel he charged to taxpayers.

The legislature voted to fire March over his own travel claims and consulting work he performed while holding the ombudsman's position.

But if those were grenades dropped on the credibility of the House, the warheads were soon to follow.

In June 2006, Noseworthy began issuing his series of reports on House spending.

The tally, to date:
  • five current or former MHAs from all three parties allegedly overspent their constituency funds by a total of $1.6 million, beginning in 1997. Ed Byrne, Wally Andersen, Randy Collins, Jim Walsh and Percy Barrett are all under police investigation.
  • the House made questionable payments of an additional $2.8 million to a number of companies for trinkets and baubles like keychains and fridge magnets. A key House employee was tied to one of the firms. The AG questioned whether all of the baubles even existed. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is also investigating these findings.
  • two more MHAs double-billed their constituency funds by about $3,700 each. Transportation Minister John Hickey has since been cleared by police of criminal wrongdoing. The claims of former Tory MHA Kathy Goudie remain under review. Both MHAs repaid the money.
  • three MHAs touched by the probe have since quit provincial politics; two cabinet ministers stepped down, although Hickey has since been reinstated to his post.
The first phase of the auditor general's review is over. No other MHA overspent their allowance between 1990 and the present, Noseworthy says. Auditors found a "significant spike" in overspending after the decision to bar them in 2000.

The second - and potentially more interesting - phase is not yet complete.

Noseworthy is now examining what MHAs spent their constituency cash on, within those approved limits.

Auditors are poring over 17,000 claims from 122 MHAs over the past 17 years.

The AG's first report - examining sitting MHAs - is scheduled for release a month or two before the October provincial election. Noseworthy hopes to have the remainder of the work wrapped up by early 2008.

The auditor general could find that all MHAs were faithful servants of the public, only spending tax dollars on legitimate items to benefit their constituents.

Then again, he might not.


Danny Williams has become increasingly irritable about the mushrooming spending scandal, and the impact it is having on his government.

"Anyone got a longer rope? Because I'm getting to the end of mine," the premier said to reporters before a recent media briefing.

Williams has - quite rightly - claimed that transparency returned to House spending under his watch. He asked Chief Justice Derek Green to review MHA remuneration in the wake of the first AG report on constituency spending. He has committed to rewrite the laws that still, to this day, permit the IEC to eject auditors.

But members of his party, caucus and government were among those who went along with the changes that eroded accountability to the point of non-existence over the years. Thirty-two members of his caucus, for example, took the secret constituency bonus in 2004.

No MHA voluntarily released details of their constituency spending when asked to do so by The Telegram last summer. The Speaker advised them not to, fearing the information could become part of a widening police probe - hardly the most reassuring answer on how politicians are spending public money.

All three parties are now scrambling to sound the drumbeats of transparency. They all want future IEC meetings thrown open to the public. They want everyone to know they will follow the rules, whatever those rules may be.

But they also appear tone-deaf at times to public sentiment. Some MHAs are perplexed at why the secret $2,875 bonus is such a big deal - even though it came days after the legislature forced public-sector workers back on the job with wage freezes and concessions.

They have blamed the system for failing them. But the politicians are the ones who created the system, and for that, they have only themselves to blame.

That system lacked accountability, openness and transparency. The results are in black and white, in auditor general's reports that have broad-sided the province's political establishment.

Chief Justice Green will soon make recommendations on how things should be done in the future.

To appreciate why those changes are necessary, it's important to remember how they were done in the past.


More secret payments in IEC minutes
By Rob Antle

Members of the legislature's Internal Economy Commission voted to give all MHAs at least one other lump-sum payment, similar to the controversial 2004 bonus unearthed by the auditor general.

On Oct. 22, 1997, the IEC decided to hand over $1,500 to all MHAs. The cash was "in order to recognize additional expenses which will be incurred by members who will be canvassing their constituents regarding the Calgary Declaration."

The Calgary Declaration was one in a series of attempts by premiers to assuage constitutional concerns.

It followed the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords - the most high-profile attempts to resolve the national unity impasse.

A month before the IEC agreed to the $1,500 payment, then-premier Brian Tobin told reporters that MHAs would consult with their constituents for opinions on the Calgary Declaration.

"It's important we reach out to all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," Tobin said at the time.

In addition to the 1997 Calgary Declaration payment, there is also evidence that the IEC routinely bumped constituency benefits for MHAs retroactively, at the end of fiscal years.

Auditor General John Noseworthy found in a recent report that vague language hid a tax-free, receipt-free $2,875 constituency bonus made available to MHAs in 2004. Forty-six of the 48 MHAs took it.

There are several examples in IEC records of apparent constituency bumps near the end of the government's fiscal year (which runs to March 31):
  • on March 22, 2000, the commission jacked up constituency allotments for certain districts for the just-ending fiscal year, and the following year.
  • a March 6, 2002, IEC minute notes: "The commission directed the clerk to adjust the members' constituency allowances for the 2001-02 fiscal year in accordance with a proposal on file with the clerk." There are no further details on what that means.
  • a Feb. 26, 2003 minute says: "The commission by order approved additional allocations to members' constituency allowances for the 2002-03 fiscal year." Again, there is no more specific information on the "additional allocations."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

We Must Keep the Politicians in Politics

A few weeks ago I decried the local tendency for politicians to absolve themselves of their responsibility by looking to appointed officials to protect them, and us, from their own bad judgement.

It turns out that it's not just a cop-out indulged in by local politicians. In the UK more than a few elected officials have also decided to champion the idea of hiding behind appointed officials to protect us and them from themselves.

This link outlines some of the debate out there.

Remittances: Money from away

There's a term in international economics used to describe a certain kind of money flow from one country to another.

That term is remittances.

The idea is a simple one: breadwinners move from one place to another and send money to their families back home. The money sent back is the remittance.

You can see from the chart on the right that international remittances are big money and some countries are heavily dependent on that cash (it's almost all cash).

Mexico, for example, sees US$25 billion a year of inflow, mainly from the US. Lebanon, on the other hand sees only US$5 billion a year but that money represents almost 26% of their GDP.

While remittances are generally defined in international terms, there are also domestic remittances. The quantity of these remittance flows is hard to precisely determine because, as far as I can tell, that research hasn't been undertaken.*

But just because we don't have precise numbers on these remittances doesn't mean we are not aware of their impact on this province.

For example, this morning CBC radio had a piece on the economy around Stephenville and how well it seems to be doing. They mentioned four factors behind this apparent success.

The first 2 were one-off cash infusions into the area: flood compensation and mill severance pay. While helpful in the short-term, the region certainly can't count on constant mill closings or floods as a tool of economic development.

The next factor was the government health line call center but that affects the income of only a few specially trained health care professionals.

The fourth factor mentioned in the report was money sent back home from people working in Alberta.

In other words, remittances.

And it's a word that government has yet to use and will likely never ever use to describe the situation. Besides the fact that government really doesn't know how much of the annual GDP is due to remittances, just the idea of remittances has an image problem that government is not keen to promote.

Remittances are usually associated with Filipino sailors and domestics working in Saudi Arabia, or Mexican fruit pickers in California, Polish plumbers in London, or Pakistani construction labourers in Kuwait.

In other words, low-skilled cheap workers from underdeveloped countries going to work in developed or developing countries. They go abroad to work and support their families because there is not sensible employment opportunities back home.

And that's probably why government is not keen to talk about remittances and prefers to talk about homing pigeons. A comparison to pigeons sounds better than being compared to a Filipino maid.

But the truth is that it's not just the lower skilled jobs that generate remittances. It's also Lebanese doctors in New York, Indian computer programmers in Massachusetts and Russian engineers in Scotland.

And now, it's also former mill workers from Stephenville working in Fort MacMurray.

Remittances are inconvenient for this government because they represent a policy failure: people who have taken the initiative and have left the province for work rather than heed empty government assurances that something will be done for them and their communities.

However inconvenient, there is nothing shameful in remittances. This province has a long history for remittances from Alberta for the past 25 years. In the pre-Confederation period it was remittances from the Boston states. Remember those old stories of barrels and crates of food, cash, clothes and other goodies arriving in NL for Christmas from relatives away? Those were remittances in another form.

But as long as government continues to deny the existence of remittances by simply ignoring them, government does us all a disservice. The idea of remittances may be incompatible with the official government view of NL pride but that's irrelevant; it feeds our families and keeps the mortgage paid and that's what counts.


* If somebody finds something, let me know.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Humber Valley by election and Rideout

The government says there was something amiss in the Humber Valley by election.

According to Deputy Premier Rideout, "The ballot box was moved from where it was set up and taken around to seniors' cottages so seniors could vote from where they were residing."

According to Chuck Fury, "The district returning officer has the right to temporarily suspend the poll and with the election clerk in tow as a witness can move ballot boxes from bed to bed or from room to room where people are incapacitated or for whatever reason cannot make it out to the ballot box."

Keep in mind that this kind of thing has been going on for years and are exactly the same rules under which Mr. Rideout was elected several times.

Oddly, during the Ferryland by election when complaints were raised that a polling station was located in the same building as the tory campaign headquarters, Mr. Rideout (seen at right in his DemocracyMan superhero costume) was nowhere to be seen or heard.

In every interview so far on this Humber Valley election issue, Mr. Rideout has conveniently left out the real reason why government believes something went amiss in that by election.

They lost.

Averill Baker and garbage generation

According to Averill Baker in her latest column, each and every community should have it's own landfill because it's their right.

Now keep in mind that in this province we have 286 municipalities and 182 local service districts which represent approximately 96 per cent of the population. There are also 137 unincorporated communities.

It used to be that landfill sites and garbage dumps or whatever you call them, used to be easy. You filled up a truck, drove out into the woods and dumped. When it got too smelly, you found a new site.

Today things are more complicated. Over time we've learned that we need to be mindfull of toxins leeching into water supplies and the western world has discovered principles of basic public sanitation. Landfill sites today are less selected by where's a good spot for the truck to go and dump and more selected and constructed according to engineering principles.

If every settlement in this provinces had it's own site then we would have a total of 605 landfill sites around the province. That would be 605 sites to maintain and monitor for the purposes of public sanitation. By tradition, most of these sites have little to do with public sanitation and much more to do with where's the convenient place to dump because that was the operating principle when they were established.

Never mind all the places that use low temperature incinerators, basically just big fires in a can, to burn municipal garbage which produces air pollution and pretty nasty charred remains.

So what are we to do. Well, right now Newfoundlanders and Labradorians generate more than 400,000 tonnes of waste materials at a rate of approximately two kilograms per person per day which is simply sent to one of the 240 landfill sites throughout the province. That's better than 605 but it's still an awful lot for just over 500,000 people.

Government's response has been a waste management strategy to divert 50 percent of the materials currently going to disposal by 2010, to reduce the number of waste disposal sites by 80 percent, to eliminate open burning at disposal sites by 2005 and phase out the use of incinerators by 2008, to phase out use of unlined landfill sites by 2010 and to implement full province-wide modern waste management by 2010.

Now it's anybody's guess if the province's strategy will work out on scheduled as planned but that's besides the point: this is a big problem and getting bigger all the time.

We need to do something about it.

But in Ms. Baker's world, it's not a problem at all. She advocates a funny kind of rural Libertarianism to conclude that that the stupidity of such a policy is mind-boggling, she charges that the brains-to-body mass ratio of our politicians must be getting smaller* and argues that consolidating landfill sites in the province is tantamount to resettlement.

It's fine to believe that this province is a vast collection of sovereign villages each of whom has the the unqualified and unquestioned right to exist offering every service which municipalities offer, that each have their right to an exclusive economic center (fish plant, for example) which must stay within the municipality and employ only members of that municipality and that every collection of houses has a right to have government offices, schools, hospitals, police you name it.

Averill Baker is a romantic and a provincial idealist and that's a great quality in many fields of human endeavor. But in the area of public policy formation, she is not only blatantly wrong but she is is advocating regressive environmental policies which will continue and extend the practice of uncontrolled, unsupervised and dangerous dump sites across this fair province.

CBC recently had some images like these:

It's that kind of facile, glib rhetoric that leads one to conclude that her grounding in the real world as we know it is pretty tenuous.

Let's see if she manages better in two weeks time.


*Far be it for me to defend the intellectual powers of our political class but she should careful when shes says that; she might get sued.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I remember the Ocean Ranger

I have a very clear recollection of the morning I woke up to the news that the Ocean Ranger had vanished. At the time we didn't know how it happened. But the impact that something that big could go from being there to suddenly just not being there was a sobering one.

At that time the industry was new and the province was filled with speculation about how bright our future was going to be. Peckford was in his full-blown glory outlining how gold that would line our streets just as soon as he was finished his wars with the feds. The newspapers carried stories and photos of drill rigs off our coast with exotic names like Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland. And the Ocean Ranger.

Then one night one of them capsized and disappeared with 84 on board.

Among these 84 people was a guy I knew well.

He was in the same class as me from K to grade 9 and lived not far from my house; we grew up together. I remember him as a tall and gangly kid with blonde hair and a build that would charitably be called twig-like. You could always find him by his wide grin that exposed a gap between two of his front teeth.

He was a class clown, marginal in school and annoyed the teachers by acting a little tough and getting in trouble; he always looked and seemed older and smoked before the rest of us did.

In a small class of 25 students or so at St. Pius X, I saw him every school day for 10 years; he was one of us. He came to Gonzaga and I lost track of him as we parted into separate academic programs.

We heard he had gotten a job in the nascent oil industry offshore. He didn't have much training, no experience at all and he was pretty young. That didn't matter then; he had a cool job making big bucks while the rest of us were still slogging through school or low-paying entry level jobs.

We envied him.

It turned out he was on the rig that night and his body was one of the 22 recovered. I heard he was found curled up in the bow of a lifeboat with just jeans and a t-shirt.

He was 20. Never married. Never had children.

We found out after he received no emergency training to speak of, the lifesaving equipment ranged from inadequate to pathetic and no survival suits were available.

It's easy to think about the people who work in this business as faceless "those people" far away in corporate offices getting millions a year in bonuses. The truth is that the people who choose to work in this business are our friends, classmates, wives, sons, fathers, daughters, neighbors. Some work offshore on the rigs but many provide the services and goods that let them carry on with their jobs.

Not all the positions are dangerous but they are all important.

We are the people who work in this industry. It is just as much a part of Newfoundland and Labrador as fishing or farming. It has become an integral part of how we live, who we are and we talk about it all the time. Now it's part of our culture with it's own library of books, plays, paintings, photos and songs.

One of the great songs is Atlantic Blue by Ron Hynes and it's about the disaster of the Ocean Ranger (you can hear a clip here).

The lives of these 84 people were the price we paid for having an oil industry in this province and those are the people we have to thank for the hundreds of millions of dollars which flow into the provincial treasury each year and the overall economic benefits to this province.

And that includes the life of my friend who perished on cold night in a small boat in the stormy North Atlantic.

Rest in peace.

By election madness - Labrador West

There's an old joke that says you always know when the by election is coming - the road paving machines arrive and pave everything that's not nailed down.

Here's a variation of that:

Below is a video posted to YouTube of a loader taking soil samples at a hospital construction site in western Labrador. The little pile of dirt you see in the image, I'm told, is the product of 2 days work on this hole only. And this is the first hole of the many to be sampled at six different sites.

You can see the problem the operator is having in keeping his machine level and stable.

Considering the fact that the temperature was -30 and the ground would have the rough consistency of igneous rock, the question become: Why bother now?

Why bother doing it at this time when it's months before any possible construction could start?

Why bother risking damage to a very expensive piece of equipment let alone the risk to life and limb of a heavy equipment operator?

Why bother fighting nature when you could simply wait for better weather and dig the holes by hand in a fraction of the time?

Why bother making such a publics spectacle of buzzing activity around a hospital construction site?

Why bother?

In an unrelated story . . .

Today, after a previous announcement earlier in the year, Randy Collins has announced his resignation from the House so triggering a by election in the area.

And Premier Williams denies that any construction projects are political goodies intended to persuade voters saying that both the Labrador West hospital and the Nicholsville bridge have been in the works for a long time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Links of interest - Meeker and public service poster

Geoff Meeker, a well-known figure in local media and communication circles (and a columnist and entrepreneur of some repute) has broken into the blog world. See Meeker on Media here.

And just for those who like to support government in their initiatives, there is this public service poster.

We've seen this before

The Telegram hit the nail on the head with their editorial this morning!

In a time of provincial economic and demographic decline and general political despair and apathy, Premier Williams and co. have really picked the wrong fight to satisfy their goal way of growing our way to prosperity.

They have taken valuable time from generating and implementing economic policy in favour of making their enemies list, checking it twice and then threatening and/or launching legal action, where appropriate, like some diabolical Santa Claus.

This is a self-indulgent luxury and an opportunity cost at our expense.

That's the problem with political jihads: first you start with the big enemies on the outside like Ottawa and big oil and then it's just so easy to slide into an attack on your own citizens.

It took the Peckford government 10 years to bring themselves to this point; it took Premier Williams just 3-1/2.

No good will come of this.


Premier Williams just appeared on Open Line announced that the IEC will NOT be covering the leagal expenses of Minister John Hickey.

Yesterday on CBC, Premier Williams made it clear that the IEC would be covering the Minister's legal expenses and that it was perfectly justifiable.

Then the roof caved in under a blistering attack from a flood of talk radio callers.

So he changed his course. Clearly the Premier is not for turning for nobody or nothing.

Except adverse public reaction.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

New Tory attack ads - French edition

Whoever the Quebec agency is for the Conservative Party is pretty damned good and better than the English one.

A new set of attack ads are out for Quebec - lighter, funnier and not at all shrill and mean like the English ones.

Do their polling numbers show that we in ROC are darker, meaner and shriller and therefore a better target for those kinds of ads while the good people of La Belle Province are happy-go-lucky and carefree?

In either case, this kind of campaign will reduce cooperation in the House of Commons and will make for a rough session. Whether it provokes an election is anybody's guess.

Government meltdown and libel chill

It's not very often you see a government meltdown right in the middle of a scrum but if you were in the Confederation Building today, would have witnessed one.

In case you missed it, Premier Williams backed Minister John Hickey in his suit against former Premier Roger Grimes. Then Premier Williams, unable to hold back, had to go just a few steps further: he threatened to expand possible future suits to include two notable local bloggers mentioned by name.

These were Ed Hollett of Bond Papers and Sue Kelland Dyer.

It wasn't a direct statement that they would be included in this suit, just that if they weren't careful then they might be included in the future. For defamation, apparently.

There are a couple of things about this that are deservedly shocking.

First, if the Premier and Minister have particular problems with these blogs and the facts they put forward then it's time to list and itemize the problems, rebut the points or otherwise advise the authors of their errors for purposes of correction.

Otherwise just simply leave them alone. Those kinds of shots over the bow are not intended to do anything but instill libel chill and to prevent legitimate political comment.

Second, there's way too much of this lately where government members are using the financial power of government to try and silence opinions of those they do not approve.

The Speaker mentioned this morning that in two previous occasions the House has paid the legal fees of MHAs who considered themselves defamed. It's worth noting that in both these previous cases, the object of the legal action were large corporations who could well afford dealing with these matters (CBC and VOCM).

There is no doubt that any MHA with the full financial backing of the House behind it could easily overwhelm the financial resources of a normal individual. Therefore that must be an action and power that is used very sparingly, in extreme situations only, in order to preserve vigorous debate in a healthy political society.

There is something that really stinks about members of government trying to litigate their critics out of existence. I'd like to say that this is unique but there are too many cases in too many jurisdictions where a part of supposedly "free" political environments saw government agencies launch legal suits of all kinds against their critics in order to silence them.

It's low and that seems to be what is happening here.

Finally, in spite of this government winning 3 of 4 by elections by huge margins and in spite of the fact that this government enjoys overwhelming support in the populace, it remains the touchiest, most defensive and aggressively hostile to responsible opposing points of view of any government since Smallwoood's.

You would think that they would be pretty happy with 70% or 80% plus support but instead this government is obsessed with winning over or otherwise stamping out of existence anybody not in their camp.

It is a peculiar form of pathology which has no place in public life. And it's a high form of hypocrisy to conveniently forget the kind of motive-imputing, character-assassinating and personally disparaging remarks that this Premier has become famous for.

Two wrongs don't make a right but it's worthwhile keeping all this in perspective.

And get over it, Mr. Premier. When you take a shot you have to expect one in return; public life is not for the faint of heart or the wussy in spirit.

Liberals win Humber Valley

Last night, after a real nail-biter, Liberal Dwight Ball defeated PC candidate Darryl Kelly by 12 votes. After seemingly endless weeks of real and shadow campaigning, it might be hard to discern what this all means.

Oddly, Paul Oram on VOCM this morning hit on a few truths without meaning to so it's worth reviewing his speaking points.

He said that there was no message to government in this by election loss and in that he's partially right. Prior to this election, government pushed hard the idea that these by elections signified some mandate to negotiate with the enemies of the province (big oil, Ottawa etc.). That was a bar set by Premier Williams himself.

Oram went on to say that it was local politics, conditions and personalities that drove the results in Humber Valley.

In this remark he has stumbled on an old truth - all politics is local (See Tip O'Neil).

Strategically the PC campaign neglected to recognize that fact preferring to talk about provincial issues. Except for the last-minute parachute announcement on the Nicholsville Bridge issue, all four of these PC campaigns were "by election in a box" with each putting the premier and province first and the particular district in the backbenches.

It's worth noting that in the previous 3 by elections the turnout was abysmal to the point of embarrassing. In Humber Valley, turnout was a remarkable 62% and the government received far less than an overwhelming vote than was received in the other races.

So on both counts Paul Oram was right. There was no message that there is any great groundswell of public support for any provincial jihad against the anti-provincial infidels and perhaps there should have been a closer government focus on local bread-and-butter issues.

In other words - It's the economy, stupid.

At the same time, while there is little for the government to crow about in terms of great victories, the Liberal performance has been less that inspiring. If politics is local, then the opposition Liberals was only able to marshal local forces and credible candidates in only one of four seats and lost ground in Port au Port where ground was expected to be gained.

In a 1988 by election, Liberal Eric Gullage ran and defeated PC Ralph Tucker by 200 votes in the District of Waterford-Kenmount. This win was widely recognised as the beginning of the end for 17 years of PC rule and the start of the shift that ushered in the victory of Premier Clyde Wells just a year later.

But that turning point was only recognised and acknowledged in hindsight. Time will tell if Humber Valley is the new Waterford Kenmount but I have to point out that there are more differences than similarities.

This next session of the House should prove entertaining.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Defining spin

Bond has already mentioned the great series Spin Cycle on CBC. I guess we are both Sunday morning CBC junkies.

Among communications professionals and trainers there exists a love-hate relationship with the idea of spin. I've heard more than a few national level communications trainers and lecturers say that spin is bad, they don't do or teach spin and they advise against spin.

They reinforce the idea that spin is a pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. These trainers emphasize that while public relations may rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.

Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position whether the charge is true or not. It's become like the word "rhetoric" Rhetoric has taken on a pejorative meaning even though the word simply means using persuasive language or words used to persuade. "That's just rhetoric" has become overt code for bullshit. But that's not what it is and neither is spin. Spin is confused with deception when the two ideas are distinct.

In true spin, the facts are true and lies are never uttered. It's the force with which the ideas are presented which make the message spin or not.

The term spin comes from baseball. The game would be dull if pitchers just threw the ball at the batter so pitchers will throw the ball with spin. The idea is to fool the batter into thinking the ball will appear in a different place than it actually will all with the goal of making the batter strike out.

Hence you get top-spin, so the ball goes faster than expected, back-spin so the ball goes slower than expected, and left-spin and right-spin which make the ball break left or right.

In the same way political messages can be given top-spin, back-spin or side-spin. Let's take some examples of each.

Top-spinning a message means pushing a message hard to that it seems to have more value, weight, and velocity than one would expect of it. It's making the trivial or neutral look more important than it actually is. This past week Premier Williams used a scrum and press release to top-spin a message about NL Hydro filing an application for long-term electrical transmission service through New Brunswick System.

Why is this top-spin? Mainly it has to do with making much ado about a no-news ho-hum item. What makes it important in context is that the release and related activity give the appearance of a government action looking important and decisive just before, wait for it, three by elections.

Then there's back-spin. This is the effort to try to minimize an issue by leeching the matter of energy and importance.

One of the biggest issues of last year was the closure of the Stephenville mill. Premier Williams proclaimed that the mill would never close on his watch and when it was clear it was going to, threw a Hail-Mary pass of $150million to try to keep it open. It closed anyway amidst a flurry of promises about seeking new operators or, failing that, a new industrial tenant for the facility.

Then, very quietly and without any public attention, came this release announcing that the Stephenville Paper Mill Site would be decommissioned. A classic example of desperate back-spin.

Finally, there's the side-spin. The idea is to redirect and divert the reader (and the media) to another issue than the one at hand with a message that's not quite on target. There are many many examples of this but one that comes to mind is the Premier's defense of the $130,000 for entertainment, and more than $100,000 for gifts to other premiers, including a farewell gift of a sealskin coat to Alberta's Ralph Klein during the Premiers' conference held in St. John's and Corner Brook.

"I take my greatest pride as premier of our province in showcasing every single bit of talent and music and culture that we have," Williams said. "By God, that is money well spent."

Side-spin at it's finest.

The important thing to remember is that in none of these cases were there any misstatements of facts or deception of information involved. In fact all the facts were true and corrects and what distinguishes all these examples from what would we conventionally label as "truth" is the application of energy to the message pointing them in certain directions.

Becoming an informed consumer of news media and government information means understanding when and how you are being spun.


This little peice on VOCM sparked my curiosity. For the record it says:
Holiday Bad for Business - Feb 11, 2007
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business says they will not go along with another statutory holiday, especially not without the proper consultation. This province is considering following Saskatchewan and Manitoba's lead in creating a holiday in February to break up the long winter between Christmas and Easter. CFIB president Bradley George says that could be disastrous for business in this province.
It occurred to me as I read it that there are many impediments to business in this province: government wars against investment, demographic out migration and aging, crumbling schools, transportation challenges etc etc etc.

Any number of many many other things could be safely described as "disastrous for business in this province" long before a mere stat holiday in the dead of winter.

Let's keep our eye on the ball.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Offal commentary on CBC - Satire or Serious?

Earlier this week I recorded a commentary for CBC Morning Show based on this post. It was broadcast on Thursday morning and can be found at this link.

This morning they broadcast a response from a gentleman who's name went by too fast for me to catch. He thought it was goofy because the idea that appointed citizen's representatives overlooking politicians was ridiculous. After all, he said, we already have citizen's representatives and they are the elected politicians themselves.

Sir. . . that was the point.

Two things I learned about this.
  1. Radio is harder to do than it looks and;
  2. For some people satire has to be painted on in big, thick coats with a roller in order for them to catch it.

Turnout is the question -What's the answer?

Each party wants to get out their spin on the results of these three by elections. After all, if a party can't ascribe meaning to the events then the events lose their punch. That leaves aside the matter of the Humber Valley vote next week.

For government, the spin is that the electorate have endorsed the government's direction and that the Premier has received his mandate to negotiate with the enemies of the province. You know those people; the ones in the black hats who want to take our resources away leaving us nothing. The Premier, he tells us, is the only thing standing between them and more giveaways and now we've all told him to stand firm.

According to the Telegram today, Williams believes his party has majority support in spite of the low turnout saying “I’ve heard time and time again that if there’s a high voter turnout, it’s an indication of the satisfaction with a government. This is a lower voter turnout, but we’ve taken significant majorities in these three districts, and I take that as an endorsement of us and that the people are quite content to say, ‘Fine, we don’t need to get out and vote because this government is doing a good job.’ ”

I wouldn't take a 33% turnout in the district of Kilbride as a mandate for too much.

On the other hand is the message of the opposition Liberals. Gerry Reid said in the Telegram that it was possible some people didn’t vote because they don’t like the direction the premier is taking the province.

Overall their their message is a more difficult one: there is discontent with government because the Liberal vote went up and so many people stayed away because they were afraid to vote against the government.

Mind you that in most cases the Liberal vote went up from a ridiculously low base. And anyway, losing by 5-1 this time is not much better than losing by 10-1 last time (see Ferryland) and is fairly meaningless as a trend.

And while it's arguable whether there's any popular discontent with the governing PCs, there is little doubt that there is no popular appetite for the opposition Liberals.

Even though every side is working their hardest to put a brave face on a alarmingly low turnout, it does not bode well for the general election.

And by the way, I know Sean Skinner has been getting dumped upon for his suggestion of a fine for non-voters. God knows I've dumped on him myself for some stands he's taken - nothing personal - but I believe he's on to something here.

It's time for substantial and fundamental reform of our electoral system. We have a voting and first-past-the-post system evolved from another millennium inappropriate for the economic, demographic and social conditions we face today.

So far election reform has been an issue on the fringes with some minor tinkering on the edges only (incomplete and ill thought-out implementation of fixed election dates, for example) but now it's time to bring the issue to the fore.

I'll be offering suggestions shortly.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

By-election fallout - no real surprises so far

At 4:30 this afternoon, Chief Electoral Officer Charles Furey went on the air to pooh-pooh the fact that some polling stations were located in the same building as a campaign headquarters and to state that the turnout so far was low.

Very low. Ranging from 15-20% at that point. The general rule of thumb is that you will get 1/2 the vote before 5pm and the rest of the voters will come out from 5pm to close. So Furey's remarks pointed to a turnout of 30-40%.

By-election turnouts are generally low anyway but that's not always the case.

In the recent Signal Hill Quidi Vidi by election the turnout was roughly 45% and that was considered exceptionally low. In Placentia-and-St-Marys on February 21st, 2006 it was 64.9% while in Exploits on June 23rd, 2005 it was 54.4%.

By comparison, the provincial election turnout in 2003 was 63.6%.

That fact that the PCs took all three seats by margins ranging from handily to overwhelming was no big surprise. While it was possible that might not happen, it certainly was not probable to the reasonable person. In the end it turned out that the stories of internal PC discontent were either over-blown or just plainly not a factor.

More significant than the final tallies, I think, was an exceptionally low turnout even by standards of recent by elections.

Since the 2003 election to these by elections, the turnout in Kilbride went from 61% to 33% and in Ferryland from 64.9% to 45%. In Port au Port turnout dropped less; from 60% to 51%.

Even by the standards of lower turnout in by elections, Ferryland is low and Kilbride is shockingly low; it may have set a record for people staying home. John Dinn, for example, goes to the House of Assembly with the backing of only 26% of the people in his district.

There are any number of possible reasons for why so many neglected to vote: discontent with government, contentment with government, discontent with the opposition or just plain annoyance and disgust with the the whole lot of them.

The Liberal party will certainly be looking very closely at these numbers with little enthusiasm; the party has little to be proud of.

And the PCs don't have a whole lot to crow about either. They won the seats they were supposed to but there were no resounding victories here; certainly no mandate to negotiate with our "enemies".

There are no victories here; on to Humber Valley.

By-election day

Early reports indicate very low-turnout. That might change as the dinner-hour approaches - it might not.

In any case, on your way out to vote, take a look at this so you can make your X with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Whoever you vote for, just don't forget to do it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

By-election box scores

These four by-election's (you can take them as one set of four even though the elections are actually on 2 different days) provide an interesting opportunity for the electorate to evaluate the performance of the government.

It's a truism that by-elections are notoriously hard to predict because it's a great opportunity for the voters to express their thoughts or otherwise vote on different priorities without actually taking down a government. See Signal-Hill-Quidi-Vidi as an example of how local factors, conditions and personalities can trump provincial trends.

So the natural assumption that provincial polls showing apparent stratospheric government support necessarily indicates a sweep by the PC's is a generous over-interpretation of the landscape.

Although one would expect the apparently weak and disorganized Liberals to be at internal odds, the reality is that it looks like the PC's are the one at internal odds. Reports indicate that some of the failed nomination candidates are unhappy for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem is that while there might have been 2000+ votes for 6 or 7+ hopeful candidates in each district, in the end you have just one happy candidate and a bunch of unhappy ones who call the process unfair.

Another interesting about the PC nominations is that each one had a candidate designated and anointed by the Premier (in one case the candidate ran in two different districts) and they failed to take the nomination in each case. This might point to organizational weakness or loss of party control on the Premier's part - it's hard to tell.

It's not unusual for a Premier to try and muscle their way into nominations. Tobin tried to designate Liberal candidates in at least 3 federal by-elections and also failed each time.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have had no divisive nomination battles and in some cases were lucky to get candidates at all. In spite of that, some sensible and competent candidates emerged. More on that below.

The best that can be said about the NDP, meanwhile, is that they worked hard to get 4 candidates and did. It's just too bad that the energetic and shrewd talents of Rick Boland had to be wasted this way.

There are four seats in play: on the Avalon they are Kilbride and Ferryland. Both have been long-time PC seats and, frankly, there is little reason to expect that to change although I suspect the counts will be closer than previously.

Too bad because I have to say that Bob Clark (Lib-Kilbride) is putting up a spirited fight including media buys, and would likely to make a good MHA. Still he faces just an outside chance against John Dinn, former Goulds mayor and St. John's councilor.

While much better known, Dinn seems to be running his provincial race the same way he ran his municipal ones - with just $200, lots of good will, little door-knocking and no media. Meanwhile, reports indicate the Goulds 8 and other groups and individuals whom Dinn has previously annoyed, including some workers from camps of the failed nomination challengers, are vigorously working against him.

The west coast has the real interesting races: Port au Port and Humber Valley. These are the seats where it's a real competition. Most pundits and observers are saying the PC's are in real fear of losing one (Humber Valley) and an outside chance at losing the second (Port au Port).

Certainly the PC''s seem to think so because they have been marching the premier and other ministers all up and down the coast. But all things are not smooth for the PCs; this morning a long-time PC worker has cut the party loose and was willing to say so to a CBC radio reporter.

On the Liberal side, the one to watch is Dwight Ball in Humber Valley. Of all the candidates of all the parties in all the seats, he is the real deal - successful, sensible, articulate, fearless and smart. And the last time he ran he lost to his sister-in-law, the infamous Kathy Goudie, in a squeaker.

The strategies of the parties have been fairly predictable in the main. The PC's are putting provincial issues ("vote for us for a strong hand against Ottawa", or as one wag put it "give us a mandate to negotiate") and the personality of the Premier first and foremost. The Liberals, while generally running against the government, are running mainly on platforms of local issues claiming that the PC's are ignoring the local for the provincial.

The main exception seem to be on constituency allowances. It looks likes whoever wins these seats all the MHA's will be releasing constituency allowance records in the future.

It's hard escape the question of who will win what seats and what it will mean; each party there are different definitions of success and failure.
  • 4-0 for the PCs is success for the PCs (they kept them all) and a push for the Liberals (they lost nothing)
  • 3-1 for the PCs is loss for the PCs (they set a high bar for success) and a win for the Liberals (they gained one against a 70% current the other way)
  • 2-2 is a serious failure for the PCs and glorious victory for the Liberals
  • Losing more than 2 is catastrophic failure for the PC machine and a towering achievement for the Liberals representing a monumental sea change in the political landscape.
We'll see what happens.

OffalNews on CBC!

Well not quite, but close.

The wise people at the CBC Morning Show are on an endless quest for quality local programming but they have decided to put that mission aside for for 3 minutes or so and instead run a commentary from me.

It is a variation of A Modest Propsal and will be on tomorrow morning, February 8, between 8 and 8:30am.

Stay tuned.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Modest Proposal

It's a rare thing when the head of the province's largest union and the Premier both call for the same fundamental reform of the province's political system.

Last week Carol Furlong of NAPE called for the appointment of a citizen's representative to sit on the Internal Economies Commission and oversee the elected officials.

Premier Danny Williams agreed.

Once again we have a half-hearted solution to a profound problem - the inability of our elected officials to take the responsibility of governing this province let alone governing their behavior.

One always suspected that but now it's confirmed at the highest political levels.

First, let's clearly define the problem: our elected officials can't handle the responsibility they are elected to exercise so the more they come under the review of appointed citizen's representatives, the better.

Since it's agreed that's the problem, we should greatly expand this concept for maximum effectiveness; no half-measures will do.

I suggest a modest proposal: We should establish a special committee of citizen's representatives to look over the shoulder of the MHA's.

The appointed Auditor General, while effective in ferreting out wrongdoing after the fact, can't do much to stop the exercise of bad judgment before it happens. The existing Citizen's Representative is short on all resources to really do the job and, anyways, that's not why that particular job was created in the first place.

No; we need a group of qualified, energetic and and capable appointed citizen's representatives with very wide ranging supervisory and overseeing powers. Their role will be to review every decision made by every government minister and department and to make sure it's in the interest of the people and not the politicians.

I would think that we would need at least 6 of these citizens. And because this is a small province where everybody knows each other and it's just too easy to have conflicts of interest, it would be wise to have 3 of those 6 coming from outside the province. Perhaps the mainland or some other commonwealth country.

Each of these six citizen's representatives should be allocated some areas of responsibility, so many departments each to review on an ongoing basis. If things get out of hand, in their opinion, they can veto.

It's time to take responsibility away from the elected officials and to place it in the hands of an overall commission of appointed representatives.

Since we can't trust our politicians and since they are completely incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions, that responsibility must be taken away from them for their good and for ours.

When it comes to exercising the democratic responsibilities for which they were elected, our MHA's are not fit for it.

Didn't we learn that last time?