HIGH PRIESTS HAVE BOUNDARIES TOO

In “What the Premier Must Do. A Budget Primer (Part I)”, I suggested that, among those who
do not have the Premier’s ear, are the most senior of public servants. 

Unlike
politicians, the latter rarely come in for criticism; nor should they unless
they, too, have become ‘political’.   

Three people,
historically, have constituted the most exclusive group of senior public
servants: the Clerk of the Executive Council (also known as the Cabinet
Secretary), the Deputy Minister of Finance and the Secretary to the Treasury
Board. Now, there are only two; in 2005, Treasury Board was emasculated after
it was rolled into the Dept. of Finance. 
 

The Clerk of
the Executive Council and the Deputy Minister of Finance are the two high priests
of the public service.  Their professionalism
and leadership are always in demand.  Those
who occupy the positions are expected to be ‘macro’ thinkers, ‘fixers’ and ‘experts’
on public policy matters.  They are the
people, who whisper into the ears of other senior public servants, the
Departmental Deputies, when the latter overstep sensibly constructed boundaries,
especially those which are political.  That
is why the greatest currency of any senior advisor is an unblemished track
record. 

Of course, there
is never a guarantee that the Premier will ask for, or listen to, the counsel
of her senior advisors. That is her prerogative. But, experience suggests the
wiser ones prevail, more often than not.

The Dean of
senior public servants, James G. Channing, served as Clerk of the Executive
Council for 23 years, most of them under Premier Smallwood.  Smallwood was an intense partisan.  Yet, Channing, a consummate professional,
never permitted himself a single professional lapse. Even after Moores came to power,
in 1972, Channing was retained, such was his unblemished standing. 

Against this
background, you will understand my surprise when, on that December evening of
Muskrat Falls sanction, the person witnessing the signature of the Cabinet document
(which the Premier led us to believe was the Order giving official start to the
Project) was none other than the Secretary to the Cabinet, himself.  The Premier is not the person who signs an
Order-in-Council.  That is the
prerogative of the Lieutenant Governor. 

Of course, it
was the right of the Premier to host the occasion.  But, the Ceremony was about her and her
policy initiative; it was prime time television.  She did not invite the L-G to sign; the
Opposition Parties were offered no role, so the function was entirely a partisan event.

The Clerk ought
to have advised the Premier of a different arrangement.  He didn’t. In failing to so do, he committed
an error in judgment, crossing an important and defined boundary.

As I write, public
service lay-offs are in progress.  That
is unfortunate but, likely, necessary.  The Clerk has presided over quite a bit of the
empire building; while still small by the standards of most Departments, his
own shop is now the largest in history.  A
staff of 20 or so (including secretarial staff) remained a constant, dating
back to the Moores’ years of the 1970s; these days you will find more than
three times that number in the Cabinet Secretariat, despite Intergovernmental
Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs, for example, having been ‘spun-off’ to become
separate Departments.  If you want to
know all about ‘bureaucratic bloat’, start with the Office of the Executive
Council. 

Then, there
is the esteemed Ministry of Finance.

Premier Danny
Williams must have found the ‘old’ Treasury Board structure confining.  The stern dictum of the bean counters has been
silenced, possibly blunted by a more compliant, political Deputy of Finance.  

While,
ultimately, the Budget mess is the responsibility of the politicians, it is
proof that the last and the most recent Deputy Ministers have either not been
engaged or they have been ignored. 

Last
September, the current Deputy, gave a Speech to the local Chapter of the
Financial Management Institute.  Her message
was one of public support for the Muskrat Falls initiative.  It wasn’t enough that she was unmindful of
Muskrat as a political boondoggle; she had to display that she could be oblivious
to the financial risk inherent in the undertaking.

In a world
in which senior advisors are expected to counsel common sense, she might have
used her senior status to defeat Ed Martin and the empire builders, at Nalcor.  Both she, and her predecessor, might have
worked ‘tooth and nail’ to save the the Province from a long road
of financial stress.  They could
have made their own sums available, even to
the ‘naysayers’, possibly demonstrating that Nalcor might not have gone rogue.
Likely they found such an initiative required excessive leadership
risk and, anyway, ‘cheerleading’
has a motion that favours prevailing winds. 

The Department
of Finance is staffed by many excellent people possessed of knowledge and
skills to independently assess the viability of Muskrat Falls. It is incredulous that they were not given a mandate to model the Project, to check
Nalcor’s numbers, or to challenge that Agency’s financial analysis and
conclusions.  Nalcor reserved that role entirely
for itself.  Of course, Nalcor would have
had to share its data base and agree to provide on-going updates.  No Deputy Minister of Finance, I ever knew,
would have been refused the information.

What is the
result? The Deputy Minister of Finance has no ability to run to her Minister or
to the Premier, armed with an ‘independent’ analysis or the capacity to
give her elected masters fair warning, if Ed Martin is blowing smoke.   

Who would
know that Nalcor’s Cabinet Submissions are routed through the Department of
Natural Resources and not through Finance?  Few would even care that that Deputy Minister does
not get to play the role of Ed Martin’s courier!   But, they might be shocked if they knew that
the Deputy stood in a public place and supported the Muskrat Falls Project,
using the third party information of Nalcor. 
Even today, a large part of the NL public believes that, even if the
politicians are unwise, the most senior bureaucrats in the Government will have
their back!  

Isn’t this
where a wise Secretary to the Cabinet might whisper in the Finance Deputy’s ear
and express puzzlement at her oversight? 
Evidently he, too, has checked the direction the political wind and chose to be quiet.

Little
wonder I might suggest that the Premier look outside of Government for help.
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

NALCOR (Masquerading as ‘Hydro’)LIVES IN AN UPSIDE DOWN WORLD

If a Big Mac costs McDonalds $10 to produce and it is sold for $1.50, McDonalds will go out of business. They would not declare a profit!

REMEMBERING BILL MARSHALL

Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.

2 COMMENTS

  1. In Canadian history there was a huge project of similar cost and size that was driven by politics. It was a huge failure. A thousand men were on the construction site from 1913 to 1917.It failed because of poor investigation of site condition. Dozens of Nflders worked there . Several Nfld steel sealing ships were hired to tranport hundrens of men and material north. The similarity struck me following Cabot Martin's North Spur disclosure and after I posted here last week a possble stabilation solution. I realized then the similarity of the problems of late stage investigations of critical components that should have been evaluated prior to DG3 stage. The other fiasco was a port project in Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Nelson River. There were problems with mud, water depth, and proceeding with designs that were inadaquate for the site conditions. There is an online summary written some 20 years ago. It was the Port Nelson Project in Hudson Bay. A Nflder, Capt Esau Adams had an inside track on the fiasco, saying (in his unpublished journal)that the lead construction engineer beleived the project was doomed from the start. A year after the start, he undertook costly, improved engineering modifications to help save the project. The project was finally was shut down entirely in 1918, after many millions were wasted. Online aerial photos show the remains of the structures, including a man made isalnd a half mile square, and a string of 17 steel bridges from the shore to the island. Capt Adams' journal is known to Maurice E Adams, of the blog site Vision2041.com. Perhaps he should consider posting the journal under his "article' section, as an example of how a mayor engineering blunder can go wrong, when driven by politics. It may be of value to the current debate.

  2. Mr. Sullivan, didn't you know that this Premier is omnipotent? Surely it would be beneath her and her ministers to take any advice that is contrary to their "always right" mentality!

    It is most unfortunate, both here and in Ottawa, that high-ranking public servants are being largely ignored while the governments in power make dangerous decisions that will have a negative impact for decades. The impact of their decisions will be very serious and, in some instances, severe when it comes to projects such as Muskrat Falls.

    A weak leader never consults anyone else and we have had weak leadership for the past decade in that respect. Any leader who is always right is indeed a dangerous demagogue and will almost invariably make decisions that are not in the best interests of the masses. Such has been our infatuation with their bluster that we have often lost sight of what they really are….arrogant and egotistical tyrants, operating under the guise of democracy.