What the Premier Must Do. A Budget Primer (Part I)

Like a
Throne Speech, a Budget ought to reflect the Government’s philosophy and ideas
about how revenue should be generated and spent.  It should avoid ideology, but it ought to
reveal how the practices of one Government might be differentiated from those
of another. In addition, the Budget should be guided by a set of principles
that will govern its decisions regarding the
deficit, debt, pension plan shortfall and other
critical financial decisions with long term implications. When Budgets become
more about choices than simply about more spending we will get to see whether
it has more ideas than Muskrat Falls and fattening up the public service.

Whatever a
Government’s priorities, there is no substitute for careful administrative and
financial management, day-in-day-out. 
The process of making small changes, achieving more efficiencies,
strengthening programs and conducting executive management reviews is not the
sexy stuff that attracts Reporters’ attention; but, it is exactly what, if
understood by sensible leadership, will keep bad news at bay. 

by ‘splatter’, the process of giving everyone something, is not management, at

Most people look
to government for: a) integrity b) a Plan that sets reasonable goals, c) straightforward
communication with the public, and d) periodically, a progress report on how it
is doing.   

Anyone who
has served at the senior level of Government understands just how easily its’
focus can be diverted.  It is a system
replete with competing demands, egos and self-interest.  Usually, a couple of Cabinet Ministers can spot
early problems and warn the “Boss”; adjustments are made, but, that happens
only when the “Boss” is collegial, open minded and above all, confident.  If the ‘rot’ is further up the line, well…..

are not professional managers, though they ought to be capable of preventing
the day to day spending of Government from ever reaching a crisis.  

How does a
Premier prevent the Government from losing its way? 

A Government
is like any other large organization with a broad mandate; if it has a good plan,
it is likely ready for trouble spots, too. 
If it has neither a written plan nor identified the essential benchmarks
of progress, it is tantamount to expecting the ‘ship of state’ to navigate
without a compass. 

Government’s goals were never explained from the beginning, likely because the
Premier saw her Administration as an extension of the previous one.  That one took in oodles of money and spent it
with abandon.  Little wonder Danny might,
forever, earn the appellation “Williams the Spender”.  For this Government, even Muskrat Falls, Dunderdale’s
big single initiative with huge financial consequences, has been justified by
several different rationales.  Where does
one find certainty?  

Now, the
Government must deal with a large Budget deficit.  With every group shouting “it is not our
turn”, how can the Government “make it right”, without using the ‘buckshot’ approach,
to cutting expenditures? 

“buckshot” approach is one where the Premier or Finance Minister asks
Departmental Deputies “to find a percentage of savings”, offering them little
guidance, and none that speaks to the Government’s core values or how to do
better with less.  At the end of the day,
the Government will have no idea whether the so-called “fat” has been cut or
whether it has merely achieved a temporary “fix”.  Whether essential programs have been unwisely
neutered, ineffectual and unnecessary programs have been done away with or
whether the process of determining ‘value for money’ ever received exhaustive consideration,
will remain a mystery.    

management, consistently pursued, speaks to a ‘culture’ of government and of the
leadership; it is not a process that is arbitrarily instituted a few months in
advance of a Budget.

The Premier
has committed herself to something called “core program review”, but, that is a
different process than defining how much government the Treasury can afford,
setting priorities, goals and benchmarks or placing before the public a program
of change.  This is the real stuff of
government.  The public learns how the
political mandate has been interpreted and of the changes for which their
continued support will be sought.   

In terms of
timing, it is too late to draw up a plan that ensures the Budget contains
either imagination or a promise of real, measurable change.  But, the plan, itself, must be initiated even
if the process will have to be carried beyond the Budget date.

What is the
Premier to do?

Likely, the
Administration does not have the right people to help her out.

observation, few in the Cabinet or Caucus have demonstrated a capacity for a
broad view of public administration or the ability to deduce the results of a
particular policy change and how it might impact the public.  The most visible Ministers, have no policy
orientation or serious communications skills. 
That is not to demean them; but, profound change must be reasoned; the
public must have assurance of consistent and coherent decision making by
spokespeople of credibility. 

Of course, the
Premier must listen to her elected advisors. 
While none possess a working compass, the abiding fear is that she does
not possess one, either. The Polls indicate she is not without popularity; she
has a limited time to put that advantage to work.  

The Premier
cannot rely on the three people who hold the most senior positions in the
bureaucracy, the Clerk of the Executive Council, the Deputy Minister of Finance
and the Secretary to the Treasury Board, a matter which I will discuss in a later
Post. The Budget mess is proof neither has the Premier’s ear.  Afterall, it is not empire building or
cheerleading, but credibility, that is the senior advisor’s exclusive

The Premier should
look, outside of Government, for a small number of skilful people who are not
conflicted by position or money; a group who will not engage in “nice” and who
will have her confidence. 

The Premier
needs people to whom she will listen, who are credible, frank as well as
intelligent.  Finding an outside team of
that calibre, one that will do so, even in the knowledge that its best efforts
may be undermined by Muskrat Falls, will not be easy. 

But, that is
what the Premier must do. 


Note: “JM” will return on Thursday with “Gnarley’s Theory of Political Devolution”.


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.


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.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?