WANTED: A FEW SENIOR PUBLIC SERVANTS WITH SPINE

“Speaking
truth to power” is a euphemism for powerful people taking a stand contrary
to the one held by those more powerful.
 

In “Old
Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics”, a Paper by James O’Toole, the author writes that “Speaking truth to power is perhaps the
oldest and, certainly, one of the most difficult of ethical challenges because
to do so entails personal danger.”

The popular
cliché “shooting the messenger” is recognizable for the risk of exercising
moral courage by one “unlucky enough” to have to speak, honestly, to a
superior; one able to demote and fire or, if you happen to be employed in the
government of North Korea, a fate far worse. Our senior public servants don’t have to worry about that. Yet, as O’Toole states plainly, “nobody likes the bringer of bad
news.”

When Dwight
Ball and Cathy Bennett delivered the “Fiscal Update” on December 23, 2015 the
utterance of “not a crisis” caused one to conclude the very first days of
the new Liberal Administration were not filled with warnings of the province’s accelerated
journey off a fiscal cliff.  It seems no thoughtful analysis, from the most powerful
senior public servants, was delivered to the pair.


Had the
bureaucrats not told the politicians that the province is running a $2 billion
deficit on Current Account against $8 billion of expenditures?

Had they
advised the Government that even the disturbing forecast rise in the “Net” public
debt, to almost $23 billion by 2020-21, still contains a large element of “hope”; one
inseparable from the price of commodities, especially oil?

Had they
informed the new Liberal leadership that Muskrat and Nalcor’s equity investment
in offshore oil were beasts that had to be fed with more debt that cannot be
serviced, except through taxation and program cuts?



Had they really made that connection for the Premier and the Minister, knowing that they were too “green” to do it on their own, and that Ed Martin would offer no help? 

In short,
had they given “truth to power”?

Ed Martin,
long ago, was viewed as out of touch and with good reason.



But the
three senior bureaucrats: the Clerk of the Executive Council and the Deputy
Ministers of Finance and Natural Resources have been a timid lot.

During their
tenure, Ed Martin acquired a level of power within government that exceeds any
historical norm for one positioned well outside the traditional hierarchy of the public
service.

It takes
spine to oppose bad decisions and opaque government; but they have watched as the
“100 year” man, increasingly a caricature of himself, became the real power.

All three public
servants have propped up the “fake” Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee, each having
recorded not just frequent truancy, but an unparalleled exhibition of coy; the
Minutes of each Committee Meeting so sanitized, that they seem bleached with cower.



Three examples, randomly selected, mirror the others; here and here and here. Quarterly Reports, too, constitute no record of oversight; each one has to get the stamp of “Nalcor approval” first. 

Did the Cabinet Clerk not go to Ball to explain public service
participation on the Oversight Committee was coerced, that he really ought to give the Committee the
legitimacy it never had? 



Was it because they required no coercing; that they were content to follow, as Ed Martin lead?

Who among us
would anticipate that “fake” and “career” would enjoy such symbiosis in the
architecture of personal advancement?

How can a “comprehensive
independent review” of Muskrat be undertaken if, as Ball has stated, the “review
will focus on construction design and budget concerns, not methyl mercury
concentrations or the stabilization of the North Spur”?

Would the
government really have omitted review of the structural foundation of the whole
scheme, unless Nalcor and compliant public servants feared what might be
exposed?

It is not as
if the two-thirds of a single page, written by Dr. Serge Leroueil, one of the
Reviewers of Nalcor’s remediation plan, could be deemed even minimally adequate.

Indeed, who seriously
believes that Dwight Ball and Siobhan Coady achieved a sophisticated understanding
of the project within a day or two of being sworn, such that they are capable of understanding
the distinction between a full Review and one that omitted a matter involving
complex science?

Of course, the
politicians were willingly complicit in the EY Review; but the idea could only
have been inspired by another agenda; the public interest be damned.



Even that Review must first be vetted by Ed Martin, whether the government likes it or not. 


Did the Clerk suggest that the Premier might want to exhibit leadership early by stating he would do away with such unwarranted authority, as soon as the House of Assembly opens? 


Or, is her survival, as Clerk, and that of the other senior Deputies more secure if they don’t offend the real power?

Ball and
company always wanted to believe in the Muskrat Falls project; that was
confirmed while they were in Opposition. But the naiveté did not lift with
time, cost overruns, or growing fiscal realities.

Funnily, his
recent acknowledgement that Muskrat will require $3 billion over the next three
years can only lead one to suggest the conclusion is known; the $1 million that EY will be
paid seems a high price for a nice “bow” on a Review already in.

Ed Martin
must have thought he was blessed to have won another accommodating Premier, on
the heels of no fewer than four compliant Tory predecessors.

Of course, “truth
to power” is never found among the self-absorbed or the conflicted.


More mature
societies are capable of sacrificing one or two brave souls who will put their
jobs, even their reputations on the line, in an effort to counsel sanity. But
not here. The public interest does not count for that much.

Mr. Ball should
begin to understand that when all is considered, Newfoundlanders and
Labradorians might be more willing to place their trust in the Bond Rating
Agencies of New York and their ability to impose realism, than in public
servants who eschew any antidote but “hope”.  

Such a reliance
on New York might seem like an act of undeniable desperation, to be sure.

But it
offers a far better chance than the feint hope anyone, here, has the capacity
to speak truth to power.

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.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. A friend of mine who spent decades in Central Canada advising several provincial governments recently returned to Newfoundland. She was dismayed with NL public service. Not really by the quality of the people, more the culture of fear, indifference, and lack of decision making ability. Her conclusion is that we need to bring in public servants from other jurisdictions to provide some new life. But it is a cultural issue, which the public servants are not truly even aware of. It was a really depressing conversation really.

  2. this article hits the nail on the head but may not go far enough…. the beaurocrats that punch the proverbial time clock and have done so for decades are, I think more complacent that proactive. either by inability or simple bad habit. it takes a knowledgeable minister and knowledgeable govt to remove those that are just biding their time in the deputy, and ass deputy positions and to openly embrace the full meaning of whistleblower legislation…..just like the hierarchy of organized labor that gets lost in its own aura of importance, so too do the ones that hold leadership beaurocratic deputy and ass deputy seats in some departments…… cheers

  3. First of all,the update was Dec 2015, not 2014..typo.
    I am appalled at the lack of transparency in the meeting minutes…they serve absolutely no purpose.
    It is impossible to believe that the Liberals did not know the provincial situation is so dire. I have followed the Provincial spending fairly closely, but only as a busy employed resident, and knew it was dire since the huge increase in Provincial salaries was announced, after there were reclassifications and huge salary increases to doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. prior to the general increase, and the subsequent large increase in the size of the Public Service. Also, the streaming out of millions to Nalcor, consultants, etc. It had to crash and burn, and we can't afford to wait a year and a half to start the serious cuts and revenue increases needed. The HST cut was very short sighted. I am worried for myself, my family and my children.