Moon over Parador: the reboot
Collective government is a thing
There’s a new list of cabinet committees, triggered by the John Haggie and Tom Osborne seat-swap earlier in the month.
Noticeably, the Premier’s name is absent from any of the committees.
The Routine committee is easy to explain.
Ditto economic or social policy, even.
Even meetings of cabinet itself have been chaired by someone designated as the President of the Executive Council, not the Premier. More often than not since Confederation, the Premier has chaired cabinet itself but there have been years, like when Clyde Wells was Premier, that someone else chaired the meetings.
Planning and Priorities has been different.
The supreme committee short of cabinet itself. All the key players, that is the chairs of the other major committees all sit on P and P.
*Always* chaired by the Premier, since 1972 when cabinet imported the current organization from an Ottawa reform in the mid-1960s. Except for the couple of nutso years when Kathy Dunderdale got rid of the committee altogether, this is the one committee the Premier chairs. The Cabinet Secretariat database only coughed up orders in council for the past 19 years but you get the idea.
Since 2020 - that is - since Dwight left and Furey took over - Pee and Pee as it is known - has been chaired by John Haggie.
And just to make it absolutely clear, the Premier is not even a member of any cabinet committee.
This is very strange.
A few weeks ago, some people wondered about Pat Parfrey, the ex-doctor and rugby coach who is now a deputy minister in Executive Council with some title or other related to health care.,
What did that mean for Haggie? they asked.
The only people who actually run health care in this province are in the health department. At the time Haggie was health minister and Pat Parfrey was just another bureaucrat. Health was Haggie’s department. Full stop.
Now that Tom Osborne is the minister, the answer is the same.
What interesting to notice in the list of cabinet committees is that Haggie kept his job as chair of Pee and Pee and he stayed as chair of cabinet’s social policy committee. They just changed his ministerial title.
That tells you a lot about the recent swap. For anyone thinking the shift of Haggie out of the health portfolio meant anything more than cosmetic change, guess again. It was hasty. Had more to do with a need to make it look like something had changed rather than a serious change of direction.
Two things tell you that.
First, Tom Osborne has been doing what Tom Osborne does best: making people feel good. He’s met with some folks. He’s promised a few things but what he has promised is actually nothing more than the department usually does. More importantly, though, Osborne has said *publicly* what he has been doing, which is part of that whole making it look like change thingy, without actually making a real change.
Second, you can tell it was a hasty switcheroo because the swearing in took place on July 6 but the order in council that made it formal is dated on the seventh with effect from the day before. That’s a pretty good sign the whole thing was done in a big hurry.
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To understand what this cabinet committee news means, go back to an SRBP post written a little less that two years ago, just before Andrew Furey took over as Premier. Let’s update that post a bit with the evidence we have from a couple of years of Premier Andrew Furey.
First, cabinet government is collective government. People assume that Premiers and Prime Ministers are dictators but the reality is that they only rule as long as the caucus agrees to let them rule. Boris Johnson. Maggie Thatcher. Dwight Ball. Kathy Dunderdale. They are not alone. All faced cabinet and caucus revolts that pushed them out of office. Other Premiers and Prime Ministers survived tussles and worked to keep the team together until they could leave when they were ready.
Second, Furey is the face of government, he is the leader, and there are public expectations of him as head of the team. How he does the job does have an impact on public attitudes to him personally and to the Liberals generally.
Unfortunately, as with every Premier since Kathy Dunderdale, Furey took office with questions about his leadership. Those questions remain and have deepened in many respects. Look at the most recent poll by Angus Reid to get a clue to the political outlook. Like Dwight Ball, Andrew Furey is having a hard time bettering a virtually non-existent opposition.
Sure, he won decisively but Furey clearly didn’t have a plan. He was politically inexperienced and surrounded himself with inexperienced people. What’s worse, Furey didn’t do anything to counteract either his inexperience or the political weakness that he had coming into the job.
Furey ran a low key leadership campaign that focused internally. Obviously overwhelmed by the job, Furey ignored the public after he took office and spent his time figuring things out. Being Premier is not something you can pick up with some on-the-job experience, so it should be surprising, his performance hasn’t gotten better.
Had Furey campaigned for the leadership by campaigning like a general election - with the whole province as the audience - he could have secured a strong relationship with the public. That would have given him two options once in office. Furey could have rolled to the polls safe in the knowledge the public support would carry Furey and the Liberals through a general election with a decisive victory.
Alternately, Furey could have taken six to eight months to put his own stamp on government, using the high public support to overcome any opposition within his own caucus and cabinet. Again, that should have given him the advantage to win decisively in a delayed general election.
What happened is that Furey wandered around his office for a while, called a poorly-timed election in the winter of 2021, ran a poorly-managed campaign and staggered back into office with only slightly better results than the Liberals had in 2019.
Third, the upshot of all this is that we have both the upside and the downside of collective government. Power sits somewhere other than the Premier’s Office. That’s a good thing. If Furey screws up, someone else can clean up. Think here of John Hogan and the Bruce Chaulk fiasco.
On the downside, what we have is a government that - like every one since 2010 - has been driven by the lowest-common-denominator. Radical change is almost certainly impossible, even if that’s what the situation demands. Major changes would be difficult. If possible at all, they would take time as the individuals and factions within cabinet find a consensus about what needs to happen.
We have potential examples of what this means with PERT, the Health Accord, and the Churchill River committees. They share common features:
overlapping mandates with each other or another group,
membership made up of political place-holders, and
as far as PERT and Health Accord go, reports that apparently have gone straight up onto a shelf without any lasting result. Don’t expect the Genius Committee on hydro to be any better.
That’s likely the product of both a lack of clear policy direction from the 8th Floor and the ability of other forces within cabinet and within government to adjust, massage, and neutralize whatever they don’t want.
We’ll have a look at these ideas in a later chapter of the Managed Democracy series. In the meantime, as you swelter in the tropical heat wave of late July wonder if this really is the world’s most unlikely banana republic. If you consider that before this string of short-term Premier’s we had a Hugo-Chavez like dictator, we could well be living in Parador.
Or maybe Zangaro.
If some guy named Shannon shows up at the airport taking pictures of birds and animals, keep your head down.