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Better than Hansard

Last Build Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2006 15:13:44 -0330

Copyright: Copyright 2007

A holiday shocker

Fri, 29 Dec 2006 15:13:44 -0330

I was home for the holidays, trying my best not to think of politics. Then my blackberry starting hopping around like a freshly landed trout. Loyola Sullivan was quitting as minister of Finance and as the MHA for Ferryland.

Sullivan says he is leaving for personal reasons and will pursue opportunities in the private sector. He should have no shortage of options. But options are something that the premier is quickly running out of. During his first term, Danny Williams has lost Sullivan, Beth Marshall and Ed Byrne from cabinet. They all left at different times and for very different reasons. But each departure represents a significant talent bleed from the government's front benches. Sullivan, Marshall and Byrne were held out as the cornerstones of a strong cabinet. They would be the pillars of good, competent government for the life of the Williams government. Now they are all gone.

My guess is that Sullivan isn't done with politics. He is the federal Conservative Party's number one target for candidate recruitment in the next election. With Norm Doyle expected to retire, Sullivan could run in St. John's East and likely win that seat. But a source quite close to Sullivan says that "isn't in the cards."

Already there is buzz that Sullivan is leaving because of a strained relationship with the premier. It seemed that there was some disagreement between the two men on Williams' approach to federal-provincial relations. Sullivan apparently didn't share the premier's anxiety over pending changes to equalization. But he did share the premier's goal of protecting the gains made in the new Atlantic Accord. Again, people close to Sullivan insist the relationship with the premier was strong.

This likely isn't the last high-profile tory to say goodbye. The premier is asking his people to commit early in the new year to running in the 2007 election. As those committments are sought and given, expect the cabinet to change even more as the premier freshens up his government before a trip to the polls.

A busy week in politics

Tue, 12 Dec 2006 09:22:22 -0330

The Auditor General's latest report and the government's abrupt firing of Joan Cleary show just how quickly things can change in politics.

First to Cleary. Her hiring as Chief Executive Officer of the Bull Arm Corporation was controversial from the beginning. Cleary is a defeated Tory candidate from the 2003 election, so it looked like a patronage appointment. She is also a nurse, with no experience running shipyards, construction projects, or large corporations. People began to question her qualifications from the very beginning.

Cleary was fired on December 7th for issuing a $70,000 contract without following the Public Tender Act. The termination may or may not end her political career. Cleary has said in the past that she wants to run in Bellevue district again in the 2007 election. But Premier Danny Williams is refusing to say whether Cleary is still an acceptable candidate for his party. Williams says he won't comment on Cleary's political future while the sitting Bellevue MHA Percy Barrett is ill. Barrett was hospitalized in Burin this weekend after he suffered what appears to be a heart attack.

Williams' reasoning is flawed. Cleary's suitability as a tory candidate has nothing to do with Barrett's medical status. Cleary was fired four days before Barrett fell ill. Williams, as head of the government and the Progressive Conservative Party, must have reached a conclusion about Cleary's political future at that time. If he hasn't, fine. But he shouldn't use Barrett's poor health as an excuse not to talk.

Percy Barrett was also at the centre of the week's other big story. Barrett became the fifth politician connected to the House of Assembly spending scandal. Auditor General John Noseworthy says that Barrett overspent his constituency allowance by $117,286. With each new penny, this scandal grows.

Unlike the four politicians named in earlier reports, Barrett spoke publicly right away and without hiring a lawyer. "I'm prepared to say I'm innocent," Barrett told reporters. "I will say I am innocent right now."

Barrett was the new name in Noseworthy's latest report. But there was a lot of new information about the four other politicians tied to this scandal. The amount of misspending connected to Ed Byrne, Randy Collins, Wally Andersen and Jim Walsh increased. Byrne, who only recently announced that he would retire on January 1st, saw his excess claims rise by $141,011. It was the biggest increase in the new report and cast a new light on Byrne's looming departure.

Noseworthy's latest tally shows that the five MHAs overspent their constituency allowances by $1,586,573 since 1998. His audits also show that three companies (Zodiac Agencies, JAS Enterprises Limited and Cedar Scents International) got $2,651,644 in questionable payments from 1998 to 2005. These companies supplied the trinkets, baubles and gold rings that have coloured this scandal.

Then there is the $170,401 that went to Unique Keepsakes, a company owned by Bill Murray. Murray is the former Director of Financial Operations at the House of Assembly. The man who controlled all of the budgets and who was responsible for approving all of the spending that is at the heart of this scandal. Murray is the key player in this that everybody wants to hear from. He was on sick leave from his job when this story broke. He has since been suspended.

The balance sheet for this scandal has now grown to $4,408,618. That's the cost to the taxpayers. The cost to the credibility of politicians in general has been much higher.

We should have seen this coming

Tue, 28 Nov 2006 20:17:50 -0330

I'm sure some jaws dropped when Ed Byrne announced his resignation. But mine wasn't one of them. All you had to do was watch Byrne on his one and only appearance in the House of Assembly this session and you could tell that change was coming.

Of the 48 members in the House of Assembly, Byrne was without peer in his command and control of the legislature floor. He was a master parliamentarian in his ability to control debate, advance the government's agenda, and -- perhaps most importantly -- in using the rules of procedure to protect Premier Danny Williams from overzealous opposition attacks. As an Opposition Leader, Government House Leader and Minister of Natural Resources, Byrne was at the heart of the action during every legislative session.

And that is why he had to go.

Byrne only sat in the House of Assembly for a little over an hour this session. He watched the banal routine of Statements by Members and Statements by Ministers. For what may have been the first time in his 14-year career, he spent a Question Period entirely on the sidelines. Byrne was still in the front row of the government desks. But he was a backbencher, and a backbencher without a role.

My sense of if then -- and Byrne's comments today reinforced this -- was that this inaction only magnified the stress and frustration Byrne was feeling as the biggest name attached to the MHA spending scandal. Politicians can take pressure. They can take defeat. But irrelevancy is something else entirely.

It is a tragic end to what had been a promising and successful political career. By leaving public life, Byrne does not have to face the voters or the media anymore. But he must still deal with the far more serious challenges presented by the Auditor General's findings and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's subsequent investigation. Byrne's political career may be into its final weeks. But those investigations are still in their early stages.

It is worse than it sounds

Fri, 24 Nov 2006 13:36:00 -0330

One of the most notable things about the first week of this sitting of the legislature was the noise. Even from my privileged perch in the press gallery, you can't hear a thing most of the time. The politicians are debating and shouting back and forth. But unless you are watching it on television, you miss most of what is being said.

The reason is simple. The Liberals have struck a nerve with their persistent attacks on what they call "Cable-Gate." Premier Danny Williams doesn't like it when his family and friends are dragged into political debate. And the Liberals have made this issue all about Williams' friendships with Dean MacDonald and Ken Marshall.

The personal tone of the questioning has raised the temperature on the legislature floor. In one spat, Williams threatened to "sue the ass off" of Opposition leader Gerry Reid. Reid and Williams are always jawing at each other across the floor. Bellevue MHA Percy Barrett is also constantly tormenting Williams. During the civil service strike a few years ago, Barrett spent nearly every question period "mooing" at the premier. It was a not-so-subtle reference to Williams' now infamous threat to keep NAPE and CUPE on the streets until "the cows come home."

But it isn't just the Liberals. If you are in the public gallery, watch the group of Conservative MHAs who sit the farthest away from the speaker. Transportation Minister John Hickey is by far the loudest and most boisterous heckler on the government side. But he is simply the ringleader for a group of Tory backbenchers the Liberals like to call the Bleacher Creatures.

And if you do make it to the public gallery, watch the two members of the NDP caucus. While the Liberals and Conservatives bray insults and jeers across the floor, Lorraine Michael and Randy Collins patiently wait for their turn to speak and ask questions. It is almost as if they are there to have a meaningful discussion on issues and public policy problems, while conducting themselves in a professional manner. And that is one thing you can notice amidst all the chaos.

The cost of doing business?

Fri, 24 Nov 2006 13:17:24 -0330

Read the story about the Opposition's criticism of the cost to taxpayers of hosting this summer's meeting of the Council of the Federation. The government defends the price tag of just under $500-thousand by saying it generated nearly $1.4-million in economic spin-off and successfully promoted the province to national and international media.

What is interesting about this whole issue is the sheer scale and opulence you now see at these annual meetings of Canada's premiers. These were once sleepy, low-key summer affairs. The premiers would meet for a few days, discuss the issues of the day, squeeze in a round (or two) of golf, and then hold a news conference to outline their conclusions. But now these events have turned into a competition as fierce as any election campaign. Each province tries to outdo the previous year's host province and the cost and magnitude of the conference grows and grows and grows.

The conference Premier Danny Williams hosted this summer was not outside the norm of what these events have become. But the Liberals do raise a legitimate question about whether all of this is necessary for the premiers to meet and do their jobs. In fact, the emphasis on glitz and showbiz might even be counterproductive, with more focus put on the show business than on the nation's business.

The first conference I covered was in Quebec City in 1999. There the premiers were entertained by the world renowned Cirque de Soleil. In St. John's, it was Great Big Sea and Rick Mercer. Each premier likes to use these conferences as a stage to showcase local culture and local talent. That may be a laudable goal. But each year it become a more expensive one to meet.

A little late, don't you think?

Wed, 22 Nov 2006 13:38:01 -0330

Innovation, Trade and Rural Development Minister Trevor Taylor held a technical briefing and news conference today to laud the merits of that controversial $15-million cable deal. This is something that should have been done on November 2nd when the original announcement was made, not 20 days later in the middle of a lingering political controversy. Government and industry insiders complain that the benefits of this new fibre optic link have been lost in the noise over the personal connections the premier has to the key players in the cable firms. All of this should have been anticipated. This technical briefing is nearly three weeks overdue. Coming now it looks like a defensive public relations move rather than an attempt to explain the deal.

Order please.

Wed, 22 Nov 2006 13:26:13 -0330

Welcome to my new home on the World Wide Web. This blog will be an extra forum for me to offer some insight and analysis on the world of provincial politics. These are early days for Better than Hansard and in the coming days and weeks you can expect to see this blog kick into high gear. If you have any political insights of your own feel free to e-mail me here