A little desperation can be a good thing

Russell Wangersky
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Nervous and new governments can be good things. It was, after all, a nervous Liberal government under acting premier Beaton Tulk that sparked a review of this province’s first freedom of information law — even though Tulk himself said he didn’t see any reason for the review.

The review was announced after a months-long St. John’s Telegram analysis of how the existing law was critically hamstrung, to the point that the government only released what it felt like releasing.

The resulting changes a review panel came up with were so sweeping that the Liberals couldn’t bring themselves to put the changes into effect — instead, the new government of the Tories did so shortly after beating Roger Grimes in a provincial election.

In that case, “new” finished what “nervous” started.

Way back when, a new government under then-premier Clyde Wells promised all sorts of social-sector change, and even began implementing it until, as is often the case in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, the money suddenly ran out.

The new government of Danny Williams, acting on an offhand commitment made while in opposition, brought the auditor general back to review the books of the House of Assembly, a move that uncovered the constituency allowance spending scandal and cost Williams his own right-hand man, Ed Byrne.

The House of Assembly had been operating without oversight for years — and pretty much every member of the House of Assembly at the time received some sort of benefit or cash they didn’t deserve.

How can you really describe it? Well, perhaps that new and nervous governments on the one hand are too new to see that they will be limited by their own behaviour, and nervous ones know they will be limited but feel it’s a price they have to pay to regain critical ground.

At the moment, we have a nervous government. After years of popularity, the provincial Tories are trying to dig themselves out of what could be described as a Grimesian hole — long in the tooth and comfortable in office, they’re suddenly worried about popularity numbers.

If nothing else, that probably means they’re ready to look at public suggestions with a little more of an open mind. (You can feel a little sorry for the sitting government in some ways: it’s like watching a hockey team that’s been concentrating on protecting a lead, instead of trying to find their skates and score again after the other team has tied the game.)

And that brings us to this week’s throne speech, with a new emphasis on openness, highlighting the independent review of Bill 29, the advent of whistleblower legislation for the province, and promises about more transparency  and oversight for Nalcor and Muskrat Falls. The Marshall government is calling it the Open Government Initiative, and is promising to release information online even before people ask for it. The Open Government Initiative is a big part of the province’s spring legislative agenda, with the whistleblower legislation already tabled in the house.

(That new pledge of openness might create some interesting issues for Nalcor: it was formed to be at extra-arm’s length from government to allow it to act more like a company than a Crown corporation — except that it doesn’t. It doesn’t publicly file quarterly reports that outline to its shareholders — this province’s taxpayers — how it is performing, or what its planned expenditures are, or how those expenditures may have increased. It doesn’t release its annual reports until days before its annual meeting, reports that usually appear after the House of Assembly is comfortably closed for the year. Its directors aren’t elected by the shareholders for their particular expertise — they are appointed by cabinet, and you’d have to be delusional to think their political stripe doesn’t play a role. Heck, there’s even simple stuff — public corporations generally list their complete executive compensation, and for Fortis, for example, you can find every benefit conferred on executives from head honcho Stan Marshall on down. Nalcor? From the new world of corporate reporting, all in all, not very corporate at all.)

So, is the Marshall plan the turning of a new leaf or the shaking of a nervous one, a sort of trembling aspen-type foliage that feels the touch of any wind?

There are those who would class this current performance as a conversion on the road to Damascus. Perhaps. Will it save the Tories from their current dismal polling numbers? Perhaps, as well.

But what it will do for sure is make for better government. Nervous and new. Far, far better than comfortable, staid and old.

Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Marshall

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Muskrat Falls, Damascus

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