Friday, 19 May 2017

Trolls, Clowns, & Parliamentary Language

Trolls, Clowns, & Parliamentary Language

By: Ryan Young

Earlier this week, opposition MHA Steve Kent was ejected from the House of Assembly for refusing to withdraw a statement where he referred to Finance Minister, Cathy Bennett, as being unethical, dishonest, and deceptive for giving misleading numbers during estimates committee. Kent was also called out for his use of social media which was called a “back-door” way of saying things that he would not be allowed to say in the legislature. This led to a very public Twitter debate with Gerry Byrne and a complete unhinging of Government House Leader, Andrew Parsons, who was quick to rise on the point of order that eventually got Kent ejected.

Now I know that many of my readers may not be big fans of Steve Kent, but the fact of the matter is that Kent was right. He asked the minister a very direct question and she offered an answer that did not include the whole truth. The whole issue was over the severance pay of an employee let go from Government House. When Kent asked about the amount of the severance, Bennett told him that it was $111 000. When Kent pressed for more details, Bennett revealed that the total number was $378 000. This led to the Member from Mount Peal North using the “unparliamentary language” that ultimately led to his ejection from the house. Bennett could have easily given the full amount when prompted, she had the information right in front of her, but instead she decided to be cagey and try to mislead the facts about the real amount. In this bloggers humble opinion, Kent was right to stand his ground, even if it meant that he was given a timeout from the sandbox.

So, what is unparliamentary language anyway? According to Wikipedia, Parliaments and legislative bodies around the world impose certain rules and standards during debates. Tradition has evolved that there are words or phrases that are deemed inappropriate for use in the legislature whilst it is in session. In a Westminster system, this is called unparliamentary language and there are similar rules in other kinds of legislative systems. This includes, but is not limited to the suggestion of dishonesty or the use of profanity. The most prohibited case is any suggestion that another member is dishonourable. So, for example, suggesting that another member is lying is forbidden under of legislative rules.

A curious thing about the rules regarding unparliamentary language is that there is no provision against actually being dishonest in the House of Assembly. You can’t call another member a liar, but it is perfectly acceptable to lie. Sure, the rules say that a member must remain honorable at all times, but as stated above, there have been several instances where members have been caught out on a less than truthful statement, but there is no punishment for that kind of behaviour. This just highlights how outdated our system of governance really is.

Speaking of unparliamentary language, Neil King, MHA for Bonavista also rose in the House of Assembly this week to offer some very important insights to the people of NL. He told us that despite his great job of spreading the government's message in a recent media article about CNA, the internet trolls were out in full force against him. King took a few minutes to tell the province how he felt he was being treated unfairly and unjustly by the keyboard warriors trying to tarnish his good name and finished the segment by referring to constituents who have expressed legitimate concerns to him as “clowns.” Very parliamentary language to be sure and a wonderful use of the time allocated for important debate in our legislature.

After some expected criticism on social media, King lashed out at a local Facebook group known as FreeNL, accusing them of mocking his physical appearance and his facial disability. The post garnered quite a bit of sympathy for King among his friends, but as is the common practice for government MHA’s, anyone with opposing views are blocked so nobody was able to offer the truth about King’s comments. I personally scoured the posts and comments regarding King on the FreeNL page. The group has over 4000 members and not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of negative criticism of King’s words. Curiously though, there was not one mention of his appearance or any type of disability or impairment. It is unfortunate that an MHA would stoop to such behaviour as to mislead people into believing that he is being cyber-bullied by “internet trolls,” when in reality they were just reacting to his calling them trolls and clowns for expressing their views on the very important issues in our province. Maybe if Mr. King wants to put such allegations out there, he should have some credible evidence to back it up.

In another curious twist, Education Minister, Dale Kirby, chimed in on King’s post, taking personal shots at one of FreeNL’s leaders, Mark Croft. Kirby wrote:

“Croft spends his time blaming the government for his perpetual state of unemployment. He fails to realize that social media is the first place most employers look when screening job applications. One look at his despicable online bullying behaviour is enough to deter any employer.”

Not only does Kirby continue to perpetuate the myth that Mark Croft or FreeNL are personally bullying MHA’s, he also gives false statements about Croft’s employment. Croft is currently employed full-time and uses his spare time for activism. While there is certainly some heated debate on FreeNL and other groups, Croft has been one of the leaders in trying to discourage negative and personal comments about individuals and has been steady in his attempt to keep the discussion about the issues. Instead of trying to paint anyone who protests their governance as unemployed, uneducated, social justice warriors that can’t even get a job, perhaps if Kirby and the rest of the Liberal caucus should take the time to come to one of the people’s protest and learn that these events are being organized and attended by hardworking Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that care enough about the mess this government s creating to stand up and try to have their voices heard.

There are many more examples example of the lengths that our government will go to deceive the people and distract them from the truth. The House of Assembly Management Commission voted to accept the committee’s recommendations regarding pension reform instead of the Liberal proposal. Kirby and other members tweeted that the PC’s and NDP voted against pension plan that would save the province money. They conveniently neglected to mention that their plan was voted down because it would have grandfathered in all of the current one-term MHA’s and made them eligible for a pension after just two years of service. Kirby also accused both opposition parties of voting against pay supplement increases for Early Childhood Educators. The truth is that while both parties did vote against the budget itself, there was no specific vote regarding the ELCC supplement and opposition members had expressed during debate that they were happy to see the wage increases even if they could not vote for the budget as a whole.

The irony is not lost on this blogger that Steve Kent was punished  for calling out Bennett on not offering the correct numbers and for using his Twitter account as an outlet to let people know what was happening in the House of Assembly, while government backbenchers and ministers alike are taking to social media to insult their constituents and spread false information about people and groups that they disagree with. Despite their promises to be open and transparent, the Liberals have not fared very well when it comes to being forthcoming with information to the public. Getting even the simplest piece of information can often be a monumental task and the premier and his cabinet have been caught up on more than one occasion being less than entirely truthful in their answers in the House of Assembly and to the media.

This whole unfortunate situation is symptomatic of many of the problems we are experiencing with government these days. Lack of openness and communication and a total disregard for what voters are saying have made this one of the most unpopular governments in our history. Calling people trolls and clowns in the House of Assembly and making false statements on social media about those who oppose you are not the best ways to endear voters to give you another chance next time around. People expect better from their elected officials and it is very disappointing to see this kind of behaviour from our MHA’s. With so many important matters that need to be addressed to get this province back on track, I am glad that they find the time to ridicule the people that they were elected to represent. If this is the best that we can expect from the people we elect to represent our best interests, then 2019 can’t come soon enough.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Venetian Blind Trusts

Venetian Blind Trusts

By: Ryan Young

It was revealed during estimates in the House of Assembly on Tuesday that the establishment of the premier’s blind trust left the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador on the hook for $42 900. This little tidbit came up when opposition members were questioning the government on expenses within the premier’s office, in particular, the amount that was listed under professional services.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was quick to point out that this is a long-established practice and provided a few details on the process. Any minister of the crown that has dealings that may be in a conflict of interest with the government must put their business holdings in a blind trust. The minister's work with the Chief Electoral Officer to establish the correct parameters regarding the blind trust and they approve any expenses that are deemed satisfactory. The minister pays for the expenses but is later reimbursed by the government and the cost is absorbed through their respective departments as “professional services.”

In this time of belt tightening it was surprising to hear that we pay for the establishment of these business trusts. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that blind trusts in this province have come under scrutiny. I’m sure that most of you are already thinking about the controversy surrounding the blind trust of former premier Danny Williams. While Williams was running the province, his blind trust (managed by his son-in-law) acquired 550 acres of land from the NL Housing Corporation at rock bottom prices. While no wrongdoing was ever proved, the situation did raise the issue of blind trusts in the public eye.  It is also worth noting that Williams took well over a year to put all his holdings in trust.

More recently, Dwight Ball was questioned on why it took him so long to establish his blind trust. Questions of conflict of interest first arose in April 2016 surrounding Ball’s stake in the senior’s residence, Sundara. By July, the trust had been established, but Ball had some curious comments for reporters who asked him for details:

“It’s called a blind trust for that reason.” Said Ball “And so the advice that I’ve been given, that the blind trust people that actually manage that — there’s a reason why it’s called a blind trust. For me to actually remove myself from my business interest, and put two people there that I would then publicly announce, would, I guess, the advice that I was given was, I guess, it wouldn’t be blind anymore, would it?”

It might have been nice if Ball had actually taken the time to look up the definition of a blind trust:

“A financial arrangement in which a person in public office gives the administration of private business interests to an independent trust in order to prevent conflict of interest. Under the trust, the owner does not know how the assets are managed.

Being a “blind” trust has absolutely nothing to do with who knows who is managing the business interests and the fact that the premier didn’t know this is alarming. During the election campaign in 2015 Ball committed to being open and transparent when asked about blind trusts and promised to do whatever was necessary to strengthen legislation regarding conflicts of interest. Ball holds interests in at least 16 companies, several of which have involvement with government, which is why it is essential that he adheres to the guidelines outlined in legislation. Some people agree with the practice of using blind trusts, while others firmly believe that all government members should have to divest themselves of any business interests that put them in a conflict of interest before sitting in the legislature.

It is very hard to believe that a husband or a cousin or a son in law would be able to properly keep business dealings hidden and that no conversations will occur at family dinners or get togethers.
While most people would agree that blind trusts are necessary to keep business dealings at arm's length from ministerial duties, many people feel they are little more than see-through “venetian blind trusts,” that sound good, but are not very effective at accomplishing their main goal or instilling confidence in the public that no back-door deals are being done to benefit business interests.

Back to the main point at hand, while it is great that Ball and his ministers have been able to get their holdings into their respective blind trusts, the fact that the taxpayer must foot the bill for the establishment of these trusts should be an outrage to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m sure that if Premier Ball wants to retain his business holdings, that the expenses related to establishing and administering his trust should be his responsibility. Nobody should begrudge the premier or any other minister for any success they have had in their personal careers, but when they made the choice to run for public life they should have accepted the costs of establishing their respective trusts as the cost of doing business.

After nearly a year and a half of hearing Dwight Ball talk about our dire financial situation, learning that we paid $42 900 to establish his blind trust is beyond bad optics. Ball spent over $200 000 out of his own pocket during the Liberal leadership campaign in 2013 but the overburdened taxpayer is expected to pick up the tab for his blind trust? It doesn’t sit well with this blogger and I’m willing to bet that it is not going to sit well with very many voters when the information gets out to the public.

While this may have been acceptable behaviour in the past, this government has made it very clear that times are tough and things need to change. Maybe before they close any libraries or raise any more fees they should look at how much money is being spent on absurd entitlements like this on the taxpayer’s dime. If Dwight Ball really wanted to be a leader, he would lead by example and pay back the $42 900. Anything less is an insult to all of the people who are being burdened with over 300 new taxes and fees and being told that we all need to do our part.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

By: Ryan Young

I had the pleasure of speaking at a public forum on electoral reform last week that was hosted by Democracy Alert, a local group committed to restoring participatory democracy through education, engagement, & electoral reform. I had been meeting with this small dedicated group of individuals for the past year, anxiously awaiting the federal plan, and thinking about how to bring reform to Newfoundland & Labrador. Last weeks’ forum was the first of many events that Democracy Alert is planning to engage people and educate them on the value of changing our electoral system.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke his promise on electoral reform in February, it was a blow to the many people across the country who had dedicated their time and effort into reforming our electoral system. Trudeau had campaigned heavily on making 2015 the last election that would be held under the current first past the post system. In fact, Trudeau was so committed to electoral reform that he repeated his promise to deliver it more than 1800 times. Unfortunately, when the Prime Minister realized that his party was the beneficiary of a false majority that gave them 100% of power in parliament with just 39.5% of the vote, he decided to change his mind. When you consider that Trudeau’s reasoning for changing first past the post in the first place was because Stephen Harper‘s majority with 39.6% of the vote was unfair to Canadians, it makes the Prime Minister’s inaction on reform an even harder pill to swallow.

Many provinces were waiting to see what Ottawa would do on electoral reform before committing to any changes to their own systems. In the absence of any leadership from the feds, much of that discussion has stalled. NL, however, is a different story. We have a government and a premier with very low approval ratings and people are ready for a real change. In lieu of any actual productive debate in our House of Assembly, the two major parties have decided to play a 4-year long game of pass the buck. The blame game has gone on so long that it has become rather absurd, and many people have been wondering aloud if the problem is not actually the current crop of politicians, but rather the system that allows for such behaviour to become the norm.

This has encouraged the beginning of a conversation about changing the way we vote in this province, but there are still many questions to be answered and many challenges to overcome. The most important thing is making sure that the discussion is on the table and that people have an opportunity to express their views. There are many options on the table, but Newfoundland and Labrador is a unique place and will likely require a unique solution.

What System Do We Change to?

There are many reasons to change from first past the post, but the hardest part of enabling that change has always been deciding which type of system to change to. There are many different systems out there and many of them may seem complex to someone looking at them for the first time. Currently, over 85% of OCED nations use some form of proportional representation to elect their governments. Under a proportional system, seats in the legislature are awarded based on the number of votes that a party gets. In this way, every vote counts and our elected bodies are more representative of the wishes of the electorate.

Countries that use proportional representation often have coalition governments that force political parties to work together in the best interests of the people they represent. This is most evident when you look at the social and environmental legislation in PR countries. Things like pharma care, child care and well maintained transportation networks are commonplace under PR systems. Governments also tend to be more stable and voter turnouts are generally much higher.

There are many types of PR systems. Mixed-Member, Single Transferable Vote, Dual Member, and Proportional FPTP (a made in NL system) are all systems that work on the principle of proportionality. Unfortunately, it is the discussion of which mechanics to use that often derails the real merits of switching to PR. That is why Democracy Alert has proposed a bold new solution to this problem. They want to hold a referendum with a simple question attached to the next general election ballot. Keep first past the post or switch to proportional representation? The rationale is that by keeping the question simple and to the point, we can accurately find out if the majority of the people really do want to change from the current FPTP system. If FTPT wins, we keep the status quo, and if PR wins then we give that mandate to the new governing party to come up with the system that best meets our province. The best way to decide would be to hold a citizen’s assembly to determine which system to use moving forward.

Do We Have Other Options?

Many people have been talking about the idea of running all independent candidates in the next election. This idea is borne from the idea that our party system is broken and that our 2 parties are just a revolving door of the same types of people serving the same interests. While electing a majority of independents would certainly throw a wrench into any governing party trying to pass legislation, they would not actually be able to form a government under the laws of our current system.

Another possible option that is gaining popularity in some circles is a consensus style government such as those used in the northern territories. Under a consensus system, there are no parties. All candidates run as independents and the elected members vote to choose their premier and their cabinet. The remaining members serve as the opposition. There are many merits to this type of a system but some are skeptical that the people would be willing to make such a dramatic change away from the party system.

Starting the Conversation

I firmly believe that the only reason we don’t have more of a movement for electoral reform in this province is a lack of education. For one, most people don’t watch what goes on in the House of Assembly aka “The Sandbox,” and they don’t realize how ineffective our democratic institutions have become. Secondly, most people don’t realize the benefits of moving towards a different system. With the current political climate in this province, electoral reform is not getting enough attention as a solution to many of our problems with how our legislative branch currently functions. And lastly, kids don’t learn nearly enough about politics or democracy in our education system. Many young people are disengaged from politics and they don’t understand how their lack of involvement allows the current system to grossly under represent their needs.

In order to move the conversation about electoral reform forward we need to make a big push towards making the benefits known and engaging people to be active participants in their own destiny. The public is slowly waking up to the fact that standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option and that they will need to be the change that they want to see if they ever want to see a real difference in the way things are done.

Electoral reform is more than just an idea, it is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we “do” democracy in this province. It’s up to the people to decide if they want to continue under a system that allows things to operate as they are currently going or if they are willing to put their voice forward for a new way working together for a real “stronger tomorrow.”  So, let’s start the conversation around the kitchen table and on the wharf. Start it at your church or youth group or during a board meeting. Talk to a friend and ask them what they think or bring it up during your lunch break at work. The most important thing is that we start the conversation so that more people can get interested enough to find out for themselves if there is a real value in changing the way we vote. Our very future might depend on it.

If you are interested in finding out more about electoral reform and what you can do to get involved visit or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

By: Ryan Young

The ongoing feud between MUN administration and Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour Minister, Gerry Byrne, has continued to escalate over the past few weeks and it has many scratching their heads to why the minister is engaging in such a public battle with the university brass.

While MUN considers raising fees and tuition for students, Byrne has been critical of spending practices and what he calls a “culture of entitlement.” The governments position is that they would like to see the tuition freeze for NL students continue, and that the university can find efficiencies to offset cuts to their operating budget. The university says it has been cut to the bone and that the only way they can maintain the current level of service is to raise revenues. Caught in the middle of this heated debate are the students who are worried about paying more for their education.

At a town hall in St. John’s last week, a panel from the university painted a very bleak picture of the current state of the universities finances. One of the major issues was the state of the crumbling infrastructure on campus. The university is in big need of an upgrade but the money simply isn’t there. it would take $22.5 million a year for the next 15 years just to maintain the current infrastructure rating of 28.5% which is well below the MUN target of 12% which would bring it up to fair condition under the Facilities Condition Index guidelines. To reach the 12% goal would require an annual investment of $45 million for the next 15 years.

When the government cut MUN’s budget last year the university was able to offset the loss thanks to a $4 million provincial grant to preserve the tuition freeze, as well as additional savings through attrition and administrative cuts.  In Budget 2017 the government trimmed an other $3 million from MUN’s operating grant, bringing it down from $318 to $315 million annually. Byrne says he believes that MUN can absorb the cuts without raising tuition or compromising services to students, but the university maintains that it cannot reduce costs any further and will need to find new revenues to maintain the current level of service.

The discussion around revenues has centered around a 16.3% tuition increase for all undergraduate and graduate students as well as a new $450 campus improvement fee and a student services fee of $50 per semester. The university is also considering a differential tuition structure that would see graduate tuition rates vary by program and based on what the market can sustain. Many students believe that these increases will negatively impact their quality of life and education and they are hoping for the government to intervene and demand that the tuition freeze be preserved.

The latest spat between Byrne and MUN has been over discretionary spending. On Twitter this week, Byrne cited a $700 recruitment dinner as evidence of a culture of entitlement and suggested that before demanding more money from taxpayers and students, the university should reduce discretionary spending and disclose expenses. During an interview on the St. John’s Morning Show, host Anthony Germain did the math out to about $80 a head for the $700 dinner and asked Byrne if he had ever had an $80 dinner at the taxpayer’s expense during his 20-year career in politics. Byrne dodged the question, but went on to suggest that it would be acceptable to spend that kind of money on lavish visits to the university by heads of state, but not for the purposes of university business, such as attracting the right people to come and work at MUN.

I don’t disagree with Gerry Byrne that MUN can and needs to do a better job of managing its administrative and discretionary spending, but I do question if having this battle in the public eye is the best way to achieve the changes that are needed. During the interview with Anthony Germain, Byrne framed the situation as nothing more than a debate and suggested that to “ratchet down” the escalating tensions , the university needs to consider reducing expenses before it looks at raising revenues from students and that officials should go on Germain’s show to tell the public what he as minister has done wrong. I would suggest to the minister that a better way to address the issues at MUN would be to sit down with the university and work out a solution instead out berating them on social media and publicly challenging them during a morning talk show.

It is very clear that MUN is facing some significant challenges right now and unfortunately those issues are being undermined by a clash of personalities between the minister and those in charge of running the university. Caught in the crossfire are the students who don’t want to see their fees increased and are looking for some real leadership from the university and the government. Student’s want better facilities and services without having to pay more and they need their leaders to find a way to work together to find solutions that work in the best interests of everyone.

Maybe a more reasonable option would be for the minister to order an independent review of MUN’s finances and administration to get a clear picture of where bloat may exist and where real efficiencies can be found. That way, neither him nor the university would be able to point the finger of blame. It would be written in black an white in a report, with clear recommendations on how MUN should move forward. In this way, we could move past the political banter and create a strong foundation for MUN to not only remain a great university, but for it to improve and expand to become an even better destination for higher learning in the future.

We can no longer afford for such important matters to be dominated by personalities and distractions. Students don’t want to pay more to accommodate $700 recruitment dinners while they struggle to meet their most basic needs. They also don’t want their futures to be caught up in the middle of a spat between the university and the government, when the outcome could have a dramatic impact on their futures. Change is needed at MUN, but it needs to be change based on cooperation and communication and the best interest of students, and not to satisfy the egos of administration or members of government. The real way forward requires real leadership and unfortunately that seems to be in short supply. It’s time to put personalities aside and do what needs to be done in the best interests of our students and our province.

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Resignation of Bern Coffey

The Resignation of Bern Coffey

By: Ryan Young

The resignation of the provinces top bureaucrat sent shockwaves through the local political scene Sunday night. After days of controversy, Bern Coffey has stepped down from his position of Chief of the Executive Council. The move came after a flurry of criticism was aimed at both Coffey and the government when the public learned that Coffey was representing a client who was suing Nalcor through his private law practice.

Allegedly, there was an agreement made when Coffey was appointed last September that would allow him to finish off any existing cases at his practice, but that he would not take on any new ones. In his defense of Coffey, Premier Ball said that the work was being done in Coffey’s personal time and that he was confident that he would continue to work diligently on behalf of the people. It probably would have been a fair arrangement, except for the fact that one of Coffey’s clients is suing Nalcor, and by extension, the government. Despite Coffey’s claims that “Chinese Walls” have been put in place to assure that there is no conflict of interest, the whole situation has been perceived very negatively by the public.

With so many communications blunders already under his belt, you would think that Dwight Ball would have stopped to think about the implications of allowing his top bureaucrat, basically his right-hand man, to continue with a legal case against Nalcor. Even if the Chinese walls were working and there was no conflict of interest, for the sake of optics somebody should have put the brakes on, knowing that this would eventually come out and come back to bite them in the ass. Now that time has come and the province will lose the services of a very capable and hard-working member of the inner circle of government.

It is no secret that Bern Coffey was a Liberal. He ran for the party leadership in 2011 and was a frequent financial contributor to the party throughout the years. His appointment was called cronyism by the opposition due to his close party ties, but nobody argued that he was qualified for the clerks job. As a former member of the 2041 group, many had hoped that Coffey would be a strong voice in discussions surrounding the Muskrat Falls project. By all accounts he took his position as clerk very seriously and it is unfortunate that he is leaving under circumstances that could have been avoided with a little common sense and transparency.

These are the types of decisions that leave many to question Dwight Ball’s leadership ability. The premier has had a tendency to make rash decisions without thinking them through and has spent more time back-peddling than pushing his agenda forward.  A decision like this one though is really hard to fathom. How could Ball or any of his senior team have thought that allowing your top bureaucrat to sue you in his spare time was a good idea? The whole thing is completely absurd. As one colleague put it to me: “They either have to be dumb or they just don’t care.” I used to think it was the former but now I am leaning towards the latter. Maybe the cynics are right and the Liberals know their time at the trough will be short so they are making sure to fill it up as much as they can.

How many more people will need to resign from this government before it becomes clear that the real problems are coming from the very top. Dwight Ball has made a career out of playing “duck and cover politics” without ever actually saying anything at all, and now it is becoming all too clear that he lacks the leadership qualities needed to manage our government. As much as Coffey should have known better than to keep that case, or the one against Western Health that surfaced in a CBC story this morning, Ball and the government should have been clear that any litigation against government is off limits for someone in such a position of power and confidence. It will be interesting to hear what Dwight Ball has to say later today when he meets with the press and even more interesting to see how the premier addresses the issue in question period as the house reopens after Easter break.

No matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on, it is hard not to agree that this was a very bad decision by the premier, and Coffey’s ultimate resignation was the only way that this story could possibly end. There was no way the public could continue to have confidence in Coffey’s role, and one way or another his time needed to come to an end.  It’s an unfortunate end to an unfortunate story and one that showcases the lack of thought that has been given to the most important decisions made by our government. We keep waiting for them to get it right, but somehow, they always seem to get it wrong. It makes me think my colleagues question might be the right one to ask. Are they dumb, or do they just not care?