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?