Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Big Changes at St. John’s City Hall

Big Changes at St. John’s City Hall

By: Ryan Young

Yesterday was municipal election day in Newfoundland & Labrador. While perceived by many to be a dull affair, this year’s elections were anything but routine. I truly believe that our municipal elections are the only real example of democracy that exists in Canada today. At both the provincial and federal levels the game is ruled by party partisanship and access to donations, but in the municipal world, the politics are about as pure as you can get. Sure, there are many self-serving people that run for council, but at the end of the day the voters have all the say and democracy is served, for better or for worse.

The St. John’s race was particularly interesting for this bayman, who was participating in his first “townie” election after a very turbulent couple of years municipal politics. A very diverse set of candidates put themselves forward and nobody could predict the way things would go. Danny Breen beat out former mayor Andy Wells and newcomer Renee Sharpe for the Mayor’s chair with a fair majority from the 56% overall turnout. Breen, the former Ward 1 councillor, was expected to win, but at the end of the night he was one of the few “old guard” councillors that earned a return ticket to the chambers at city hall.

While Breen has been criticized at times for having close ties to the provincial PC party, and supporting Muskrat Falls, his experience and business connections made him the safe choice for mayor when compared to his opponents who each represented perceived extremes on the political spectrum. Many people I spoke with during the campaign felt that Andy Wells would emerge victorious, but in the end, the people of St. John’s decided that it was time for Andy to fade back into the shadows and handed the crown to Breen. Renee Sharpe finished third in the race, but I doubt we have seen the last of her. Sharpe’s campaign resonated with many voters who were fed up with the status quo, and she proved herself to be a smart and formidable candidate who should have a bright future ahead of her in politics at some level. The outcome may have been predictable, but the campaign was anything but. Some great ideas were put on the table that I hope the new council will embrace, moving forward.

With the rest of council, the people of St. John’s decided the city needed a new direction. That was evident in the results on Tuesday night. Former Ward 4 councillor, Sheilagh O’Leary won the race for Deputy Mayor, and only Ward 5 returned an incumbent councillor with Wally Collins emerging as the victor. Deanne Stapleton, Hope Jamieson, Jamie Korab, and Ian Froude were elected to council for the first time, in wards 1, 2, 3, & 4, respectively, representing a major shift in the local political landscape in the capital city.

The closest race was for the Councillors-At-Large. With 12 candidates vying for 4 seats, it was a close race that saw 3 incumbent councillors go down in defeat. The top vote getter was newcomer Maggie Burton, followed by Dave Lane, Sandy Hickman, & Debbie Hanlon, respectively. The loss of so many incumbent councillors really highlights the number of people in the city who believe that it is time for a change at city hall. The pressure now falls on those who were elected to live up to those expectations and shift the political compass of the city in a new direction.

5 women and 5 men were elected to council, (not including the mayor) with 5 new faces and the majority of elected candidates under the age of 35. Many of the new councillors have talked about making St. John’s a more progressive place to live, and it looks like the city could be in for some big changes in the way things are done. The people expressed their obvious displeasure with the actions of the old council in the best way they could, and they proved that democracy can work if enough people want change.

There were many great races across the province and I would like to congratulate everybody who participated in this year’s elections, either as a candidate, a volunteer, or a voter. Democracy can only work if people participate, and the only way to engage people is to offer them an opportunity for change and a belief that change can happen if they are willing to step outside of the box and consider a new way of thinking (and voting).

Many people think that democracy in this province is broken, and on many levels, that view is hard to argue with. But when it comes to the municipal elections, the effort put forth across the entire province yesterday just goes to show what can be accomplished when regular people become informed and engaged in local politics. It was a great election year, and I can only hope we will see the same kind of spirit and engagement when the next provincial elections come around in 2019 (or sooner).

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deceit or Incompetence?

Deceit or Incompetence?

By: Ryan Young

Last week I listened closely to Finance Minister, Tom Osborne, during a call with Paddy Daly on the VOCM Open Line show. Mr. Osborne spoke at length about how his government was ready to play hardball with Nalcor, and extricate answers about the project's finances from the board and/or CEO Stan Marshall. At certain points during the conversation, the new minister sounded quite a bit like the old minister, and the tough talk that she had for Nalcor on Budget day 2016. We have heard plenty of tough talk since the Liberals took office in late 2015, but what do we really have to show for it, and what has changed?

More and more people are waking up to the monumental mismanagement and possible corruption afoot within the Muskrat Falls project. Our government, on the other hand, seems to be working as hard as ever to misdirect the public and ensure that the project is finished without the taxpayers ever knowing what really happened to all of that money. The Liberal’s are happy to keep themselves hitched to the “previous administration” bandwagon, feigning ignorance and blaming the old government for everything wrong with the project. Unfortunately, nobody on team red seems to realize that by playing dumb, they are leading the public to believe that they are really as incompetent as the opposition says they are.

The most telling part of Minister Osborne’s VOCM conversation was when he told Mr. Daly that he was in the presence of the premier when he learned about the massive cost of embedded contractors being used by Nalcor. He claimed the premier was upset about the lack of transparency regarding the use of these contractors, and told us that Ball is committed to a public inquiry on Muskrat Falls. The question he didn’t answer, however, was did the CEO, the Minister of Natural Resources, and/or the Premier know about the extent of the use of these contractors before James McLeod broke the story in The Telegram?

The Liberals have been in power for nearly 2 years. They have brought in a new CEO and Board of Directors for Nalcor, they have claimed to have beefed up government oversight of the project, and they have paid millions of dollars to Ernst and Young to study and report on the finances of Muskrat Falls. They publicly claim that the administration knew nothing about the project management team being made up of 90% contractors or that they had billed Nalcor for $4.6 million hours of work. By telling us that the government was in the dark on this issue proves one of two things. Either our government is directly lying to us about Muskrat Falls or they are so completely incompetent, that in 2 years they have not even managed to identify this glaring issue on their own.

While most people could easily latch-on to the incompetence theory, it is quite unlikely that nobody in the decision-making process was aware of the billing free-for-all that was going on right under their noses. Despite what Ball might be spinning to the public, the issue of embedded contractors seemed to be passing the small test just fine until someone in the media remembered how to do some investigative journalism.

So where does that leave us? Mere hours after the backlash from The Telegram story began to bombard government, Ball announced that a Muskrat Falls inquiry would happen, and that he had reached out to the various departments for help in drafting the terms of reference. While that is great news on the surface, as Uncle Gnarley and others have pointed out, ordering an inquiry before a complete forensic audit of the project is completed is rather like putting the cart before the horse. The other concern many have about a possible inquiry, is that if the leadership group was telling the truth about their lack of knowledge and understanding of the project finances, then how can we trust them to draft terms of reference that will actually reveal the truth about Muskrat Falls?

I’d really like to believe the premier when he says that he and his government are committed to getting to the bottom of the Muskrat money pit, but words are just that, words, and actions speak so much louder. Take for instance the Ball’s concern over the standoff at the Muskrat camp and  the three hunger strikers from Labrador that forced the government's hand last fall. After a marathon meeting with indigenous leaders, a deal was reached in which further mitigation measures were promised. In a letter from the Nunatsiavut government that was released yesterday, President Johannes Lampe made it very clear that after several meetings with government and Nalcor, those promises of additional mitigation measures will not be honored.

Ball stood in front of reporters after the meeting last fall and told the province that the meeting was about one thing, the health of Labradoreans. He also said that going forward, their decisions would be based on science and research and that his government was committed to working with aboriginal leaders and that he was “confident” that they could achieve the goals that were outlined in the agreement.

While a big to-do was made about a chair being appointed and terms of reference drafted for the promised independent expert advisory council (IEAC), it was made very clear from Lampe’s letter that there was never any intention of lowering water levels so that additional mitigation measures could proceed. Indigenous leaders were told during a meeting with the premier and other provincial officials on September 6th that water levels in the reservoir would be raised to 25m this fall, and once they reached that point they would not be lowered again.

Dwight Ball already has a huge credibility problem. He has failed to be honest with the people of this province at every opportunity. Despite their best efforts of getting out in the media and telling people they are going to do something positive, they can’t hide from their record, and the revelations brought forth by Johannes Lampe just further prove that this premier will say anything to ensure that Muskrat Falls goes ahead.

Deceit or pure incompetence? Either way, Ball and his government seem to be willing to throw away every shred of their credibility in order to deliberately mislead the people of this province about Muskrat Falls. The real question is: How long will we, the people, continue to stand for it?

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Politics as Usual

Politics as Usual

By: Ryan Young

When I decided to take a summer hiatus from all things politics, I made the decision because I found I was becoming a very angry person. Every time I checked the news or my social media feed there seemed to be another story revolving around arrogant MHA’s and/or incompetent ministers.  Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am very far from a naturally angry person, so I decided to take a break to try to find some balance in my life.

The break did wonders for my spirit, but no matter how much I tried to avoid reading, writing, or talking about politics, it was damn near impossible to keep a blind eye to everything that has been happening in our provincial political whirlwind. Oh, to be a sheep…

A lot happened over the summer. So many stories to read and mull over. The biggest story of the summer may have been the cabinet shuffle that was triggered when Cathy Bennett decided that being finance minister was not what she thought it would be. Other than replacing her with former Speaker of the House, Tom Osborne, the shuffle didn’t really do much to encourage the public that things would improve much in her absence. After all, it is still all of the same monkey’s running the same circus.

Tom Osborne may be the only bright spot in the shuffle, promising a tax review and some possible relief to come from the more than 300 additional taxes and fees that his government brought in with their 2016 budget. Many applauded Osborne’s new position within cabinet, but he certainly has his work cut out for him in cleaning up the mess Bennett and Ball have left him.

Gerry Byrne was sworn in as the new fisheries minister and quickly took a hard line in front of the TV cameras, but the fishery is still very much in turmoil, and other than his TV tough talk, Byrne has not delivered anything concrete to convince fish harvesters and processors in this province that there is a future for them in this government’s plans. People want real answers and all Byrne has had to offer is platitudes. He certainly does not seem like the kind of minister that would be willing to go toe-to-toe with his former federal colleague in Ottawa, which unfortunately is exactly what our fishery needs. I wouldn’t expect any major action on the fisheries file unless Uncle Ottawa says so, and that is about as likely as Gerry Byrne speaking up when there are no TV cameras in the room.

Eddie Joyce has managed to allow a complete fiasco to unfold in the town of Witless Bay, where a former councillor was forced to resign from his position on council over fraudulent residency claims, and just a few weeks later was allowed to run again and be acclaimed to the new town council. Joyce assured residents that the issue would be resolved by the fall elections, and has yet to comment on the acclimation of the Witless Bay Town Council and allegations of election fraud being put forth by residents of the community. The town has not had a functioning council in months and one can only assume that the current goings-on will not be beneficial to the town, moving forward.

Dale Kirby has continued to prove that he has no trouble at all in abandoning the oath he swore when he became an MHA and a minister in cabinet. New childcare regulations have sparked the ire of the industry and an ongoing battle of words with school board trustees and concerned parents about the fate of Mobile Central High has put the minister back in the hot seat. Most recently, a post circulated on Facebook that showed a conversation between Kirby and a constituent who was asking legitimate questions about education for hearing impaired students. Kirby’s response was to block her. It really makes you wonder about the quality of our government when the premier offers “total confidence” in a man who would act this way in his position. Kirby has done nothing but create barriers and destroy professional relationships and yet he is still allowed to be in charge of decisions that directly affect our most valuable resource of all, our children. It really makes you scratch your head…

Oh, and then there is ole Dwight himself. The man, the legend. The premier who will probably be remembered as the worst of a very bad lot of grinning shyster’s who managed to play our eternal saviour complex just well enough to land himself in the premier’s chair. Since The Telegram revealed that 4.6 million hours have been billed by embedded contractors working for Nalcor, Ball has hinted for the first time that a Muskrat Falls inquiry could be in the works. The premier says he has reached out for advice on the terms of reference, but very few people that I have spoken with have confidence that the inquiry will have any teeth. The terms of reference need to very broad in scope and the inquiry needs to be run by someone with integrity and who has no connection to the current or previous administration. Likely the only way that will happen is if someone is brought in from outside the province, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that either.

I could use many more examples, but what is the point? The media either ignores or can’t be bothered to do any real investigative journalism anymore, and we lap it up like fresh kibble after a week-long fast. The only truth that most people ever get to see is the filtered tidbits that they are fed daily, with no real insight into what is actually happening in our province. If the people ever want to see things change, they need to be the catalyst that start that change. Sadly, there seems to be little will outside of a handful of “known critics” and “nay-sayers” to actually drive any sort of meaningful change for our future. It often makes me wonder what it will take before people finally wake up and wonder how we let this happen. My prediction is that it will come for many right around the same time their electricity bills double to pay for Muskrat Falls. In the meantime, It’s all just politics as usual in Newfoundland and Labrador.