Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Dwight Ball sends positive signals to the public service

Just two hours after being sworn in as premier, Dwight Ball sent an email to every government employee that was far more than just a small gesture, writes David Cochrane.
Soon after being sworn in as premier Monday, Dwight Ball sent a memo to the public service. (CBC)

Just two hours after being sworn in as the province's 13th premier, Dwight Ball sent an email to every government employee.

"I have long held public employees in the highest regard," Ball wrote.

"I know that some of the brightest, most hard-working Newfoundlanders and Labradorians work in the public service, and we are all better for the contributions you make."

It was a small gesture. But one that built upon a string of moves that has won praise from senior public servants eager to see some clear direction from the new government. 

The past few years have been difficult ones for the public service.

The constant turnover — from Kathy Dunderdale to Tom Marshall to Frank Coleman back to Marshall and finally to Paul Davis —made it hard for the public service to develop and execute priorities.

How policy gets made

Bureaucrats complain that policy-making was almost entirely reactive. It was driven by politicians and political staff, whose priorities seemed to change endlessly.

It was a disjointed mess as the political survival of a struggling government trumped proper public policy development. One senior civil servant complained that, in the end, every policy calculation came down to "can this win us votes?"

Edward Roberts helped lead the transition team as the Liberals prepared to take control of government. (CBC)

The PCs became a government that didn't know what it wanted to do except hold on to power. 

The first flicker of hope for senior civil servants came when Ball announced his transition team. Two names immediately jumped out — Ed Roberts and Gary Norris.

Roberts, the former lieutenant governor, cabinet minister and Liberal leader, brought instant credibility to the process. But Norris's appointment is what caused a stir.

Norris spent more than three decades as one of the province's top civil servants — including time as the top civil servant, as clerk of the Executive Council.

Norris has been out of government for several years (most recently working in the mining sector with Alderon) but his presence on the transition team was seen as a signal that Ball "wants to get the bureaucracy right."

This sentiment was further bolstered when Ball announced the senior staff for the Premier's Office. The bulk of them are political staffers who ran the opposition office or held key roles in the election campaign.

But the surprise addition was deputy chief of staff Tim Murphy — another long time civil servant who most recently worked in the oilpatch for Chevron.  

Murphy spent 20 years in the civil service. He was a former deputy clerk of the executive council (the number two civil servant) and associate secretary to cabinet. He also worked in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa.

The Liberals won the election. But they are woefully thin on governing experience. Murphy brings that skill set to the eighth floor. 

Evidence-based decision-making

It has all been interpreted positively by the senior civil servants I spoke with. Especially when those moves are stacked with Ball's campaign promises of evidence-based decision-making and to bring stability to cabinet by ending the practice of frequent shuffles, thereby leaving ministers in place long enough to build command of their portfolios. 

Newly sworn in Premier Dwight Ball speaks with CBC's Peter Cowan in his new office at Confederation Building Monday 1:55

Ball also backed up that last point when he unveiled his first cabinet on Monday. Obviously, politics plays a role in cabinet-making.

But for many of the appointments there is a clear link between the new minister's skill sets and the portfolio they were given. 

The most obvious example of that is Perry Trimper. The MHA for Lake Melville is a political rookie but a scientist with an environmental background. He was appointed environment minister over more experienced MHAs from Labrador.

Perry Trimper, a political rookie who was elected in Lake Meville, is minister of environment and conservation. (CBC)

That move may upset some people. But can anyone in caucus really claim to have a better resume for that particular job?

It has been a thoughtful and prudent start for Premier Ball. But there are big challenges ahead.

On Dec. 22, Finance Minister Cathy Bennett will deliver the long-awaited fiscal update, expected to show a ballooning deficit in the neighbourhood of $1.8 billion.

Next spring, the contracts for the large public sector unions are all set to expire, meaning tough negotiations in an era of low oil and high debt.

Ball will have to tackle all of it while somehow sticking by his election promise of no cuts and no layoffs. 

The immediate reaction from the civil service has been largely positive during the initial transition.

But that could quickly change, depending on how Ball handles those initial challenges. 

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.