The Premier's primer

Steve Bartlett
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Dunderdale declines comment on the 500-plus pages of notes that came with the top job

In this file photo, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale smiles as she takes her seat at a meeting of the Atlantic premiers in Sussex, N.B.— Photo by The Canadian Press

So, you’re suddenly named acting premier. It’s not an office you’ve aspired to, but you feel ready to rise to the challenge.

Still, despite years of cabinet experience, you know there’s an awful lot to learn.

To bring you up to speed, staff prepare briefing papers — lots of briefing papers.

Some 568 pages of notes were handed to Kathy Dunderdale last November and December as she was given the keys to the premier’s office.

The Telegram recently obtained the documents through an access to information request.

Most of the juicy stuff wasn’t released, with more than 220 full pages redacted or deleted, and varying portions of other pages blacked out. Disclosure would have broken cabinet confidence, harmed the government or a third party, or made personal information public.

Still, the hundreds of pages received provide insight into the homework that comes with the province’s top political job.

The papers are also a snapshot of the type and number of issues in front of the government at any given time.

The first things noted were the “benefits afforded to premiers.”

The job pays $72,409, on top of an MHA’s salary of $95,356.82, bringing the total to $167,765.82.

On top of that, being premier comes with a $20,000 housing allowance. It’s available in a lump sum or in payments. There’s also a car allowance.

As well, the environment minister can issue the premier, and some other select few, “game and fishing licences, badges, tags and seals, free of charge.”

The documents spell out the roles and responsibilities of various government offices. Most of this is protocol and process, and having been in cabinet since 2003, Dunderdale would have had a good grasp of it.

Among the most interesting tidbits in the notes is this: if the lieutenant-governor is unable to perform his duties, the chief justice can. Who knew?

The majority of the notes focus on issues. And there are many — more than 40 in fact — big and small, legal and legislative.

Some require direction and are called “decision notes.” There doesn’t appear to be anything earth-shattering in this list, but we’ll never know for sure — all the decisions required were redacted.

The major matters naturally include the Lower Churchill development.

“Several issues are at play from an environmental assessment, aboriginal consultation/land claim and federal support perspective and need to be followed closely,” the documents read.

No surprise — a lot of the details on the Lower Churchill file were censored because releasing them could harm intergovernmental relations or negotiations.

Minor issues in the briefing notes include the operating hours of the Motor Registration Division.

The province’s attempt to get AbitibiBowater to remediate sites where it operated is an example of some of the legal matters in the notes. (As The Telegram reported last week, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear that case Nov. 16.)

A review of the Public Tendering Act is among the legislative issues highlighted in the documents.

The papers also draw Dunderdale’s attention to a number of memos and directives.

Among them: the premier’s office has to approve all out-of-province travel.

The documents stack up in a pile as thick as a psychology textbook. Dunderdale declined an offer to discuss the briefing notes or the process of coming to grips with all that material.

“The premier won’t be commenting on either the benefits or the briefing notes,” a spokeswoman said.

However someone who’s been on a similar information roller-coaster was willing to talk about what it was like.

Roger Grimes became premier in February 2001 after winning a hotly contested leadership convention at the Mount Pearl Glacier.

“It’s considerable,” he says of the challenge of taking over the premier’s chair.

And so was the amount of briefing notes, says Grimes.

“It’s a matter of whether you want to spend the time to go through all of that in detail, which would take weeks, or whether you want to be fairly selective,” he says.

Grimes says he had confidence in long-standing ministers and senior officials. He chose to leave a lot of the minute details to their judgment and put his efforts into knowing as much as possible about a handful of key issues.

“You do have a significant amount of control and sway and you can decide to run it all yourself, which some people try to do, or you can try to rely on close allies and friends within the cabinet to carry a good part of the workload for you.”

Grimes was defeated by the Tory wave that carried Danny Williams to power and elected Dunderdale in 2003.

Dunderdale served two years as deputy premier before succeeding Williams.

Grimes, who was also a cabinet minister for years before taking the top job, thinks that experience would have given Dunderdale a good general grasp of issues.

“But she certainly wouldn’t have had intimate knowledge of all of the issues in all the departments,” he says.

He says the magnitude and enormity of getting up to speed and running the province can be daunting, but anyone who becomes premier understands that going in.

Grimes says Dunderdale has proven to be competent and capable so far.

“I don’t think anyone is suggesting she’s setting the world on fire, or she’s a great visionary, or the kind of leader that a Danny Williams was or a Brian Peckford was. She’s not that firebrand type of leader or a big nationalist who can get people to jump over the wharf or over the cliff into battle. But she certainly seems to have a level of competence in what she’s doing.”

Related stories on the perks of being premier, public tendering standards and briefing notes on Motor Vehicle hours are available in The Weekend edition of The Telegram.

Twitter: bartlett_steve

Organizations: The Premier, The Telegram, Supreme Court of Canada Tory

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Recent comments

  • John
    May 23, 2011 - 10:18

    I would like to think that the housing suppliment will NOT apply yo Mrs. Dunderdale as she apparently has a home in her district - at most a 10 minute drive to work even in traffic and that the transportation supplement will apply only to government business. We all have to get to work on our own, whether it be by car, bus or hoofing it. No reason why she should get a car supplement to get to work. Same goes for all the wildlife licences she has availablle free for the asking - let her pay for them same as anybody else has to.

  • Don
    May 21, 2011 - 10:01

    Good try Telegram. Do the Government documents reveal any proposed changes to the Public Tendering Act designed to reduce the huge number of non-tendered contracts that are awarded every year under the guise of being a single source supplier or emergency contract expenditures which cost the taxpayer millions of dollars every year in a form of political patronage slush fund enshrined in legislation? No? Not sure! You are clueless on that! Surprise! The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador wants to keep the media and the public clueless about what they are really up to. Nothing has changed since Dunderdale took over the shop. Most of the documents were deleted, redacted, blacked out or withheld from the media. Really? What kind of freedom of information process is this? What a farce! Why doesn't Dunderdale amend the name of the Freedom of Information Act to read The Protection of Secrecy over Government Documents Act and be done with it? You can get more information from the CIA, CSIS, MI6 and The Kremlin in Russia than you can from the Government of Newfoundland. That is nothing to be proud of! Corruption, incompetence and over expenditure of money can and does run rampant, unchecked and undetected in a Government like the one that operates Newfoundland and Labrador! That is the real story.

  • Keep it real
    May 21, 2011 - 06:52

    Before the usual suspects jump all over Grimes again, as is sport here, I am sure he was sought out for this interview and that it wasn't him chomping at the bit to be in the news again.

    • T. Sleeveen
      May 21, 2011 - 12:19

      You are wrong, the Giveaway Grimes media blita is priming for a comeback in the next election.