A strange choice

Russell Wangersky
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I’ve waited a few weeks to write about this, just in case I decided to reconsider.

I was on vacation when it happened, my mind a thousand miles away from work, when I tripped over the fact that the Liberal Party had chosen Kevin Aylward to lead that party into the next provincial election. My mind was far from the job, more taken with what felt like the first sun I’d felt on my skin all summer and my eyes chattered over the front page of this newspaper without fully latching onto the words.

I spend a fair amount of time on provincial politics, and I was completely gobsmacked by the choice. In fact, when I saw the news first, I thought I had misread it. They wouldn’t — they couldn’t — they didn’t — they did? I know this is harsh and that it comes mere weeks from a provincial election, but I still have trouble understanding the choice.

Capable politician

I say this not because Aylward isn’t a capable politician — he certainly is that, and more. You don’t get to spend 18 years as a consistently elected provincial politician if you don’t have the tools, the skills and the smarts.

 And in some ways, Aylward might be exactly what the party needs: an experienced political operator who can pick up the levers of the party quickly and call in old support for what looks an awful lot like a sacrificial election.

But the key word is “old” — by making the choice, the executive of the Liberal Party has taken one small step forward and one full decade backwards.

In some ways — and I’m dating myself here — it’s like having Eugene Whalen picked to run a post-Trudeau federal Liberal party.

Problem is, the Liberals seem to have forgotten — and maybe the public has, too — that Aylward comes with a load of baggage.

An entire baggage-car full, to be precise.

Aylward started in politics at 24 and spent plenty of time in government. In fact, by the time he “retired” at the age of 42, he was firmly ensconced in what you could safely call “the entitlement years” Liberals: they saw themselves as the natural governing party for this province and treated the public and everyone else accordingly. Interviewing cabinet ministers was like talking to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s version of Marie Antoinette: “The people are complaining about the lack of services? Let them eat cake.”

It’s a time that people writing letters to the editor and open line phone-in callers still cite with fair regularity — and equal amounts of disgust.

Poster child

Aylward was also a poster-boy of a different kind: the youngest of a slew of retiring Liberals, he was the focal point for reporters calculating how much departing Liberals would soak up in pension benefits. The calculations? That, by himself, Aylward would receive $1.5 million in pension benefits before he even reached the retirement age of 65, including $67,000 in severance payments and a pension of close to $67,000 a year. (Keep in mind that MHAs put in a mere fraction in pension contributions compared to the wheelbarrow-loads they haul out of a perpetually bankrupt fund that’s bankrolled by every other taxpayer. A former cabinet minister who serves for 10 years essentially exhausts all of his or her pension contributions after only about 15 months of collecting a pension.)

Larger issue

But that’s just the beginning: Aylward was also at the centre of one of the darkest times of Newfoundland’s modern politics. In addition to his cabinet post, Aylward was one of the seven politicians who sat on the province’s shadowy Internal Economy Commission (IEC) in 2000. During that time, the IEC — operating almost completely without public oversight — decided to remove the provincial auditor general from auditing the House of Assembly’s financial records and allowed MHA expense claims to be approved without full documentation.

Those two decisions spawned what would later be known as the constituency allowance spending scandal — a scandal that touched Aylward himself when the auditor general was brought back into the MHA accounts, and Aylward was found by the auditor to have double-billed the provincial government for $16,727, and for billing the province for $5,888 of personal expenses.

It’s hard to understand, then, why Aylward was the first choice.

Perhaps the Liberals on the executive of the party felt that people would forget the missteps of the past. Perhaps, as they weighed the choices, they couldn’t find anyone who could step into the role as quickly or as well. Perhaps they were afraid of new faces and the risks of pulling in a leader with an unknown history and the possibility of past missteps, so they chose a candidate with a known history instead.

Aylward left his seat saying that it was the right time and more particularly, that it was time for the party to seek out new faces and new skills.

“It was time to do this, after 18 years,” he said. “This clears the decks for the leader and the party to search out candidates ... I think that’s going to be helpful to the rejuvenation that’s underway.”

New faces?

You know what?

More than eight years later, Aylward is still right about that.

Which makes his selection as the Liberals’ new leader all the harder to comprehend.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Liberal Party, IEC, Economy Commission The Telegram

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • The way politicians are hired need to be reformed
    September 14, 2011 - 09:08

    Did anyone reading these commentaries see Rick's Mercers Report last evening, and particularly his rant on political activists, those who are brown nosers and will do anything to get in the good graces of the politicians' books once they are elected? Rick referred to them as the ones who put up the signs and do the menial tasks for politicians? He rightfully called those people vile, I say that because they are part of the problem of non-transparency in politics. These so-called groupies of the politicians do these chores with the hope of getting political contracts and appointments, and whatever other goodies the politicians can get when they are elected to power to hand out to these slime balls, and they then, in turn, keep things very opaque for the politicians. That is the reason why for 62 years so much corruption has taken place in Newfoundland and Labrador, especially as it relates to our natural resources being given with no benefit to our province economically, with hardly anyone in the general electorate knowing what was going on. These political activists are not only vile, they are disgusting and the jobs they do should become redundant. The government should reform the system so that we don't have the Gestapo looking after the wrong doings of politicians.

  • Doug Smith
    September 13, 2011 - 18:08

    Mr. "Anonymity Can Be Necessary", sadly you seem in dire need of a life lesson, so here it is. Respect, is only earned, it can never be given, no matter how much we love or like a person. For example, I have always detested the Montreal Canadiens, however I was forced to respect their hockey abilities because they won so many times. Anyone who lacks the fortitude to sign their name to their writings has the unhappy result of their comments lacking credability just like their author. As regards what party I support, I have voted for all three at one time or other. Your last point about Jack Harris and an allowance scandal, maybe. He is a media "darling", so I wouldn't count on any information coming from that source.

  • Anonymity can be necessary
    September 13, 2011 - 10:42

    @Doug Smith, to discount somebody's comments because the author wrote them anonymously is both foolish and short sighted. Some people have jobs (I.e. Provincial Government jobs) where political opinions and partisan activity especially around this time of year is frowned upon. Not sure if you're PC or NDP but should you be the latter, you should be aware that the only NDP MHA at the time (Jack Harris, now MP) had his own spending allowance "scandal." Not sure as to the amount. Perhaps Wangersky can jump on and inform us.

  • Laws governing pilfering politicians need to be enacted RIGHT NOW
    September 12, 2011 - 11:41

    We shouldn't have to preclude anyone from running for any of the political parties, all we need are policies to preclude sticky finger politicians from robbing our province and its electorate blind, as what happened over the past 62 years under the Canadian Confederation. I can't believe the deficient accounting system that was in place, in our province, overseeing what politicians did with over tax dollars and the disbursement of our natural resource base for the benefit of others. We need a much more rigorous accounting system put in place to govern those would-be pilferers from doing as they please with the people's resources. Premier Dunderdale please do what is right and close all the loopholes, hire a set of honest accountants and auditors to oversee matters. IF such systems were in place, in the past, we could have been the primary beneficiary of all of our great resources that are now shipped out of here, which would have added Billions and Billions and Billions of dollars annually THROUGH THE GREAT ECONOMIES THAT WERE CREATED to the other provinces' economies, instead those same Billions and Billions and Billions of dollars and great economies would have been added to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Our province would have been the top economic driver in Canada, and look at the self-esteem we could have had. We all know we were also stripped of our self-esteem from the ungateful provinces that were on the receiving end of our natural resources. IT HAS GOT TO BE NIPPED IN THE BUD RIGHT NOW, NOT ONE DAY LATER. There is no place for CORRUPTION in this World.

  • Doug Smith
    September 12, 2011 - 09:36

    I agree with Mr. Wangersky's article except where he says, "...Aylward might be exactly what the party needs..." For the Liberal Party to pick someone from the past who was deeply involved in the constituency allowance spending scandal sends the message that the Liberal Party has no respect for the people and the people's money. As for the comments of the writer, ``Wangersky Is A Joke`` , no one should give your comments a second thought since you didn`t even have the strength of character to sign your name but hid behind a slogan. Are you really such a jellyfish or is this something from the Liberal Party hiding behind an operative.

  • JT
    September 12, 2011 - 09:35

    It is unfortunate that a Shioban Coady or Paul Antle didn't take a run at the job. The Liberals have been reduced to retreads and has beens.

    • Bob
      September 12, 2011 - 13:40

      Coady and Antle are already retreads and has beens. Any more genius suggestions?

  • Wow
    September 11, 2011 - 19:34

    This is funny. The same commentators here pile on when it's a column or editorial bashing the government but bash the Liberal's choice of Aylward and they fall back into Danny-hate mode and make excuses for Aylward. Yep, it looks like it's going to be many more years of PC rule if the Liberals refuse to take a serious look at themselves and bad decisions they continue to make.

  • Randy
    September 11, 2011 - 10:03

    Aylward "double-billed the provincial government for $16,727, and for billing the province for $5,888 of personal expenses." That behavior is typical of these old boy club entitlement Liberals. Let's pray this crowd doesn't win a single seat.

  • Laws governing pilfering politicians need to be enacted ASAP
    September 11, 2011 - 08:54

    Why are we talking here that politicians might go back to their old ways of stealing from the people of our province, as in the past? Good God, don't we have a rule of Law where this type of Corruption is outlawed in the Terms of the Constitution that governs the behaviour of a politician, if not Premier Dunderdale please enact a Law governing Corruption right this very moment. We cannot stand by and have our natural resources and our tax dollars pilfered any longer by politicians with sticky fingers, who only get into politics for their own personal economy and not for creating a vibrant economy for the electorate whom those sticky finger politicians pledged to do what was right in the first place. Yes for Cripes sake get the laws enacted to stop it immediately!!!!!!!! Mr. Wangersky please write the appropriate column to put the suggestion to our Premier. It seems like if there is no law governing the pilfering of our resources and our tax dollars, it will not stop otherwise.

  • Cyril Rogers
    September 11, 2011 - 00:46

    Thanks to Danny Williams....the electoral choices of this province are in a sorry state! He built a wall of invincibility around himself, aided in no small part by an electorate who felt he could do no wrong. While Mr. Williams accomplished some things, I believe his accomplishment have been exaggerated to the detriment of all political parties. He left a very weak group in his own party, many of whom won election on his coattails. They are floundering in terms of real leadership and real vision, but Danny's halo still shines and props up a party that has come to think of itself as the new "natural governing party", as Mr. Wangersky accused the former Liberal administration of being. The opposition parties certainly have significant issues but we delude ourselves if we think that it is healthy for democracy to elect one group to the House with an overwhelming majority. If the polls are correct, the PC's will roll over their opponents to the detriment of this province. The PC's don't listen to anyone nowadays and have an urban agenda, despite their protestations. They are killing rural areas with "death by a thousand cuts", to paraphrase the bard. Who will stop them if there is no opposition? What are they doing to revive our greatest renewable resource - the fishery? Like Nero, they wring their hands and fiddle while the fishery dies!! Mr. Wangersky would be well-advised to conduct an editorial panel interview to hear what Mr. Aylward and Ms Michael have to say before he pronounces his final judgement. The Telegram owes it to the people of this province to give the opposition every opportunity to counteract the PC barrage of announcements. They are at a severe disadvantage simply by the lack of support from business, so how else can their platforms be heard?

  • stanley
    September 10, 2011 - 17:37

    Aylward is only there for two or three years, and will step aside if Dean MacDonald decides to take over the leadership. Bern Coffey was not chosing because the executive was not sure if he would step aside for Dean. Alyward was hand picked by 20 liberals to keep the seat warm for the real leader.

  • Wangersky is a Joke
    September 10, 2011 - 15:53

    Funny how Wangersky and the other commenters forgot to mention that Aylward will put his pension on hold should he get elected. He goes back to his MHA salary (which granted as Leader will be higher than other non-minister MHA's) however he could have chosen to keep his pension and make much more in private industry. As for the spending scandal, the reason people can't remember much about Aylward's involvement is because his spending was insignificant compared to other MHA's (yes, including PC's). He was elected for 19 years and his big scandal was $17,000 over that time? That 17,000 was the cause of administration errors on the part of his staff which he paid off immediately. Perhaps he should have hired more competent people but he was busy representing his district proudly and getting elected for five terms as a result. As for the NDP commenters here, why are you wasting time going after Liberals? Surely, Dunderdale with her astronomical approval rating would be a better target?

    • Bob
      September 11, 2011 - 19:52

      You're not dumb enough to believe this "administrative staff" garbage are you? On second thought perhaps you are. All these people are well versed in what's going on and you're out to lunch if you think otherwise.

    • Not sure
      September 12, 2011 - 07:53

      I don't think you can draw a public pension and draw salary from the public purse at the same time. If Aylward is giving up the the opportunity ' to keep his pension and make much more in private industry ' then it's because he wasn't making as much in the private sector.

  • Skeptical Cynic
    September 10, 2011 - 12:20

    Thanks to Danny Williams, the kind of politics as practised by the likes of Aylward and his ilk has hopefully been permanently consigned to the dustbins of NL politcial history. When the oppostion parties realize that the traditionally cynical politics of entitlement is no longer acceptable to a much more sophisticated NL electorate, perhaps they will then begin a serious attempt to source out viable candidates to offer to the electorate.

    • Not much has changed
      September 10, 2011 - 12:57

      Half of Danny Williams' caucus are recipients of the very same MHA allowance scheme. All of them (including Danny Williams) are in on the same pension plan.

    • Shannon Reardon
      September 12, 2011 - 19:24

      Oh really? Look at his letter, drafted the DAY BEFORE he left office, for the job he lined up for Elizabeth Matthews.

  • Ask politicians who visit what their expectations are for Entitlements
    September 10, 2011 - 11:36

    Yes, Russel, indeed, Thanks for the information on Mr. Aylward, I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew at all the info you put forth in this column. Now how are we going to handle this information, since I can only assume that Mr. Aylward possesses the same sense of Entitlement he had during his last tenure in politics? Are we going to trust this man to run the province if he gets elected? We always have had the fox running the henhouse on the political scene in our province. They have alwys had this strong sense of Entitlement that they have to develop one of the people's natural resources as a Legacy for themselves, where they give away the raw resource for another jurisdiction to surviveeconomically and only God knows what kind of deal they work out for themselves from the proceeds the province should be getting. I want nothing less than an squeaky clean, honest Government this time around, so maybe we should Elect a NDP leader, at least, we know we are getting somebody who isn't contaminated and we can guide her into practising honest governance. In the meantime we have to ask everyone of the politicians who are running for one of the 48 seats a question on are they willining to work for the great pay cheque they receive for being a MHA or are they going to be looking for other ways of getting at taxpayers dollars? I want every Newfoundlander and Labradorian to put that question to every politician who comes to our door looking for our vote. I would like to see Mr. Aylward respond in a letter to this paper on what you have said in your column Mr. Wangersky. Now I am very doubtful and apprehensive about putting my X forth for anyone at all.

  • Liberal No more
    September 10, 2011 - 08:58

    I've had enough of this party, they're taking in tory rejects and old liberals that brought this party down. Now we have Aylward back as our unelected leader, a man from the old school, only experienced as junior minister, the guy who backed Paul (Mr. Entitlements)Dicks to be Premier. I want to puke.

  • Bob
    September 10, 2011 - 08:19

    Thank you, thank you Russell. I knew those lavish frikkin' benefits for Aylward were out there but memory just wouldn't kick in the numbers. Actually the Liberals would have been hard pressed to find anyone in the Aylward era whose rougish behaviour didn't garner them equal spoils. Now, if only the NDP would field some credible candidates it will at least send me to the polls.