Wow. Joan Burke has really mellowed.
It doesn't seem like that long ago she was grilling potential candidates for the job of president of Memorial University and pressing them for their vision of the institution and its relationship with the provincial government.
A couple of years later, when she had been out of the education portfolio for awhile and then was shuffled back into it, she was so confident of her role that she didn't even need briefing notes, preferring instead to "drill down" into the workings of the department through verbal discussions with staff.
But these days, she doesn't seem to have the same bravado. She says she was intimidated by a nasty voice mail message from Liberal MHA Jim Bennett on her constituency office phone - the tone of which was admittedly bullying and bellicose - so much so that she could not bring herself to speak of it for weeks.
And now, instead of boldly plowing ahead with her duties as minister of the Department of Advanced Education and Skills, she has hired former auditor general and failed Conservative candidate John Noseworthy on a lucrative one-year contract to help her figure out how the department should run.
Without so much as holding a competition for the position!
What a missed opportunity. Imagine the interview questions she could have asked. These three questions, trotted out for the presidential candidates in relation to a new governance model for MUN, seem particularly apt in light of Noseworthy's momentous new responsibilities in helping put together a cohesive, streamlined government department: "How would you identify issues related to implementation? What might the barriers be and how would you overcome them? What factors would facilitate success?"
I'd love to hear the answers.
But alas, political appointments don't come in for the same level of scrutiny and transparency as the hiring of mere mortals.
In fact, Burke's brand new department was chastised, in a report of the acting auditor general in January, for just this very thing - having employees on the payroll who had never had to sit through a job competition.
This breaks the rules of the Public Service Commission.
As Telegram reporter Dan MacEachern reported on Jan. 26:
"While Public Service Commission policy allows for the hiring of temporary employees without a competition, there must be a competition held within 13 weeks. But the (acting auditor general's) review found that in more than three-quarters of the files - 32 instances - where employees were hired without competition, there was no competition held within the maximum 13 weeks, and all 32 received extensions from the department, ranging from seven weeks to 11 years."
In the wake of the report, the department promised to take a new approach.
And yet Noseworthy faced no competition for his new job, and ordinary citizens have no way of knowing if he was hired on merit or was being rewarded for his failed bid last fall for a seat in the House of Assembly, or both.
Here's how Burke defended his appointment in the House on Monday:
"Mr. Speaker, no one can argue that Mr. Noseworthy has a unique set of skills. He understands government, the programs of government, and the processes that we follow within government. We want to make sure that we have a department that is set up that helps us meet our mandate, Mr. Speaker, which is to ensure that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have the opportunity to participate in today's labour market in this province. We are at a point where we have never been before as a province. We need to make sure that the department is set up appropriately and that we make sure we channel the funds that we have within that department in the most appropriate manner."
She's right that no one would argue that Noseworthy has a great skill set, at least as an auditor general. Whether he knows much about "ensuring that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have the opportunity to participate in today's labour market" remains to be seen.
It's equally questionable whether paying a former auditor general $140,000 to come in after the fact and try to set up a department that has been up and running for six months is channelling funds in the most appropriate manner.
Particularly at a time when government departments are being examined for possible inefficiencies.
Burke used to like questions, so here are some Noseworthy's appointment has raised:
1) Can't the senior civil servants and the minister for the Department of Advanced Education and Skills figure out how to realign a government department? Don't their backgrounds and skill sets make them uniquely qualified?
2) Why didn't the government figure out how the new department would work before it was created? Wasn't there a blueprint for how the various divisions would dovetail?
3) Most importantly, why doesn't the government commit to holding all its appointments and new hires up to the same scrutiny as lesser-paid public servants who have to go through a job interview process?
What's that you say? It's called patronage?
Precisely. A tired old practice it's long past time we put the boots to.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton