Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Four lessons from Barry Penner's departure

Four thoughts on Barry Penner's resignation as attorney general and retirement from politics.

First, there's something wrong with any system that expects politicians - or anyone - to work constantly.

Penner said he's leaving politics because he wants to spend time with his wife and six-month-old daughter, and a cabinet post makes that impossible. "I was supposed to be on holiday the last two weeks," he said. "And I think I got maybe one-and-a-half days . because of urgent issues in the ministry that had to be attended to."

BlackBerries are always buzzing and crises emerging.

Really, a cabinet minister should be able to go away for two weeks, and even take most weekends off. Real emergencies are rare. Most decisions don't have to be made instantly, and perhaps shouldn't be. Not every political issue demands immediate action.

But organizations can easily slip into phony crisis mode, where people compete to be busiest.

For example, if an article troubling to the government appears in the Times Colonist on a Saturday, the offended ministry often springs into action and fires off an email letter to the editor, supposedly from the minister, the same day or on Sunday. At least a few people's weekends are ruined.

But it's pointless. No one at the newspaper looks at emailed letters to the editor until Monday morning.

There isn't a newspaper until Tuesday.

There is no reason for the panic or the weekend work, except a desire to look busy or important.

Worse, it's unlikely we get good decisions from ministers constantly frazzled and overloaded and rushing from meeting to meeting, half-listening to staff while they scroll through emails. It's tough to think, or read, or pause for a thoughtful response when you're crushed in busy work.

It's also unlikely that we get the diversity we need in cabinet, and government. Anyone not prepared to put up with being on call 18 hours a day, seven days a week, has less chance of advancing to the top jobs.

Surely, among the driven workaholics, we want people at the cabinet table who value time with their children, or to read or make music. People who think reflection or going to a friend's house for dinner - without checking a BlackBerry surreptitiously under the table throughout the meal - are important. (I write as a reformed workaholic.)

Some politicians do maintain balance. But Penner's resignation suggests the pressures, self-imposed and external, to keep on working.

Second, while Penner certainly did not criticize Premier Christy Clark, neither did he show much support.

He resigned as attorney general now, Penner said, because Clark and the party are pushing MLAs to set up campaign teams in case she decides on a fall election. Penner felt it would be wrong to recruit campaign staff if he wasn't going to run in the next election (which, legally, is to be in 2013) and wrong to stay in cabinet if he's not running. Without the pressure to declare, he might have stayed in cabinet, he said.

And Penner made his own announcement; the premier's office didn't get the chance to manage the news.

The third point is a little complicated. I think well of Penner. I don't believe he's lied to me. He's not a jerk in the legislature. He always seems to enjoy representing the people in his riding, seeing it as a serious job and an honour. He doesn't run from issues. Sometimes, his sincerity seemed like it might be a liability in his party. I rate him highly.

But when you think about it, rating a politician highly for those reasons alone seems a little sad.

And fourth and finally, Penner's departure shows Clark is still seriously considering a fall election. The HST referendum results will be released in the next few days - Thursday is the target. Clark and the Liberal strategists have a narrow window to decide whether to call a vote, likely in October in advance of municipal elections.

Footnote: Clark's continued interest in a fall election might not be wellreceived in caucus. MLAs would have almost two years left in their terms under the fixed election date law, but face tough battles - and possibly defeats - if the vote is held this year.

Others fear the practical problems of raising money and recruiting volunteers when many political activists are already looking to the November municipal elections.


Rob Cottingham said...

I was glad to read the first part of your post in particular. My wife wrote a post about the punishing pace of leadership a day or two ago, in the wake of Jack Layton's death - clearly you're on the same wavelength.

One side note: Paradoxically, one of the reasons weekends get ruined like that is actually to make senior officials' and politicians' lives less stressful. When they come in first thing Monday morning demanding to know what the hell you're doing about this miserable $#%@ editorial, it can help to be able to hand them a draft response along with their morning coffee. Calms 'em right down.

Anonymous said...

AGT conjures up his own conjecture on Penner's political purge.

I am still going with Christy's rant over the lack of charges in the Stanley Cup riots as a direct public slap to the face of BC's top lawyer/prosecutor pushed Penner over the edge.

Without a date from AGT it is impossible to say which came first.

RossK said...

Regarding Point #4...Should not we British Columbians (ie. the peons not the pols) ask ourselves who, specifically, would benefit by a fall election?


Regarding Point #1...In principle I don't disagree but I can't entirely agree with the 'Why bother because there's no paper until Tuesday' argument given that many papers will have online updates. Further, aren't these responses often shotgunned out (or shopped around to someone looking for an insider access story) to try and get ahead of the coming newscyle?


Anonymous said...

Who reads newspapers! The MSM isn't doing any in depth political journalism anymore, just 'fluff' and non news.