There is only one boss,
and his name is Gordon

Some survival tips for new cabinet ministers

Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun, June 16, 2009

To: The new ministers.

Topic: Survival.

On a day when the new cabinet is scheduled to convene for the first full-fledged meeting, here’s an unofficial briefing note from one who has chronicled the comings and goings of almost six dozen B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers.

Some left of their own volition, some were dumped by the voters. Others simply did not measure up and were dumped by the boss himself.

A half dozen or so were appointed to that first cabinet back in 2001 and remain there to this day, supplemented by later arrivals who’ve also managed to hang on to their seats at the table.

Presuming you’d like to be numbered among the survivors, at least long enough for the voters to have another crack at you, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First and most important, remember who you are working for.

The public, sure. Your ministry, too. The clients and stakeholders who rely on its programs and services. Your constituents and whatever goals you brought to public life.

But ultimately you are only working for one person, Premier Gordon Campbell.

You sorta knew that from the way he tapped you on the shoulder, told you what you were getting and what was expected. But it will be brought home in any number of ways in the weeks ahead, some of them unexpected.

The first time your ministry is preparing a good news announcement and the premier bigfoots you to a supporting role. The first time there’s bad news and you’re sent out to handle it solo.

When you discover that everyone around you — aides, bureaucrats, those ubiquitous staffers with the digital recorders — reports to the premier’s office no less than you do.

You’ll go off message in a media scrum and, before you can collect your thoughts, the transcript of what you said will be in the premier’s office. An aide will disappear, another will appear, and they may or may not remember to tell you why. Your deputy minister will finally get around to telling you what he’s been working on for weeks on direct orders from you-know-who.

The leashes are shorter for some ministers than others. With time, you may gain some slack. But even the best ministers are subject to arbitrary meddling from the top. It was one of the things that bugged Carole Taylor and helped drive her out of government.

The second thing to remember is that the premier is a demanding taskmaster.

A workaholic himself, to be sure. Heaviest work and travel schedule in the government. Voracious reader. Prides himself on knowing the issues at least as well as his ministers.

But, like many hard-driving CEOs, he has high expectations of others.

So know your files, because he will. Pay particular attention to what he asked you to do and even closer attention as the priorities change, which they will. The five great goals give way to the four major currents and then to the six pillars of destiny, or whatever was the theme of the most recent party platform.

But that’s not the worst of it; this is: With the controlling tendencies comes a marked lack of patience that sometimes manifests itself in exceptional displays of anger, accompanied by liberal lashings of the f-word.

There are two ways to witness these periodic eruptions of Mt. Gordon. One is to be sitting in the cabinet room when he spews lava over someone else who has failed him. The other is to find yourself in the path of destruction. Pray that you discover his bad temper the first way, not the second.

It is possible to survive those outbursts. Just ask longtime ministers like Colin Hansen and George Abbott, who’ve managed to “disappoint” him from time to time without being sent to the cornfield.

Still, the premier’s displays do have a dampening effect on the discussions around the cabinet table. Chances are many ministers bite their tongues rather than tell him what he needs, but may not want, to hear.

Which brings me to the third thing to keep in mind, what some Liberals are calling “the infallibility problem.”

The recent election victory seems calculated to reinforce the “Gord-knows-best” propensities of the government.

Campbell crafted his latest big win over the advice of any number of smart guys — business leaders, brass, cabinet ministers, pundits — who’d urged him back away from the carbon tax before it cost him the election. He was right, they were wrong, which will only make it harder to deflect him from a chosen course in the future.

So it is on to the third term. If he finishes out this one, and don’t assume he won’t, he’ll become the third-longest-serving premier in provincial history.

Some Liberals are hoping all this success will mellow him. They note, correctly, that during the campaign he did seem more confident and less uptight than ever before. Maybe he’s ready to lighten up at the cabinet table, too.

Maybe. But for now, new ministers would be wise to keep their noses clean and to the grindstone. Let the battle-scarred cabinet veterans explore whether there’s to be a new mood inside the Campbell government.


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