John Dyble: Quiet Strength at the Heart of Government

John Dyble’s pending retirement wasn’t front page news, which is the last place he would want to be anyway.

For five years, John has been Deputy to the Premier and Cabinet Secretary – the head of the BC Public Service.  It’s an incredibly demanding job.  On a day-to-day basis, there are 18-19 ministries that must have oversight along with crown corporations, like BC Hydro and ICBC, that are among the largest companies in the Province.  Managing the cabinet process alone is a daunting task – as Cabinet Secretary, he was responsible for flowing the agenda of government through the cabinet committee process to the Cabinet Table.  Then there’s the constant public scrutiny and the persistent howls of stakeholders.  Overall, the job looks over  a $50 billion-plus enterprise, led by a humble, dedicated, career public servant.

There are no 7-figure salaries or major bonus packages for guys like John Dyble.  He could run circles around many in the private sector, but he, like many in the public sector, do what they do because of their commitment to public service.

I recall the time that John was hired by Premier Christy Clark.  Following her leadership win in 2011, there was a brief transition period where a cabinet had to be constructed, a caucus had to be consulted, and senior appointments had to be made.  Most importantly, the question of who to lead the public service.  John was an inspired choice that complementedjohn_dyble_large the Premier’s leadership abilities.  The Premier needed to bring her party and caucus together after coming from the outside to win.  She needed stability, competence, and strong execution at the centre of government to provide her with the ballast needed as she set out to establish new direction.    John had a reputation of getting things done whether it was Transportation, Forestry, or Health Care.  He was highly regarded by his peers.  That he had been a Deputy Minister to Kevin Falcon recommended him further.  Kevin was a very able minister who had a busy agenda – he didn’t stand pat.  That a deputy could keep pace with Kevin is noteworthy, let alone the accomplishments that took place.  John’s appointment was an important signal that the Premier would choose the best, regardless of who he or she had worked with.  After all, John has never been a partisan – he served NDP and BC Liberal governments and found creative and effective ways to meet the public policy goals for the government of the day.

When the Premier interviewed John for the role, he met with me afterward.  Holed up in a downtown hotel, John and I talked at some length as the sun went down.  Our conversation literally got darker until I basically couldn’t see him in his chair.  That was the last time I was ever in the dark with John Dyble.  We had a great relationship where, as the Premier’s first Chief of Staff, I had complete confidence in his ability to handle his side of the ledger, and he let me handle my side but we kept each other in the loop and pushed back at each other, respectfully, when necessary.

A key part of John’s legacy has been the disciplined management of government.  Perhaps not fully appreciated at the time, the Premier’s leadership platform called for running a tight ship.  Her fiscal plan received top marks from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.  She spoke, bravely, during that leadership campaign about the need to wrestle health care spending increases to the rate of economic growth – so that we could afford quality public health care, and other critical services, into the future.  Over the past five years, Premier Clark – and her Finance Ministers – have met and exceeded expectations in terms of balancing the budget and setting a course for lower debt/GDP and ultimately creating a sturdy platform by which BC now leads the country in economic growth.  That takes discipline from the top.

Earlier in the Premier’s mandate, the Jobs Plan was launched.  This process brought laser-like focus to economic development within government.  The implementation of the Jobs Plan, and the buy-in it received across government, required a lot of heavy lifting.  The LNG strategy was another example of how John could harness the public service to ensure focus behind a critical policy goal.  These don’t even begin to record John’s accomplishments on the job.

The Premier’s Office is a lean operation.  It is not like the federal government’s Privy Council Office nor the “Cupcakes” of previous BC governments, where there was a more centralized policy approach.  BC’s public service is quite decentralized, therefore, those directing traffic at the centre are stretched.  In physical terms, the 2nd floor of the West Annex is where that happens and it is not a large workspace – kind of shocking actually how much goes through that floor considering the magnitude of their responsibilities.  Despite these modest resources, John and his team have proven adept at reaching public policy goals.  Compare BC to other provinces over the past five years.

The job is a gruelling one, made even more challenging by health issues that John has combatted.  He’s tough and resilient, qualities that are very appealing to the Premier.  But he’s not your showy “Tough Guy” tough guy; he’s quiet and leads by example – humble.

With the recent retirement of both Peter Milburn as Deputy Minister of Finance and Dan Doyle from full-time role as Chief of Staff, John Dyble’s departure marks an end to an impressive trio of Transportation Men who helped guide government from 2011-2016.  All three having served as Deputy Minister in Transportation, all three playing different but critical roles for Premier Clark.  Collectively, they have made an outstanding contribution.

And individually, John Dyble’s accomplishments stand well on their own.

 

 

 

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A deeper dive on BC By-election turnout

My post on by-election turnout earlier this week was picked up in the Vancouver Sun and Globe & Mail, proving that there’s a lot of interest in apathy.

In my earlier post, I stopped at 2004 in terms of comparing turnout to past BC by-elections.  Because I couldn’t help myself, I have now gone back to 1981 to see how engaged BC voters have been when it comes to mid-term voting.  If you’re not a political junkie, avert your eyes.  This is really geeky stuff.

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Bill Bennett was successful in electing a government member in the 1981 Kamloops by-election.  It hadn’t happened since 1966 and it hasn’t happened since, unless the candidate’s name was Christy Clark.

This week, turnout in the two by-elections was less than 22% of eligible voters.  Put another way, the turnout was only 39% and 41% of the voters who voted in the 2013 general election.  In Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, less than 8,000 voted in the by-election compared to about 20,000 in 2013.My review of 15 by-elections between 1981 and 1999 shows a much higher turnout by comparison.

Only one by-election had less than half the voters of the previous general election – that was in Vancouver-Quilchena in 1994 when Gordon Campbell was elected to the Legislature for the first time.  He won in a cakewalk so arguably voters didn’t see a lot of reason to vote.

Table 1: Turnout in by-elections compared to preceding General Election.  Asterisks (**) indicate a two-member seat.  Until 1991, BC had some riding that had two members with voters having the choice to vote for two MLAs on their ballot.

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The other 14 by-elections saw a turnout of at least 63% of the previous general election.  Most of these races had a compelling storyline.

1981 Kamloops – The Socreds fought to hold their seat at a time when the margin in the 57(!) seat BC Legislature was razor-thin.  1984 Okanagan North – the then-unpopular Socreds succumbed to the NDP in a strong Socred seat.  The Socreds regained the seat in 1986.  Both of these by-elections had a turnout rate of about 80% of the previous election.

During the Vander Zalm years, there were six by-elections created by the departure of four Socreds and two NDPers.  The NDP took all six by-elections.  Turnout was high relative to current-day by-elections.  At the height of Vander Zalm’s unpopularity, almost as many people voted in by-elections in the Cariboo and Oak Bay as voted in the preceding general election.  They showed up with their pitchforks!

Turnout was at 65% to 70% of the previous election in three Fraser Valley by-elections between 1994 and 1997.  While the governing NDP did very poorly, they were not really at issue in these by-elections.  It was a brawl-for-it-all for the Free Enterprise mantle between the BC Liberals and the Socreds (1994), and the BC Liberals and Reform (1995 and 1997).  There was a lot at stake and voters, for the most part, turned out.

The Parksville-Qualicum 1998 by-election was more of a BC Liberal-NDP fight with Judith Reid eclipsing former (and future) MLA Leonard Krog.  This by-election was a verdict on Glen Clark at the time and had a turnout that was double of this week’s Coquitlam by-election.  Pitchfork time again.

In 1999, it was another BC Liberal-Reform fight when Bill Vander Zalm mounted his political comeback.  The BC Liberals rallied to win 2:1, with about twice the turnout of this week’s Coquitlam by-election.

The 1981-99 era had a lot of by-elections with high stakes and high turnout.  Even the low stakes by-elections had higher turnouts.  Why is it different now?  Perhaps voters are harder to get in a distracted world.  Media sources are more fragmented.  Voters are not herding toward BCTV (sorry Keith) like they used to, nor are they all opening the door in the morning to retrieve the morning Sun and Province like days gone by.  Fragmentation aside, the mainstream media seemed to great the by-elections with a collective yawn this time.  With less media interest, there is inevitably less chatter about politics at coffee-time and over the backyard fence and, ultimately, less turnout.

This all serves to reinforce my view in the earlier post that, unlike the Zalmy 1980s and Parksville in 1998, this week’s by-elections were not pitchfork-carrying affairs.  Low turnout indicates a lack of urgency and lack of consequence.  The turnout, and margin of loss, in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain was lower than in the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam 2012 by-election.  The BC Liberals regained that seat, so there’s no reason to suggest they can’t do the same next year.  We’ll see.

 

 

 

Turnout goes underground in BC by-elections

Tuesday’s by-elections were remarkable for one key factor – rampant apathy.  It was fitting that the by-elections took place on Groundhog Day – the voters were underground.

apathyCompared to the turnout in the preceding general election, both Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver Mount Pleasant had the lowest turnouts of any BC by-election since 2004.

In both ridings, less than half that voted in 2013 showed up to vote in the by-election.  In Coquitlam it was 39%, in Mt. Pleasant 41%.  That’s not 39% turnout, that’s 39% of the turnout of the last election so the overall turnout was barely 20%.

Compare that to turnouts in other by-elections, again, comparing to the previous election:

  • Vancouver Fairview (2008):  44%
  • Vancouver Burrard (2008): 49%
  • Port Moody-Coquitlam (2012): 60%
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (2011): 70%
  • Surrey-Panorama (2004): 77%
  • Westside-Kelowna (2013): 77%
  • Chilliwack-Hope (2012): 85%

Voters, especially BC Liberal voters, just didn’t seem motivated to vote.  Why?  There was not a lot of media attention and there was not a lot at stake – the government is not going to fall.  It is not unlike the 2008 by-elections where there was not a lot driving the public debate and thus turnout was low.  I lived through the 2012 by-elections, which were critical in terms of clarifying the free enterprise option for the 2013 election.  As poorly as the BC Liberals fared relative to the preceding election, they fared well enough to survive another day and helped to ultimately resolve matters with many potential BC Conservative voters.

Say, what do Jenn McGinn, Gwen O’Mahoney, and Joe Trasolini have in common?  They were NDP MLAs elected in by-elections one year prior to a general election.  In all three cases, they were defeated in the general election.  When turnout returned to its usual levels, BC Liberals prevailed at the polls.  That’s not to assume it will happen in 2017 in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, but it will be a much different fight with many more voters voting.

Let’s take a closer look at the by-election results in Coquitlam:

In 2013, the BC Liberals had 49.9% of the vote and the NDP 37.4% – a 12.5% spread.

In the by-election, The NDP won 3,562 votes (46%).  In 2013, their candidate received 7,315 votes, so the by-election candidate scored about half as many votes.

Of course, the BC Liberal dropped further, from 9,766 votes to 2,936 votes (38% of the popular vote).

Compared to 2012 by-election in the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam riding, the BC Liberals did much better.

In 2012, the BC Liberals dropped from 52% to 30% while the NDP gained from 40% to 54%.  The BC Libs dropped 22% and the NDP gained 14%.  In this week’s by-election, the swing was less – the BC Libs dropped 11% and the NDP gained 9%.

As mentioned, the turnout in Mt. Pleasant was also very low with the NDP losing market share dropping about 5 points while the BC Liberals dropped further by about 8 points.  The Greens gained at both party’s expense.

What does it all mean?  By-elections are a tough place to turn out voters and BC’s history shows that Opposition parties usually prevail.  The last time a government MLA won a by-election – who was not the Premier of BC – was 1981 in Kamloops.

When stacked against the by-elections of 2012, the government fared much better in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain.

Congratulations to the NDP and the newly elected MLAs.  A win is a win, no matter how you slice it.  See you in 2017.