(Note, if you’ve read the main article already, head to the foot of this piece for the Atlantis conspiracy footnote!)
Big Phil, as he is not known by anyone, is back in his spiritual home, on the farm.
For a while he was at the helm of the Department Infrastructure, but I suspect he’s happy to have left. And I also suspect that the feeling may have been mutual from some of the DOI staff, not that they’d ever say it.
Before we assess Mr Gawne’s performance in the past year, which has been lower profile than under the previous government, we should turn our attention to how he first became a minister – way back when Donald Gelling was Chief Minister in 2005.
Suffice to say, Bill Henderson probably still isn’t a great fan of either – which is probably akin to discovering that Katie Price doesn’t rate your taste in boyfriends.
In a nutshell, there was a cabinet reshuffle and Phil, who was a backbench MHK at the time, remained a backbench MHK.
Just a handful of days after the reshuffle, however, Donny the Tractor found reason to sack Bill H from his position as Agriculture Minister, he just never quite got round to explaining why – either to Bill or anyone else. The chief cited ‘various issues which had arisen’ that made it difficult. Such a vague explanation was symptomatic of Donny’s stewardship, but as he’d taken over from Richard Corkill, no one complained too much.
Certainly not Phil Gawne, a southern agriculturalist like Donny, who found himself appointed to the position of agriculture minister in the place of poor old Bill.
In truth, given Bill Henderson’s subsequent performance as chairman of the Office of Fair Trading, where grandstanding over the Steam Packet preceded embarrassment when he was unable to obtain substance to support his claims, refused to release a half-completed report that was ditched and showed himself powerless to take any significant action over fares, then it is probably true that Phil made a better minister that Bill would have done if he’d stayed in cabinet.
But what happened in the handful of days between the reshuffle and Bill being asked to make way for Phil on the group photograph remains unclear. Did Donny just forget he meant to bring Phil in? Did he get a reminder? Was there public outcry calling for Phil the Farmer at the head of agriculture? (answer to the last question was no, although the farming community would have been quite glad to have one of its own in there).
Anyway, that was Phil’s foot in the ministerial door and, naturally, he was quite happy. Under Tony Brown, however, he ended up at the head of the newly named Department of Infrastructure.
Not such an easy ride. Suddenly he found himself dealing with a public which had more interest in his department’s workings than before. The agricultural community is very vocal, but the percentage of people who care about farming pales into insignificance compared with the proportion of those who have to drive on roads, or who get unspeakably annoyed at any spending at the airport.
Thus it was that Phil found himself defending a £3.1m scheme, he inherited from his predecessor, to improve the road at Richmond Hill. The road has, undoubtedly, improved, as has the car park and entrance to the Home of Rest for Old Horses.
The horses home actually got a new car park, with £125,000 of taxpayers’ money. No one appeared to notice this at the design and approval stage, so it came as a bit of a surprise to everyone.
Mr Gawne’s defence was to try to blame Tynwald for voting for the scheme and not spotting it. He did concede it was too big.
Since reading the original version of this article, Mr Gawne has been in touch to say that he had previously opposed the Richmond Hill project in the Council of Ministers.
One of his last triumphs before the election was to put through a DOI scheme to turn the mini-roundabout at Ballakillowey in Rushen into a much bigger roundabout – at a cost of £276,000.
Here, Mr Gawne, one of three MHKs for Rushen, showed how in touch he was with the public as he had spotted the clamour for this scheme long before anyone else had heard a whisper.
Anyway, the new roundabout was built, albeit for £27,000 more than the original price of £249k, Phil was re-elected and he found himself away from Infrastructure and at the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture, the successor to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
It is a move that suits most: Phil, because he’s back in the area where he’s most comfortable; the farming sector because they have one of their own at the helm and the rest of us because he’s no longer in charge at the Department of Infrastructure.
Truth is that since the election, with cuts at nurseries and care homes, major job losses in the banking industry, the sacking of Peter Karran and general budgetary mayhem, Phil’s been fairly low key.
At least in ministerial terms, he has.
He has become embroiled in the nurseries situation. He is heavily involved with Mooinjer Veggey, which has taken over the running of a number of state nurseries, with a success that will soon be measured as the new school year begins; although the charity ran into early difficulties which led to a former head teacher stepping in to ensure there was a service at one nursery.
Phil has never kept his involvement secret nor have his enemies made much of it. But he could find that, as a government minister, if things do begin to get complicated in the next 12 months, as parents examine the full impact of the nursery cuts, that could become a little awkward at times.
It will be where his trait of being quick to respond to criticism anywhere – including social media – will come in handy, but he has to ensure the message remains consistent.
Those who underestimate him will do so at his peril, also. Behind the plain speaking, straight-forward farming chap there’s a wily political character who knows what he’s doing.
He’s been quick to point out this year his department has identified £3m of savings. While others have resisted, his department has come up with some measures. Even if there are many more savings that should be made, it buys time and deflects attention, so it is a shrewd move, particularly to slip those savings into conversation when an opportunity arises.
With the examination of the monolith that is the Manx public sector coming under the microscope in the Scope of Government consultation, the funding for the likes of environment and agriculture will certainly come under the microscope
There are other sectors of government who feel that agriculture receives a disproportionate amount of political and financial support when set against its contribution to the economy.
You can guarantee Phil will fight farming’s corner, but the agricultural stronghold of Council of Ministers of old is no longer there. It could be a tough time, so the fact he has already started to put up the defences by being able to point to savings will help him.
GNU rating: 6/10. Has kept out of trouble so far, but didn’t exactly go out of his way to defend certain government cuts, including nurseries, which is not exactly a unified approach.
HOW THIS ARTICLE LED TO THE DISCOVERY OF AN INCREDIBLE CONSPIRACY THEORY INVOLVING THE ISLE OF MAN AND ATLANTIS
There was a discussion about the contents of this article on the Manx Freedom of Speech Group page on Facebook ( http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/manxfreespeech/ ).
From there, someone mentioned David Icke, I mentioned I’d interviewed him during a visit to the Isle of Man about 20 years ago but I had to admit it predated internet news in the island so I could not provide a link. However, I did a search on Google for ‘David Icke Isle of Man’ and found a David Icke forum for ‘exposing the dreamworld we believe to be real’.
On there, someone claims the Isle of Man is home to the ‘Cube’ which is where all the world’s money will eventually end up. Now, I know we have quite a favourable tax regime but I didn’t realise it was that good. Anyway, if it is true, then all our worries about the perilous financial state of the Island are allayed.
The theorising doesn’t stop there, however, it suggests that the Isle of Man is actually the remnant of the lost city of Atlantis, that the Queen knows about it, and that – actually - the Manx involvement in the space race is in fact linked to ancient mining for helium, from Saturn, by Atlanteans.
About the only part of the theory that is verifiably true is the Isle of Man is involved in the space race – something I’ve covered previously in this posting http://norbertsdad.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/space-travel-the-moon-and-a-shocking-confession/
The rest is delightfully bonkers – at least I hope it is bonkers. Anyway, have a look for yourself:
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You may find it helpful to also read these articles about the nursery cuts:
If you found this piece interesting you may also find this article on the new Infrastructure Minister David Cretney worth a read:
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