08 July 2005

Outside the box - The politics of history

An early morning e-mail from a regular reader caused me to go back and review a column I had originally written for the Independent back in its early days. I don't recall if it ever appeared in print; something tells me it did.

The e-mail took issue with my Jack Byrne post, noting specifically that I was remiss (and maybe partisan) in failing to note that the Job Creation Program ( form of make-work) was actually an invention of Beaton Tulk.

Ok. I didn't point it out, but partisan had nothing to do with it. Anyone who does follow my stuff will realise that I have been as critical of the Tobin/Tulk crowd over things as anyone else. In fact, I know I have made the point on many occasions that Tobin marked a return to Peckfordism on a whole bunch of levels.

The point of my Byrne post (in case I wasn't clear) was that in the absence of a policy, governments tend to default to either bureaucratic or partisan genetic memory. Hence, the blatant make-work program Byrne announced. I also drew the parallels between Byrne's talking points and those of Glenn Tobin nearly two decades earlier.

While I had thought about this old column before, it seems appropriate to resurrect it now since it speaks to the basic idea that political rhetoric in this province seems to come around again and again. There's no point in pretending the column is comprehensive and elegant; it isn't. I was grappling with finding possible explanations for what seems to be an obvious phenomenon.

Reviewing the column now about 18 months after I wrote it, the only thing I would disagree with is the conclusion: I was wrong. People here don't seem to tire of having the same carpet threads being pushed in front of them again and again. Actually, I'd have to admit that over the past 18 months we have seen old ideas and old threads being sold time and again at their original price, marked up to account for inflation.

Jack Byrne just wound up being the latest salesman. Whether the ideas were his, those of his colleagues or solely those of the Premier is irrelevant from where I sit.

I am just astonished that we keep doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result.

Anyway, here's the column as it was originally presented...

The politics of history

History is a powerful thing in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

In his victory speech a few weeks ago, premier-elect Danny Williams pledged that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had voted to seize control of their destiny using words eerily reminiscent of Smallwood, Peckford and Tobin. "There will be no more giveaways. The giveaways end right here and right now!"

Why are we stuck on this rhetorical merry-go-round?

One reason is that political leaders take a Calvinist approach to history. As Calvin told his stuffed tiger Hobbes many years ago, people reinvent history to suit modern prejudices and to fit modern needs. We spin our history, old and new, reweaving the threads of fact to suit the immediate need. Tories blame the Liberals for job cuts in the early 1990s, conveniently forgetting the world recession, and the abysmal state of the province'’s finances. New Liberals blame old Liberals for the Upper Churchill give-away. Nationalists blame foreigners for everything from the collapse of responsible government to current resource "giveaways", all the while forgetting that we have controlled our own destiny for most of the past 200 years.

The second reason is that spin seems to work. Politicians like to get elected. Brian Tobin and Brian Peckford won huge majority governments promising that one day the sun will shine, that we will be masters in our own house or that not one teaspoon of ore will leave the province. They hammered at the giveaways, vowing never again. At least in Peckford'’s case, he stuck around long enough to make a decision, yet, as good as his intentions were in signing the Atlantic Accord, newer politicians have found in that deal their latest scapegoat.

The third reason is that politicians are people and people like sameness; it'’s a human characteristic. Change in any form is often intimidating. For politicians in a province that has experienced relatively little change throughout its history, more of the same seems like the answer to everything, especially if you want to get elected.

The fourth reason is that there is a certain expectation that everything in the province is government'’s responsibility. For most of our history, Newfoundland and Labrador has been a top-down place. Churches and politicians ran things. The churches handled schools, salvation and morality. The government ran everything else, from job creation to the dole. If voters expect you to walk on water, and you don'’t have a better idea, politicians found it easier to take a step or blame someone else for the supposed failure, if they wanted to get elected.

History seems to push politicians to more of the same, but ironically, history is about change. And as the Newfoundland and Labrador electorate changes, they are getting better able to spot the same carpet being sold to them time and again.

The choice for the new crop of politicians elected last month is whether to spin history for immediate, and ultimately short-lived, gains. Or use history - our experience, our culture - as one tool to guide substantive changes in and for Newfoundland and Labrador. In eight years time, they may find that many of the changes they hoped for like massive new industries will still be little more than the fodder for someone else'’s rhetoric.

The four factors just mentioned, though, are all within their power to change.

For a politician to change those in Newfoundland and Labrador would be something truly historic.