21 March 2006

The other March madness, or, the Bow Wow Parliament returns

Today, marks the start of the other March Madness.

The House of Assembly re-opens today to allow the government to jam through an interim supply bill to hold them over until the main budget motion can pass next month. Tomorrow, the Lieutenant Governor will read the Throne Speech, presumably one as miserable as the last insult to our collective comprehension of the English language. Then next week there will be the budget speech, although pretty much the whole thing has already been announced in one news conference or another by the Premier.

In itself, that little piece of news - a planned, one day supply bill debate - is a sign of both the decline of the House of Assembly and the Premier's attitude to it. Danny Williams' contempt for the legislature is well known and displayed almost every day, particularly the last few weeks as he sets about announcing budget measures for the next fiscal year that normally would never be breathed in public before the finance minister reads his budget speech...in the legislature.

The silence of the Opposition on this interim supply process merely adds to the decline of the legislature as part of our democracy. Supply is the fundamental measure the legislature can grant a government. Without money the government cannot function. Since everything in government involves spending money, a supply bill allows for the full discussion of every action government is taking. It is the chance to hold the government accountable.

But it is hard to care about parliamentary democracy - about the proper examination by the voters' representatives of government measures - when the current administration goes about insulting the members almost daily and those members sit dumb.

Just cast back to last spring when fishermen, angry over a government measure, took control of the legislature day after day and not a single member of the House of Assembly from the incompetent Mr. Speaker to the most ordinary of ordinary members voiced a single word of objection. One could easily imagine a member of the legislature saying that the protests didn't matter since there was nothing much to do in the House anyway.

We are set for just the same tawdry display this year.

We have had a taste of it already in the actions of newbie Liberal leader Jim Bennett. So unconcerned is Bennett for the legislature that he feels he can seek election in a year and half's time without having once set foot on its floor while the Mace sat in its cradle. What difference is there between Bennett and the current Premier who joked to a national audience, shortly after taking election, that if he had his way the legislature would be abolished?1

Before now, none of his predecessors - not a single Prime Minister of Newfoundland and Labrador - back to Philip Francis Little would have dared make such a contemptuous remark. The only Opposition leaders to have sat outside the legislature were those who could not get a seat in it, either by losing elections or, as in the case of some, because the incumbent administration dared not call the necessary by-election.

The only significant difference in this year's March Madness is that it won't be crab fishermen taking the House on their backs. Instead, starting today, we may well see disgruntled Fishery Products International employees disrupting the House day after day after day. That is a purely cosmetic difference. Underneath it all will be a decline of our democracy and with it our province.

The loss here is not merely one of process or of symbols.

Rather the loss to be felt is one of genuine accountability.

It is a long-established democratic principle that the government cannot undertake any measure without the approval of the elected delegates of the people of our province.

Magna Carta.

Charles 1 and The Civil War.

The Boston Tea Party.

All are part of our democratic heritage and all had to do - on some level - with holding the government responsible to its citizens not only on voting day but each and every day. The premier and his cabinet must answer questions. They must explain themselves publicly and, for any measure, the government must have the approval of the elected representatives of the people they presume to govern.

When the House is not in session the government has a duty to present its program for review. We have seen the growth in sham announcements or the repeat announcements from government in the last 10 years. All the while, substantive issues such as our offshore oil and gas policy or, in the upcoming budget, our long range financial plans will slip by the wayside.

In their place, we will be consumed day-in and day-out with such pressing questions as whether or not the latest gaggle of the disgruntled will force the closure of the legislature or whether the Premier will tear down the flags over his latest irk.

How ironic that at a time when half a world away so many of our fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are risking their lives, working with local citizens to build a democracy, so many at home ignore the relentless slip of our own democracy into little more than a sham.

How ironic too that when this place was first granted self government - in 1832 - the very notion was ridiculed as the Bow Wow Parliament in the infamous cartoon, at left.

When others mock us, we grow angry.

Yet, when we mock ourselves - as surely we will beginning again today - we seem unable to see the insult, although the self-inflicted wound is more grievous.

As Mr. Speaker found in the cartoon, the Bows have it, indeed.

1 Danny Williams,Macleans:
Have you called your first session of the House of Assembly?

I'm not going to call. We're not going to bring the House back ever again! It's just a personal preference. [Laughs.] No, it's going to be probably the second week of March. I have to say, I found in opposition there were times I shook my head and said, "You know, this could be so much more productive." I find there's a lot of wasted time in the House where people get up to talk just for the sake of talking. I'd like to find ways to make it more efficient, more productive, so we can go ahead and get the work done.[Emphasis added]