23 September 2007

Money and the ethnic vote: Part 1 of 3

[This is the first of three posts dealing with aspects of the Progressive Conservative pronatal policy and other aspects of the party platform. ]

The unasked question

Voters in the provincial general election saw a curious situation this past week.

On Tuesday, Premier Danny Williams unveiled his party’s election platform which included a policy to pay women to have more children. He used the phrase “we can’t be a dying race” when discussing the policy with reporters.
We've had some lengthy discussions on this in caucus and at cabinet... and what we've done is we've looked at the jurisdictions across Canada, to the best of our ability, and as quickly as we could in advance of the election, government had started to do this process, but it's a very detailed process, and we want to make sure we follow through. We're also looking at some precedent in Europe, and other modern countries, trying to encourage young families to have children. 
It's a clear problem, and it's an economic problem... This government is open to suggestions, and good suggestions... It's probably one of the key points in our platform, that we feel very strongly about. It's something we'd certainly like to implement as soon as possible. It hasn't been budgeted. One of the best jurisdictions and one of the most successful, of course, was Quebec. And they have found it to be one of the most successful initiatives. But I'd be remiss in [not?] saying that we're still preliminary on this.
Later in the week, a local Liberal supporter said of transportation minister John Hickey that Hickey’s lawsuit against former premier Roger Grimes was intended to show that “if you criticize my government, if you criticize my fuehrer, I will sue you.'"

In both instances, the words used are provocative and come loaded with historical meaning. Yet, while Liberal Jim Combden was rightly condemned for his apparent allusion to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, few have commented publicly on the Premier’s use of the term race in connection with his $1000 baby bonus. The contrast in reactions is is both stark and revealing.

Not a single reporter apparently questioned Danny Williams on what he meant by the term “race”, let alone ask what race was dying. One editor called it “hyperbolic rhetoric.”

A prominent local talk radio host chastised those who – like Liberal candidate Simon Lono – questioned the use of the term. In his weekly column in The Independent, Randy Simms wrote:
While some people have taken exception to the use of the word race to describe Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, it was not meant in any derogatory way. He might just as well have said the words dying breed as opposed to dying race and it would amount to the same thing. We all know what he meant, and to try and give it any other meaning is simply being unfair. I do not subscribe to the view that the premier is any kind of racist. [Emphasis added]
They are not alone in their view. A discussion thread on nf.general produced at least two comments to the effect that ‘we all know what he meant’ and that the subject needed no further discussion.

Local freelance writer Myles Higgins, himself a staunch supporter the Premier during the election, posted a commentary on his blog Web Talk, under his usual pseudonym Patriot:
Anyone who is offended by terming the majority of people here a "race" certainly needs to be educated on their culture and history.
The unasked question knows no answer

Higgins, Simms, and the others are right. We all know – or we are reasonably comfortable in believing we all know - that Danny Williams was referring to the majority of people in the province. That is, he was referring to the white, English-speaking people of English, Irish, and Scots ancestry. That is the race to which he most likely referred.

Higgins does an excellent job of examining the term "race", incidentally. While he does not get into alternate possible meanings - such as using using race as a synonym for "breed" or merely the provincial population as a whole - his post makes the case against those interpretations implicitly. We will leave to one side the possible use of "breed" as a synonym for race devoid of a negative meaning.

The most striking feature of the premier’s comments actually came from the response in the province as a whole. Few questioned it. Most, one suspects, followed the approach of the reporters noted above and never thought of it as a potential issue or, as with others, assumed a meaning.

Rationalizing a term loaded with potential meanings or embracing it wholeheartedly suggests that the comfortable members of the majority group within the province are largely blind to the implications for society as a whole.

However, neither of these is ultimately satisfactory. Not only do we not know exactly who the ‘we’ are in that statement on "race", we simply have no idea what he meant since no one asked him.

Over the next two posts, let us take a walk into that area others seem unwilling to go. I doing so we may find some answers or potential answers to unasked questions.

First, we will examine pronatalist policy as a means of addressing the province's demographic problem.

Second, we will look at the pronatalist policy in a broader context of Progressive Conservative policy since 2003.