01 May 2010

How our system doesn’t work

Supposedly the Western Star – the province’s west coast daily – has never liked or supported Danny Williams.

Now before anyone starts clacking a comment just remember that is the official crackberry statement from the Premier’s publicity machine in response to a recent editorial in the Star that suggested the Old Man is getting a bit cranky and might want to consider retiring.

It’s a load of dung but that’s another story.

The Star editors this week could have decided to write an editorial on the revelation that the provincial government had royally screwed themselves and taxpayers with a botched expropriation of assets that used to belong to Fortis, Enel and Abitibi.

Sounds like a logical topic especially for a paper the crowd with crackberries would like you to think keeps a voodoo doll of Hisself that they stick pins into every day during the morning story meeting.  After all, what better story is there for the bunch of Danny-haters at the Star than this.

So what did the Star do with it?

Try this assessment on for size:

The ruling PCs stood in the House of Assembly this week and said the botched the expropriation of the AbitibiBowater properties in this province when they included properties that will likely require millions of dollars in environmental cleanup.

That aside, at least the Tories, to their credit, were up front about the blunder, and said so straight out without trying to couch it in some political song and dance.

Then they turn their attention to what the Star editorialists see as the real villain in this piece,  the five people on the opposition benches:

It’s time they admitted their shortcomings in the process.

It’s the duty of the opposition to challenge the government on legislation it brings before the house, and make sure these kinds of potentially expensive hiccups don’t make it into law.

They were asleep at the switch in this matter — there’s now way around it.
They dozed in their seats, didn’t ask enough questions ... and let the bad legislation become the law of the land.

It should be a lesson for all concerned.

Our system works best when the tough questions are asked ... not when  government gets a free pass.

That last sentence is absolutely true.

We also know our system is not working in this case because the crowd at the Western Star can’t even get a simple fact right.  When they say that the provincial government was “upfront” about the blunder and didn’t couch their news in political rhetoric, well, nothing could be further from the truth.

A good 10 months elapsed between the time the crowd on the Hill discovered the shag-up and the first time they mentioned it publicly in this province.

That’s right 10 months.

But that’s just for this province. 

In Quebec, people there knew of the monumental blunder back in October.  That’s when a Quebec court handling the Abitibi bankruptcy protection listened to arguments in a case involving the provincial government and its ongoing war with Abitibi.

And when the provincial government finally did publicly mention they owned the mill, the news release made it sound like Abitibi had simply abandoned its property and that as a result, the provincial government was doing the noble thing and taking custody to protect the public interest.

None of the government narrative on this issue since May 2009 has been even vaguely close to the credit-worthy actions the Star editorialists invented.  In fact, so great a work of fiction is the premise of this editorial that its writers would be better off handing their resumes to the show driver on Doyle than wasting their time out there in the second city.

As if that hum were not enough for the Humber crew, though, the Star then decided to blame the Liberals and New Democrats. Apparently the whole thing while a government measure could have been avoided if only they had done their jobs.

Well, here’s a simple test:  look around and try to find anyone - any one person – in December 2008 who publicly doubted the wisdom of the expropriation and/or the haste with which it was done.

Go on and look.  We’ll wait until you are done.

No luck?

That’s hardly surprising.  The Western Star,  for example, thought that the expropriation was the right thing to do and praised the legislature – the full legislature, no less – for acting.  Not a peep about the possibility of mistakes or the need to slow down and let the opposition do its job. Not a word about how our system requires a bit of sober second thought, a bit of careful scrutiny lest someone make a colossal mistake of any kind.

If there were two people in the entire province publicly criticising the haste of it, let alone the expropriation itself, then that’s all there was.  We were summarily dismissed by all those, the opposition included, who shared the view that Abitibi, the friggers,  ought to lose all its stuff in the province.  We were discounted by those who trusted the provincial government to be careful and to make sure everything was done properly.  After all, they have never been wrong before.

Your humble e-scribbler singled out the NDP leader in December 2008 to illustrate how little thought had gone into the expropriation bill, but, in fairness Lorraine Michael is nothing more than an example of the views and attitudes of almost everyone in the province at the time.

And in the end, that post concluded, somewhat prophetically, that:

In the future  - perhaps a few months or even a few years - someone will look back on this time and wonder how such steps could be taken.  They wonder how the Churchill Falls deal could have be done, with the concurrence of all members of the legislature.

In the energy bill and now the expropriation bill – as exemplified by Lorraine Michael’s comments - they have a very simple answer. No one bothered to think.

And there it is, dear friends, the simple truth of the matter.  No one bothered, no one took the time to think. no one felt thinking might be even needed.  Let Hisself and the crew look after that.

No government ought to get such a free pass.

But in this case, the government got its free pass, handed to them gleefully by the legislature and everyone else.

The expropriation debacle is the result.

And if the Star editorialists want someone to blame for this fiasco they can look in the mirror.  They needn’t waste much time doing that, though.  There’s enough guilt to go around when it comes to people who let the government have a free pass on this issue.

Then again, for the past seven years that’s what this government has had:  a free pass. They are popular because they are right and right because they are popular as the sock puppets, Fan Clubbers and pitcher plants will tell you. Things worked out when it appeared the provincial government won.  After all, our system can’t be broken if everything turns out right.  Trust in the saviour of the moment and all will be well.  Anyone saying otherwise just hates Danny.

Such ideas seem so foolish now.

The reality is that just as it was in 1969, so it was 40-odd years later.  Back then the three opposition members – Gerry Ottenheimer, Tom Hickey and Ank Murphy – sided with the government.  So too did the province’s editorialists. Fast forward to 2008 and see the same thing playing out all over again.

Our system of government works when tough questions are asked and  when thorough, prompt and complete answers are demanded.  There must be consequences  - even if only in the form of criticism - when the answers aren’t received. 

All the members of the legislature have a responsibility to ask those questions but so too do editorialists and ordinary citizens have an obligation to pose questions and demand answers.

It is the government’s duty to answer them.

Our system of government in this province is not working;  it has not been working since 2003.  The Abitibi expropriation mess serves only to highlight just exactly how great is the risk that people in this province are taking as a result.

And until people  - ordinary citizens and Western Star editorialists alike - start to acknowledge that, the risk that more Abitibi fiascos will take place – or have already - will only increase.