15 June 2010

Eventually the other guys will lose…

A couple of weeks ago, your humble e-scribbler picked up a story at the political science reunion.  It was about a bunch of university types who met with a political leader looking for some advice.

Do some polling, find out what people are looking for and develop a platform came the advice.  Then go out and work hard to persuade people to join you and vote for you.

No way, came the response.  We don’t need to do that: eventually the other guys will lose.

Telegram editorial page editor Russell Wangersky offered a thoughtful commentary on local politics last week:

Sitting on the government side has been a free ticket to talking down to whatever party's in opposition and just generally acting like God's gift to politics.

It also means a fundamental weakness in opposition - and never forget that the opposition has a crucial role in good government. The weakness is that no one runs to be a member of a strong opposition - instead, potentially strong candidates sit on their hands and wait for the right time to throw their hats in the ring. That time only comes when it looks like they can take the government - and until then, we tend to get leaders of the opposition who are seat-warmers, at best.

Wangersky hit on a major problem in local politics, but it isn’t one of majorities.  Nor is it the case that people don’t run to to be part of a strong opposition:  not a single politician has ever run in order to sit on the side of the House that doesn’t have power.

Rather, the problem has to do with the local political culture. 

For starters, politics is seen by many as nothing more than a game.  Voters don’t necessarily weigh policies;  they just make a guess early on which side is going to win and then park their vote with the winner.  That’s where this whole idea comes from about losing one’s vote. Being on the winning side is the most important thing for many voters.

Second, consider that parties don’t divide up along any really well-founded ideological lines either. Take a look at the 1996 Tory platform, for example, and you’ll see basically policies that are similar to the Liberal platform at the time.  In 2003, Danny Williams’ platform included an entire chapter that was nothing more than a précis of the 1992 Strategic Economic Plan

On some issues in that election – like say the idea of a state-owned oil company – all three parties had exactly the same idea.  Just to give a sense of the absence of any ideological divide consider that the New Democrats look on it as if it was actually some kind of public ownership.  Lorraine Michael praises the hell out of NALCOR because it looks like something her peeps would like.

In practice, NALCOR is something the local New Democrats should be opposing vehemently.  It runs without adequate public oversight and can hide most of its financial workings from legislative scrutiny. NALCOR has received bags of public cash but produces no identifiable public benefit.

Even if all that weren’t true, somewhere along the line Lorraine missed the biggie clue that should tell her Danny is no advocate of public ownership of the kind New Democrats as social democrats would understand:  Williams has said in the legislature right in front of her that he’d flip the whole deal if the price was right.  New Democrats don’t usually advocate converting principles to cash.

To be sure, the current Williams crowd are viciously partisan in a way locals have seldom seen.  The truly hard core Danny-ites approach politics with the sort of closed-minded zeal that would make your average Fox News watcher green if only with envy.  But still,  what we are referring to in Newfoundland today is not an ideological division,  that is unless Chris Crocker-style hysterical celebrity worship is now a political belief system. 

And through it all, there’s the simple fact that since the Great Sectarian Accommodation of the mid-19th century, the Newfoundland establishment culture does accept open political debate and discussion as being legitimate.  To the contrary, local political culture explicitly divides the world into acceptable views and those which are treasonous, to use the popular freshie-gulper language.

You’ll see a fine example of this time-honoured approach in the comments on a post from 2009.  There’s a back and forth between your humble e-scribbler and a chap who wanted to offer some free advice.  part of the exchange included this::

Complaining about the tone of my comments or saying I am negative (there's a popular one) is really a code for identifying someone who is outside the range of accepted belief. It identifies someone who must conform or be ostracised.

It is a way of suppressing ideas and views which run contrary to that of the dominant authorities. Remember a couple of years ago when DW referred to some people in Stephenville as "dissidents"? Bit of an odd choice of words but, if you appreciate the wider context, it made perfect sense. How about the constant refrain that different ideas are "negative"?

As a last point, I will note that there is one thing I have seen fairly consistent[ly] over the past four or five years. The only people who criticise my tone (even with the little bit of sugar about it being a "nice" blog) or who suggested I am merely a partisan hack advancing something called "Liberal dogma", whatever the hell that is, come from a very particular ideological or partisan background themselves.

They are, in effect, using coded language in another way: to avoid dealing with conflict. They want to suppress some sort of conflict either between their ideas and ones they don't agree with or can't accept or - more typically with the person. In the latter case the sublimation comes from misperception that criticism of an idea is criticism of the person suggesting the idea. Either way it is unhealthy.

This isn’t just an abstraction or a left-over fear from another age. 

Once in power, political parties have been known to use their considerable economic might to punish those who speak publicly even if it simply doesn’t conform to the exact government line. Whether it is that economic punishment or merely the phone call asking if someone had actually meant to say something quoted in the news media, the message of suppression and the need for conformity gets through loudly and clearly.

No one should be surprised that, in such a culture, aspiring politicians often wait around hoping for the day the other guys lose.  Nor is it surprising given such a repressed political environment that in the 60-odd years since Confederation, there have been only three changes of governing political party in Newfoundland and Labrador:  1972, 1989 and 2003.

A healthy democracy requires more than a strong opposition in the legislature.  It requires a strong party system that accepts as legitimate both differences of view and the right to express those differences without fear of reprisal. That strong party system cannot take root in a place where conformity is demanded, where differences are actively suppressed and where politics is reduced to nothing more than a game.