23 December 2010

The horrors of democracy

From a recent Telegram editorial:
Those same Republicans are now saying these heroes, many of whom suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, must stand aside until the country’s fattest fat cats get to keep their three per cent tax holiday. 

One could hardly imagine any greater depth of moral bankruptcy.
And from the news:
The US Senate on Wednesday approved a long-awaited multi-billion-dollar health package for emergency responders to the terrorist attacks of Sep 11, 2001.

The legislation was to be passed later Wednesday by the House of Representatives and sent to President Barack Obama's desk for signature. The approval by both chambers of Congress would come on the last day before lawmakers head home for a holiday recess.
Moral bankruptcy indeed.

Democracy is a messy business but as this bill demonstrates, in a healthy democracy parties can reconcile their contending points of view in a compromise that works for all.  In the end, the health care bill passed the Senate unanimously.

The Congress also passed a bill repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that discriminates against homosexuals serving in the American military. And those are just some of the measures passed as the members head off to a Christmas break.  The legislators will be back in January, incidentally, hard at work passing laws and keeping the current administration accountable to the people whose money the government spends.

All that noise  that hurt the ears of the Telegram editorial board is, in fact, an essential feature of any democracy worthy of the name.  It is, to be sure, a very necessary and very natural expression of a thriving society where people can argue about ideas,  have strong disagreements and then find a middle ground that allows everyone to move forward.

Compare to the current goings on in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The legislature sits for a handful of days a year.  When it does sit, as in the eight day wonder just completed, the members spoke about a handful of pathetic bills that did little more than change the punctuation is some straight-forward bills.  They spoke about those bills – debate is hardly the word for it -  with some of the most incoherent speeches delivered in this or any other legislature on the planet.

At the same time, the governing Conservatives are busily working to avoid having any sort of open political competition within their own party for the Premier’s job recently vacated in an unseemly haste by Danny Williams.   These denizens of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms and politicians like Jerome Kennedy and Darin King are afraid. 

They are afraid not only of debate, perhaps, but of their own inability, ultimately, to bring people together.

They seem to be genuinely distrustful of politics itself.  After all, debate and reconciliation, are core features of politics in a democratic society.


The problem in 2001 that Tories are pointing to was not that the Liberal leadership produced differences of opinion.  Those differences exist as a matter of course in every group of human beings. The political problem for Liberals came from the fact that Roger Grimes hard trouble bringing people together on his own team in a common cause.

The Conservative effort to deliver a leader without an open competition will do nothing except point out that the Conservatives not only lack a suitable replacement for Danny Williams, they are desperate not to risk their hold on power.  What’s more, Jerome or Darin or Kathy know that they lack the leadership skills to reconcile the factions within their own party.  Otherwise they wouldn’t stand for a back-room fix.

And in the process, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should be highly suspicious of whomever the back-rooms boys settle on to run the Conservative Party.  After all, how can the people of Newfoundland and Labrador trust them to bring people together in much larger causes than who gets to head the Tory tribe?

Politics is supposed to be adversarial and the more open the differences the easier it is for people to consider the various aspects of difficult ideas.  Consider what might have happened, for example, had the legislature done what it is supposed to do and forced the cabinet to explain and fully justify something like the Abitibi expropriation.

The job of holding government accountable is not just for the opposition. Government members have a role to play as members of the House.

Newspapers and other media also have a role to play in a healthy democracy.  Usually, the role is to question and to criticise those in power.  Yet instead of showing any enthusiasm for democracy, the Telegram editorial board is slipping into the same anti-democratic way of thinking it offered in March and April 1931.  At that time, the country supposedly needed a break from democracy and the Telegram was all in favour of it.

Simply put:  just as one could not be a democrat and support the imposition of an unelected government in 1931, one cannot support democracy and hold out the recent session of the legislature as anything other than the embarrassment that it is.
If, as the Telegram editorial board contends,  the most recent session of the United States Congress is a sign of moral bankruptcy and if  the House of Assembly is a repository of nobility and virtue by comparison, then let us all hope the province is very soon beset by every form of political debauchery the human mind can imagine.

There is, after all, something much more horrible than democracy.

- srbp -