03 December 2010

The politics of history (reprint)

This post first appeared as a column in the old Sunday Independent in 2004

Your humble e-scribbler posted at Bond Papers in July 2005 along with a few extra comments, including this one:

Reviewing the column now about 18 months after I wrote it, the only thing I would disagree with is the conclusion: I was wrong. People here don't seem to tire of having the same carpet threads being pushed in front of them again and again. Actually, I'd have to admit that over the past 18 months we have seen old ideas and old threads being sold time and again at their original price, marked up to account for inflation.

In light of this period of change in provincial politics, it’s worthwhile to take another look at how things looked like just six years ago:

The politics of history

History is a powerful thing in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

In his victory speech a few weeks ago, premier-elect Danny Williams pledged that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had voted to seize control of their destiny using words eerily reminiscent of Smallwood, Peckford and Tobin. "There will be no more giveaways. The giveaways end right here and right now!"

Why are we stuck on this rhetorical merry-go-round?

One reason is that political leaders take a Calvinist approach to history. As Calvin told his stuffed tiger Hobbes many years ago, people reinvent history to suit modern prejudices and to fit modern needs. We spin our history, old and new, reweaving the threads of fact to suit the immediate need. Tories blame the Liberals for job cuts in the early 1990s, conveniently forgetting the world recession, and the abysmal state of the province’s finances. New Liberals blame old Liberals for the Upper Churchill give-away. Nationalists blame foreigners for everything from the collapse of responsible government to current resource "giveaways", all the while forgetting that we have controlled our own destiny for most of the past 200 years.

The second reason is that spin seems to work. Politicians like to get elected. Brian Tobin and Brian Peckford won huge majority governments promising that one day the sun will shine, that we will be masters in our own house or that not one teaspoon of ore will leave the province. They hammered at the giveaways, vowing never again. At least in Peckford’s case, he stuck around long enough to make a decision, yet, as good as his intentions were in signing the Atlantic Accord, newer politicians have found in that deal their latest scapegoat.

The third reason is that politicians are people and people like sameness; it’s a human characteristic. Change in any form is often intimidating. For politicians in a province that has experienced relatively little change throughout its history, more of the same seems like the answer to everything, especially if you want to get elected.

The fourth reason is that there is a certain expectation that everything in the province is government's responsibility. For most of our history, Newfoundland and Labrador has been a top-down place. Churches and politicians ran things. The churches handled schools, salvation and morality. The government ran everything else, from job creation to the dole. If voters expect you to walk on water, and you don't have a better idea, politicians found it easier to take a step or blame someone else for the supposed failure, if they wanted to get elected.

History seems to push politicians to more of the same, but ironically, history is about change. And as the Newfoundland and Labrador electorate changes, they are getting better able to spot the same carpet being sold to them time and again.
The choice for the new crop of politicians elected last month is whether to spin history for immediate, and ultimately short-lived, gains. Or use history - our experience, our culture - as one tool to guide substantive changes in and for Newfoundland and Labrador. In eight years time, they may find that many of the changes they hoped for like massive new industries will still be little more than the fodder for someone else's rhetoric.

The four factors just mentioned, though, are all within their power to change.

For a politician to change those in Newfoundland and Labrador would be something truly historic.

- srbp -