18 February 2011

Low Turn-out

As the Telegram editorial pointed up on Thursday, the winners in a series of recent by-elections took what is ostensibly one of the province’s most important and prestigious jobs based on the endorsement of the less than 30% of the eligible voters in the districts involved.

The Telegram blames the voters for this problem:

If you couldn’t even get off your backside to vote, you have no right to complain about how lousy, venial or downright pathetic your representation turns out to be. Heck, if they steal from you (as some of our politicians recently did), you hardly have a right to complain; you took no part in picking them, so they hardly betrayed your trust.

With possibly one brief period, politics in Newfoundland and Labrador has never been based on mobilisation of voters around a common goal or agenda based on their fundamental equality and on their shared and equal right to determine the future of the province.

Typically politics in Newfoundland and Labrador is based on the idea that citizens surrender their power to the patron who will deliver such benefits to the district – in the form of jobs and public spending – as he might be able.  Typically that sort of idea is reinforced by the sort of politics we’ve seen in the recent by-election in Humber West. 

In his campaign foray, Danny Williams took pains to remind voters how good he and his colleagues had been to the region.  That’s none-too-subtle coded for “look how much pork we brought” and now pay us back with a vote for my guy.  That’s pretty much the same sort of thing he said after the embarrassing defeat in the Straits.  Williams famously expressed disdain that voters could be so ungrateful to him – perhaps personally – for not electing his candidate after all the money that Williams and his colleagues had delivered to the district.

That basic message in provincial politics is what lay at the heart of the spending scandal.  Individual politicians got to distribute pork to their districts or to withhold it as they saw fit.  No one pretended to distribute the money fairly.  No one, including a former auditor general, thought that government programs – administered impartially by departments – were the right way to handle health and social services assistance of the kind many politicians claimed to be delivering out of money meant to maintain constituency offices and the like.

The current Conservative administration isn’t doing anything radically new in comparison to most of their predecessors. Like poll goosing, they are just doing it more aggressively and much more blatantly.  Fighting public disclosure of information? Discouraging public debate?  Closing and restricting membership in a supposedly open party?  All reflect the basic attitude that the majority of citizens have no role to play in the political system except to obey and acquiesce.

It is hardly surprising in that sort of political environment that people don’t participate in by-elections:  they aren’t supposed to turn out, beyond the identified party faithful.  And beyond the incumbent party, it takes a certain level of courage to swim against the stream.  The shouts of quisling and traitor aren’t designed to encourage discussion and it isn’t surprising that this sort of thuggery and intimidation has been as prominent as it has been during one of the most paternalistic regimes in the province’s history.    

It’s also not surprising that the most recent general election produced one of the lowest participation rates in the province’s history, right in line with the last time a paternalistic and patronage riddled party ruled the province.

So perhaps the next time the telegram editorialist is penning a finger-wagger, he or she might explain how it is the voter’s fault for not being braver when  the local political culture discourages participation.

Well, discourages participation beyond tugging the forelock.

- srbp -