03 January 2012

The question of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador #cdnpoli #nlpoli

“A democracy only works really well,” according to Kathy Dunderdale, “when people are asking questions.”

Opposition Leader Dwight Ball told a Western Star interviewer that “my job is to ask questions with substance…”.

Not to be outdone in the spate of year-end interviews, New Democratic Party leader Lorraine Michael tied the health of democracy to asking questions:

If our natural resources standing committee ... were operating like a House of Commons committee or like the committees in Nova Scotia, we’d have a fully open discussion on Muskrat Falls.

Not surprisingly, all three party leaders in Newfoundland and Labrador agree on what constitutes democracy in the province.  They lead parties that agree on everything but the fine details. 

Not surprisingly, the three leaders discuss democracy solely in terms of what happens in the provincial legislature.  The only disagreement they have, such as it is, centres on the questions the opposition parties ask.  The NDP want more time to ask questions.  The Liberals want to ask better questions and the Conservatives claim variously that there is enough time for questions as things stand or that the quality of them is low anyway so more time wouldn’t make things better.

In one sense, democracy is about questions.

It is about people who want power – like Kathy Dunderdale, Lorraine Michael and Dwight Ball – asking the rest of us in the community to support them at election time.  We support them with the one thing that we all have in common:  our individual vote. Everyone in the community has exactly the same kind of vote. And it is our individual vote that is the foundation of everything else that happens in our democracy.

In between elections, democracy is about those people who get enough support to form a government asking “May I” when they want to do something. That’s essentially what they do in the House of Assembly.

They pose the question to the other members of the House, whether from their own party or the other parties and individuals who won enough votes to sit in the legislature. 

You’ll find that quite literally in the procedure.  The Speaker will “put the question” on a motion, a resolution or a bill to the House and ask the members to vote.

Ask a question. 

Vote on an answer.

Decision made.

All starting from the fundamental question put to individual voters at an election to chose individuals who will represent those voters in the legislature.

Things weren’t always that way.  But starting almost 800 years ago, in those countries that follow the British parliamentary tradition, people started to place limits on what the government could do without the agreement of the people ruled by the government.

The 1689 Bill of Rights brought together many of the features of our modern democracy that we often assume have always been around and that people have always accepted.  Freedom of speech,  freedom to stand for and to vote in elections to the legislature and the need for the legislature to meet regularly are all contained in the 1689 Bill of Rights. They survive today: some changed, some the same.

At the core of the whole thing is choice.  People chose their representatives to sit in the legislature.  We select those representatives to stand in for each of us every day between elections.

We do not elect a government.  We elect people to the legislature, to the House of Assembly.  Out of those people, we get a group to run the government.  And those people running the government must come back to our direct representatives for approval for what they want to do, especially when it comes to spending public money.

There are two other ideas that go along with choice and who gets to chose.  One of these is that choices must be based on information.  The legislature’s day-to-day business is built around debate and the exchange of information. 

The other idea is that the information and choice must be in public.  The legislature has space for people to sit and watch what happens.  News media and others can report on what happens.  The legislature keeps an official record – Hansard – that people can read.

Seen from that perspective, those political comments about questions and the legislature don’t look all that good or convincing.  Looking at some recent history, one can find a host of examples  – from the spending scandal to the Abitibi expropriation fiasco  - that show the bad things that happen when politicians operate in secret. 

You can also see that the Premier’s excuses for keeping the legislature closed simply don’t make sense.  If she feels that her current job is a “rare privilege”, then Kathy Dunderdale needn’t remind herself of that fact every day, in secret, in her office. 

She can show up in the legislature and demonstrate that she gets the point:  if you want power in this province, the you have to stand up in the legislature and ask “May I?”

The purpose of the House is to subject those with power to public examination and to the test of debate, discussion and disclosure.  The Premier and her colleagues should want the legislature to be open as much as possible.  They should want to tell us about their plans, present their case and convince us all that they have good ideas.

How very odd it is, then, that the Premier admitted at the end of last year that she and her colleagues don’t have any thing ready to present to the House.  This is the case despite the fact they’ve been in office since 2003 and the Premier herself has held her job for more than a year.

At other times, Dunderdale has said that she kept the legislature closed because the House was dysfunctional.  The opposition parties were weak. Who will hold them accountable for what they say, she wondered. 

The answer is simple:  the ordinary people of Newfoundland and Labrador will.  If the opposition political parties are as weak as Dunderdale claims, then they won’t be able to hide away from public scrutiny either.  Exposing yourself to examination works both for those with power and those who want it.

The fact that the Premier and her colleagues avoid the House as they do and denigrate the legislature as the Premier does, she demonstrates nothing less than contempt for the people of the province.

To be fair, though, none of the parties in the House can really escape blame on this point.  All parties have  helped to create the current climate. Dunderdale controls how often the House sits.  But the other parties went along unquestioningly with the special ballot laws that undermine the right of individuals to stand for election.  Some even openly suggested making this a one party state.  Perhaps that explains why they slipped things through the House with a nod and a wink and stood idly by as their colleagues abused the fundamental rights we have enjoyed. Now they may not see it that way. They may believe that what they have done is absolutely right in every respect.

But they were not right.

It is not okay.

The attitude and actions of politicians in the province in recent decades are why the state of democracy in our province is, itself, in question.

- srbp -