29 February 2012

And this surprises you because…? #nlpoli

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador is about what the social scientists – like political scientists, for example -  would call clientelism.

You may have heard it called patronage.  Regardless of the word you use, the purpose is the same:

That isn’t just about giving party workers government jobs.  It’s basically one element of a system in which citizens trade their status as citizens for that of being the client of a particular patron.  The patron gets political power and the ability to dispense benefits of some kind.  In exchange, the client gives the patron support.

In healthy democracies, the people govern themselves.  They vote to elect some of their number to oversee the government.  The citizens expect those representatives to deliver public works and services fairly to all on the basis of need. There is no question that the representatives work for the citizens and must be accountable to them.

For people who don’t live in healthy democratic societies, elections are a game in which they can “lose their vote”.  What that means is that they could bet on the loser and as such not have any right to anything. People in those societies do not expect to see schools and hospitals built or roads paved in their area because it is their right to receive them.  They expect them only because they voted for the party that won the election.

And, implicitly, they expect to be punished when they lose their vote.

There are no ideological or philosophical differences between political parties.

Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat.

Red, Blue, Orange.

All the same.

Elections become little more than a case of auctioneering votes.  Danny Williams himself raised the sale of votes to a new level in his now infamous begging letters to Ottawa. And what he was doing, in a sense, would hardly have shocked politicians from the Quebec of old that Williams was so fond of bashing. It’s doubtful he ever got the joke in that.

Patronage is how things have been in this province for a very long time.  The only difference since 2003 is that the patronage is as unrelenting as the general indifference to it.

Road paving?  Decided by a political staffer in the Premier’s office, an approach termed “normal” by the Premier of the day.  The money was allocated in arbitrary amounts according to what way the electoral district had voted. Blue districts got one amount.  Red ones got less.

The Premier of the day loses a by-election and bitches because people were not grateful for all the pork he’d delivered to them.

Whether we are talking about fire trucks or backbenchers handing out cheques from government programs, it’s all part of the same political thinking that in its most naked form delivered us the House of Assembly pork barrel funding scheme. Tories, Grits and Dippers all swam in the trough.  Some of the newer ones elected after 2003 went at it worse than the crowd who’d been there a while. And they were unapologetic.

These sorts of societies thrive on the myth of the strong leader.  They cannot govern themselves, so the story goes and as a result, they need some strong man  - or woman – to do their thinking for them.

So prevalent is this sort of thinking in Newfoundland and Labrador that people don’t see it as odd at all. The news media seldom raise an editorial eyebrow.

So safely entrenched is this approach to politics that cabinet ministers these days can be pretty brazen about it.  Here’s how Fairity O’Brien put it before the last provincial election, defending the government against accusations of patronage spending:

okay, so the question here in my district is, and I am only speaking for myself, do you want four more years of what you’ve just experienced in the last eight, or do you want to sit in the Opposition, or whatever it may be…

Or if that wasn’t enough for you, here’s Darin King, as reported by the Great Oracle in the Valley:

A cabinet minister is unapologetic for the rash of pre-election spending announcements coming from the government. The MHA for Grand Bank, Darin King, announced some money for health care recently. There has been a steady stream of news releases, most announcing money that had already been allocated in the budget, over the past several months.

On VOCM Open Line with Randy Simms, King said he is dedicated to bringing in as much money as he can to his district.

No one should be surprised, therefore, if the patrons decide to slap a vassal that is getting a bit uppity. The provincial government secured the silence of many the “advocacy” group these past few years with dollops of public cash for this program or that one.  The FFAW was no exception.

Now that things have gotten a little tense in some circles and the FFAW and the NDP are playing rough, Darin King the fisheries minister has decided to stop the FFAW’s funding, as CBC reports.

And what’s more, Darin is pretty clear about why:

“It’s very, very tough to build a working relationship with a group that continues to criticize,” King said.

Now on one level this is just political sookiness from a gang of politicians who’ve never had to govern through a really tough period in their lives. Not that you’d know that, of course, for all the whining, moaning, bitching and complaining they and their Old Leader used to get on with.

But fundamentally, what King is displaying here is all the arrogant sense of entitlement to power, position and patronage that he and his colleagues have had since Day One. King is displaying the customary attitude of his party since 2003 to free speech.

They don’t like it.

The Telegram’s Russell Wangersky had a timely column, as it turned out, in the Tuesday edition of what was once the People’s Paper. He reproduces a relatively innocuous comment from a reader who wanted the letter published but only without a name attached to it.  The writer feared he would face some sort of payback.  As Wangersky put it:

The perception the letter-writer has, though, is clearly that reasoned debate is not without clearly perceived consequences in this province. Would there be retribution? I honestly don’t know. But there clearly should be a discussion about the fact that such a fear exists, if nothing else.

The provincial government admittedly has a long reach here: many are employed by it or have family members employed by it. Many businesses depend on the provincial government for some or even most of their business.

The fear of retribution is not new: whether it’s a reality or not is hard to know for sure. I know businessmen I’ve talked to in the province — and I’ve said this before — who are willing to talk a lot about Muskrat Falls in private, but who will never speak publicly.

Eight years of quisling hunts and savage personal attacks on “traitors” take their toll.  Don’t be surprised if some members of the legislature may well be finding that groups that once welcomed them to meetings and events are now routinely disinviting them.  They represent the wrong party.

So Darin King cut off the FFAW’s government funding because they’ve been too critical publicly.

If this surprises you then you are either a hypocrite or a very recent immigrant to the province.  This is old news.

- srbp -