10 December 2012

Nottawa Repost: Legislative oversight in an era of "patriotic correctness" #nlpoli

The following originally appeared at nottawa on September 2, 2009 as a comment on the emergency session of the legislature to deal with changes to legislation about the Churchill River.

It includes a mention of an earlier political controversy, the December 2008 expropriation bill.  The two are linked and in light of Friday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in case related to the expropriation,  Mark Watton’s observations at the time are worth reading again.

Danny Williams, thee Premier at the time of both these incidents, may be gone from the political scene but the ministers who were integral parts of the policies remain in positions of power.  One of them - Kathy Dunderdale – is William’s hand-picked successor. 

The policies and the attitudes that bred them remain in place, as finance minister Tom Marshall  made plain on Friday.

Nothing has changed in Newfoundland and Labrador. And that is why these comments from three years ago still resonate:

Newfoundland and Labrador's House of Assembly is preparing to reconvene for a "special" sitting. The media have reported nothing more on this development other than what was contained in yesterday's late afternoon press release, which said that the "special" sitting was necessary, "to deal with an amendment required to the Energy Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador Water Rights Act."

In other words, a Bill that received royal assent only 15 months ago appears to have a flaw in it which requires the legislature's immediate attention, and for all the Members to return for an emergency one day sitting. Maybe it's a typo. Maybe it's a grave error or omission. Maybe it's something in between.

But whatever it is - and we'll find out by Tuesday - it begs the question of how and why 48 Members of the House of Assembly, with their committees and sub-committees, their researchers and policy analysts, and an army of senior bureaucrats missed whatever the heck it is that requires this "special" sitting.

Media coverage of the "special" sitting will likely depend on how serious an amendment is involved, but regardless, it should serve as a reminder to all of us what the role of the legislature is, and a perfect example of what happens when a legislature simply doesn't work.
It's also a worthy reminder of what CBC reporter David Cochrane described in a speech more than two years ago:

“There exists in Newfoundland and Labrador a phenomenon I like to call ‘Patriotic Correctness.’ Like political correctness, it makes certain words or expressions unacceptable.

But most significantly, it has fostered an environment where informed dissent is seen as nothing short of treason. Where the simple questioning or criticism of the government or the premier is viewed as an unpatriotic assault upon the very fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador.’

Cochrane's speech dealt with the relationship between the provincial government and the business community, particularly with respect to economic decisions and policies of successive governments dealing with major resource industries. But it's analogous to the relationship between our executive and legislative branches of government too.

Had any Member of the Opposition (or for that matter the Government caucus) stood in their place in Question Period, during debate, or in committee, and pointed out errors or suggested changes to the Premier's glorious NALCOR legislation, they'd have been publicly ridiculed, branded a traitor, and verbally assaulted in the media. A patriotic pile-on would have continued by way of the Premier's army of Comms Directors, call-in puppets and friendly ‘state radio’ personnel.

This is as much and as likely a failure on the part of the Opposition members as it is the fault of the governing Tories. But the problem in Newfoundland's political culture, more so than anywhere else I've been, is that the fear of saying or doing something unpopular far, far outweighs the fear of doing saying or doing something wrong.

It also begs the question - on this particular piece of legislation - are the 48 Members of the legislature collectively incapable, collectively incompetent or collectively intimidated?

Unfortunately, there is no satisfactory answer.

In recent years, this political culture has worsened. And it's spreading far beyond the confines of the legislature.
The recent Abitibi expropriation bill, which essentially overturned the rule of law with respect to contracts in the province, purported to place the legislature ‘above’ the courts and all such matters, and appears to violate at least one international trade agreement passed three readings with no opposition, no questions, and no discussion. No matter what you may think of Abitibi-Bowater's decision to close its mill in Grand Falls, this is a pretty awesome and frightening precedent in any Western democracy.

Only recently, in an online Canadian business magazine did the first comments from a local academic appear in print questioning the government's actions. You will not find a single example of any local trade lawyer, policy analyst or academic in any local media raising similar comments or asking the most basic of questions.

It's hard to tell if it's the local reporters who are unwilling to cover such comments, or if it's the local intelligentsia who have been sufficiently dissuaded from offering them.

Either way, who can blame them. After all, if the Opposition Members in the legislature - whose job it is to question and oppose the government of the day - are too lazy and too afraid to perform their most basic task, why the hell should anyone else?

Depressing, isn't it?

Note:  the links in the post are the same as the in the original.  One  - to Canadian Business -  is broken and has been removed.