07 February 2013

A Celebration of Excellence #nlpoli

For the second day in a row, CBC Radio’s On the Go had a go at Frank Fagan, the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Or as host Ted Blades described him on Tuesday, another old, white guy.

In Wednesday Blades decided to interview NDP leader Lorraine Michael.  Blades started out by asking if he had been right to bring “gender” into the discussion.

Michael responded by referring back to the Premier’s recent Ovations event.

There are at least a couple of things you can take out of the interview and the mini-flap that has erupted the Fagan appointment.

First, note that Michael did not give her party’s position on political appointments, the position of lieutenant governor, or indeed even the Fagan appointment. She started by deferring to what premier Kathy Dunderdale had said about there being some sort of glass ceiling still in some places.  Politicians lead.  They lead by having opinions and by setting standards.

In this instance, as in others, Michael didn’t lead.  She deferred to someone else’s authority even though she had absolutely no reason – good or bad – for doing so.  We’ll come back to that later.

Second,  Michael is in agreement with a number political leaders on this and related issues.  She is certainly in sync with Kathy Dunderdale.  And Michael is also in complete agreement with Lana Payne, head of the province’s labour federation, who has made public comments about the Fagan appointment that generally complain that Fagan isn’t a woman.

Third, let us understand that the argument Michael and Payne made – like Dunderdale’s own perspective generally -  has no merit.  Their alternative is nothing but tokenism.

Payne, for example, belittled the position and by extension Fagan and his predecessors:

“Really? In all of #NL, not 1 woman qualified 2 host garden parties, read Throne Speeches, give out awards? Getting kinda old.”

Even if she was being facetious, Payne’s comments mock a position that has a special constitutional role.  She also dismissed the previous office holders.  Think what you may of them individually or collectively.  In general, they are all individuals who have contributed greatly to the province through a lifetime of public service either in elected politics, volunteerism, or in their careers.

From what we know of Fagan from media reports, he fits the mould perfectly.  There are undoubtedly a great many men and women in the province of equal merit as there have been in previous years when other prime ministers appointed Fagan’s predecessors. But Payne’s cheap sneers do no one any good.

Michael’s argument was no more substantive.  As CBC quoted her in a story posted before the Blades interview:

"I want to congratulate him," Michael told CBC News.

"But I also think it's a missed opportunity for putting a woman in that position for the first time, so from that perspective, I'm rather disappointed," she said.

To paraphrase:  it is a time for a token.  The fact that Michael tried to turn the who affair into an attack on Dunderdale  - who had no formal role in making the appointment - just made Michael’s argument all that much more pathetic.  Deferring to Dunderdale’s opinion the next day just made the whole thing a complete farce.

But note what neither Michael nor Payne – Michael’s wannabe successor as NDP leader – managed to do.  They could not seize the opportunity and turn it into a positive representation of Newfoundland and Labrador as a modern society.

Successive prime ministers in more recent times have used the lieutenant governor appointment to honour individuals with a record of public service.  What a great idea.  It could be like the Order of Canada or the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, but even moreso. 

And in the way those honours are conferred or should be conferred, respectively, future lieutenant governors could be selected by a non-partisan committee comprising former office holders and newfoundland and Labrador members of the national and provincial orders.  Individuals in the province would be able to nominate a suitable candidate who would be vetted in a process managed through Rideau Hall.  The federal cabinet can still make the appointment, but the process by which the nominee gets the job can transform both the job and how people perceive it, for the good of all of us.

Such an approach would provide for appointments based on merit.  It would recognize excellence and celebrate community service. Appointed in this way, the lieutenant governor would become a powerful symbol of our province, its people and their shared values as expressed through the actions of one exemplary individual.

Instead of that kind of leadership, what we got from Michael and Payne was petty and, in Payne’s case, appallingly small-minded. It is the same sort of trivial commentary we’ve seen before recently from local politicians about patronage appointments.

And it stands in contrast to Michael’s criticisms of the recent offshore board appointments in which she focused on the qualifications of the appointees, not the fact they had the wrong chromosomal arrangement for Michael’s taste.

Politicians and wannabe politicians have a chance to lead at least once a day.  Politicians got such an opportunity with the appointment of a new Lieutenant Governor for the province. Instead taking that opportunity, though,  Lana Payne and Lorraine Michael opted to stand with Kathy Dunderdale and the sort of regressive ideas we have seen too much of over the past decade.