10 April 2013

The Transformation #nlpoli

Provincial Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador have a political philosophy that is equal parts Machiavelli,  Kafka, and the Three Stooges.

For the first few years they seemed to be constantly plotting and manoevring, always one step ahead of their opponents at home and abroad. 

Those days are gone, now, replaced by a surreal landscape of bizarre shapes and hideous shadows.

The Conservatives have already admitted to their continuing financial mismanagement of the province.  They admitted in 2009 that what they spend of the public’s money every year is unsustainable. They continue to spend like that even though the public cannot afford it.

Yet these same profligates attack their political enemies with the accusations that the opponents are financially irresponsible.  These same bankrupts defend recent cuts to education by pointing to their previous spending which they have admitted is unaffordable and which is the reason for the cuts.  They censor public documents and at one and the same time, crown themselves most open government the province has ever seen.

This heady mixture now comes to slapstick comedy, courtesy of Trevor Taylor.

The former cabinet minister has a column in the Telegram, the province’s largest daily newspaper.  It is a plum spot. 

This week, Trevor decided that he would leave to someone else a discussion of public finance,  economic development, the fishery, the future, and any of a number of other issues gripping the province these days.

Trevor decided that this week his column should explain why he and his Conservative colleagues have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars since 2003 to serve the Conservatives’ partisan interest.

Specifically, Trevor explains why they have been devoting hours and hours each day to ensuring that the VOCM Question of the Day and other such Internet trivialities support the provincial government’s view.

Taylor relies on the tired old justification that the Conservatives do it just like everyone else does.
Influencing public opinion is what democracy is all about. I see no more wrong with political staffers being involved in facilitating responses to the daily media polls than I do to them being involved with the generating of petitions for the daily three-minute section of the House sitting.
Two things follow.

First, not everyone did it and not everyone does it either in this province or anywhere else.

Second, we are not talking about influencing public opinion or persuading people of a point of view. The efforts to skew Internet polls is about manufacturing opinions. It is about deceit.

Taylor talks about scientific opinion polls:
Public opinion is most accurately measured by the independent pollster, the one who is outside the subjective opinions that we all have, the one who conducts a phone-out, not a phone-in scientific survey.
As Taylor knows, the Conservative efforts after 2003 were not restricted to the online foolishness. The Conservatives organized their entire communications apparatus – cabinet ministers, communication directors and backbenchers – in an effort four times a year to  adulterate what used to be the only regular public opinion poll conducted by a private polling firm.

This is not longer a matter of speculation.  The evidence – whether from SRBP or from academics Marland and Kerby – is overwhelming. Whatever the Brian Tobin or Roger Grimes Liberals ever did to stack an open line program pales in comparison to what one knowledgeable observer has described as the industrial scale efforts of the Conservatives.

Coupled with patronage spending and their relentless efforts to conceal information from the public, the quarterly poll manipulation was part of a long-term effort by Taylor and his associates to control public opinion.  The effect of what they did was to deny people the opportunity to make an informed decision of their own. 

What is funny about Taylor’s column – the only thing funny about it – is that he and his colleagues persist in their efforts to defend their behaviour long after the public learned the truth. 

But whatever faces one may make at Taylor’s ludicrous arguments,  the grins quickly turn to nauseated grimaces when one considers the full extent of what Taylor says.  He believes that politicians have a right to use public money to suit their partisan ends.  That is the essence of the scam Taylor enthusiastically endorses. Taylor’s vigorous praise for the waste and misdirection of public money is all the more obscene in the current climate of cutbacks and layoffs.

Communications directors are supposed to be public servants, paid a government salary to do non-partisan work.  Yet after 2003 they have been routinely employed in drafting partisan news releases timed to serve the governing party’s partisan ends.   More recently, this has transmogrified into nakedly partisan tweets and news releases distributed over the government’s supposedly non-partisan information system.

Those political staffers who spend hours at this sort of stuff are paid out of public money as well.   They are supposed to be assisting their bosses to do government work.  Typically, they aren’t when they are up to this sort of poll goosing.  They are using public money and in the process, they are abusing the people of Newfoundland and Labrador just as surely as members of the House of Assembly who all participated in the massive patronage scheme that thrived in the legislature between 1996 and 2006.  There is no ethical difference between the one misuse and the other.

And when you go back to the first point made here (not everyone does this sort of thing) what stands out most starkly about Taylor’s column is that he does not see the ethical problems – the moral problems - in what he supports. 

The ends justify the means, apparently.

They don’t.

That is likely why scientific opinion polls have shown for the past three years that Taylor and his associates don’t have much support among the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.  They seem to understand Machiavelli, Kafka, and the Three Stooges even if Trev and his crew do not.


*revised to correct typos and provide a clearer meaning in the opening sentence.