30 April 2013

Wanted: a good row #nlpoli

One of the unreserved joys that comes from writing these scribbles is the moment when a post sparks something.

Like on Monday, when a simple post looking at change in the provincial gross domestic product prompted an exchange among a few of the provincial Twitterati (Twitteratini?) on the whole business.  Was it useful?  What did it mean?  Wonderful stuff considering that the post was intended to provoke thought of just that sort, not reach any hard-and-fast conclusions.

Gross domestic product is not a very useful indication – in itself – of the state of the provincial economy.  To get a sense of things, you’d really have to know a lot of other information, like what sort of economic activity is making up the GDP.

Take the fish processing sector.  It’s gone from  about $128 million in 1997 to almost $290 million in 2011.  132% increase!  You’d think that all would be wonderful in the industry on that basis alone.  Of course you’d be wrong.  The processing sector has huge troubles with everything from capital to labour.  There are bigger problems looming on the horizon.

In the same time period, something called “Other Manufacturing” went from $488.5 million to $437 million.  That’s definitely something to be concerned about given the reliance in the economy on exports of one kind or another. 

A couple of decades ago, the provincial government wanted to expand the provincial economy.  Manufacturing was one way of doing it.  Indeed,  The entire “Manufacturing” category of industries only increased to $736 from $617 million.  But by the looks of things the growth in one or two sub-sectors offset declines in others.  And given the problems in the fish manufacturing bit of the industry, that modest net overall gain really covers over a host of other problems none of which are particularly good.

The sort of thing you saw in the Twitter exchange is one example of the sort of conversation that Kathy Dunderdale said she thought we all needed to have about things like taxes and such. It’s people batting things about to see if they can figure out what it means.

That’s the sort of conversation we could have each year in a genuine budget consultation.  There’s just one problem:  in order to have that sort of conversation you need three ingredients the current provincial government doesn’t have. 

First, you need information.  That’s something the current crowd running the place have been loathe to give anyone since 2003.  Don’t be fooled by the recent announcements about orders in council and access to information requests online.  Fundamentally, they are the government of Bill 29 and the policy of deliberately keeping things secret.  They censor public documents. 

Think of it this way:  the goal in public relations is to communicate with people to gain and maintain their support.  They can’t support you if they don;t know what is going on and, more often than not, they can’t know what you are doing if you don;t tell them.  The Conservatives don;t want to tell you what they are actually doing.  It doesn’t take a $150,000 communications audit of the sort done by Fleishman Hillard for the government in late 2011 to get at that basic point. (Go check the ATIPS)

Second, you must want a conversation.  It’s doubtful that Fleishman Hillard’s audit  mentioned that either, since it is such a fundamental premise.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives continue their old plan of dismissing out of hand anyone who offers any thought that doesn’t match the Conservative line perfectly.  Your humble e-scribbler's said this before in a bunch of different ways but it is continues to be a fundamental Conservative policy;  no convo.

Third, it certainly helps to have a public conversation when there are a bunch of people who are already used to having those sorts of open chats. MHAs?  Well, consider that the likes of cabinet ministers (e.g. Paul Oram) or, more recently, backbenchers like Eli Cross are evidently completely unsullied by anything vaguely resembling accurate information about the province. 

It’s not their fault, mind you.  Our political system these days simply doesn’t attract the Marshalls, Barrys, Ottenheimers, Crosbies or Wells. A decade of rampant demagoguery tends to promote mediocrity. 

A bigger problem though is that we don’t have a good training ground for future community leaders.  Service clubs, professional associations, town councils, and such often don;t expose their members to much beyond the approved government talking point of the moment.  Business isn’t a useful training ground for public policy, either, as it turns out. 

Academics?  A couple of them turn up fairly regularly talking in public about this and that.  Wade Locke, though, seems to have traded his academic objectivity for a partisan cloak the past decade or so.  The Harris Centre has been known to sponsor some good talks now and then. 

But where is the fiery debate on some fundamental issue? 

Try desperately to find one.  The last two books written on that tired old chestnut of Confederation -  Patrick O’Flaherty (academic) and Greg Malone (comedian) – recycled the same tired stories that have been going for decades.  if people can still find a new angle on the English Civil War or the American one a couple of centuries later then surely there’s more to find in the story of a people who voted to join their country with another.  More that is, than the nonsense that it was all a great con-job.

In the meantime, go to the bookstore and try to find another book that looks at a major current issue of provincial public affairs over the past six decades written since 2005. 

Then try since 2000.  Save the trouble:  the extra five years made no difference.  Your shopping cart will still be empty.

How about a blog written by historians, political scientists, sociologists, and economists about Newfoundland and Labrador? 


What about a magazine?  The Journal of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies publishes twice a year and even then there’s no guarantee that its contents will be either timely or accessible to a non-academic reader.

The Newfoundland Quarterly used to be a lively publication.  These days it is still engaging but mainly about the arts.  Look about for any other sort of publication.  Keep looking.  There isn’t one that is likely to host a dust-up over energy policy or the future direction of the fishery from a couple of new faces arguing strongly-held positions.

Luncheon forum?  Once in a blue moon something crops up, maybe

Discussion group that meets regularly?

Tweet if you find anything.