03 November 2014

A renaissance feast for Christmas #nlpoli

Fans of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador have two excellent books that should be at the top of their Christmas gift lists this year.

First among unequals: the premier, politics, and policy in Newfoundland and Labrador is a collection of 12 essays on different aspects of recent politics with an introduction, and an opening and closing chapter by Dr. Alex Marland, who, along with Dr. Matthew Kerby, edited the collection.

Newfoundland’s last prime minister by former CBC executive producer Doug Letto is subtitled, not surprisingly,  “Frederick Alderdice and the death of a nation.”

People will  - and should - buy both these books.  They are well written and researched and represent, in their own way, two firsts in local political writing.

First among unequals is the first exploration of politics devoted exclusively to Newfoundland and Labrador. It brings together author from different academic disciplines. The two editors, Marland at Memorial, and Kerby, now at Ottawa, have been among the more prolific writers in what has been a recent resurgence of publication devoted to local political science.

The chapters examine major policy topics (education, health care, the fishery, the economy, and energy), the provincial political culture (nationalism, political branding, and party politics), and the structure and operation of government (the public service, cabinet management, and the use of the judiciary as a substitute for politics and the bureaucracy in policy development). Marland’s book-end chapters examine executive authority and policy development.

First among unequals consists of chapters that follow a common format.  They are cleanly and concisely written, offering a discussion of comparative theory, followed by some background, then on to a “case study”, namely the period from about 2003 to 2010, and then offer a short comment on “political decision-making”.

Newfoundland’s last prime minister is the first biography of this key figure in the country’s political history.  Alderdice was, as the title says, the last prime minister of Newfoundland before the introduction of commission government. 

Alderdice was also one of the first three local commissioners.  The commission that replaced the elected Newfoundland government consisted of six appointees:  three from Newfoundland and three from the United Kingdom.  Alderdice has figured in a number of broader examinations of the period but no one has offered a book-length treatment of Alderdice until now.

This is Letto’s fourth book.  He successfully combines his story-telling skills as displayed in Run, his account of the 1999 general election with the research skills from Chocolate bars and rubber boots,  Letto’s account of Joe Smallwood’s economic development program. 

This is not to say that the book is problem-free.  Letto notes that Newfoundland political figures seldom left memoirs or collections of papers behind.  As a result, the sort of original material that would be available elsewhere simply doesn’t exist for someone writing local history. 

All the same,  the British administrative records are accessible, even if there are no copies available at the university or the provincial archives for ant time after 1911.  Letto might have found useful material there that hasn’t previously been brought to light.  This might have been especially helpful in fleshing out the two years Alderdice served on the Commission Government before his death in 1936. 

As it is, Letto speeds through the time, relying on a couple of secondary sources for his account.  One of them – Sid Noel’s Politics in Newfoundland  - is 43 years old and showing its age badly.  The result is that a period that is not particular well-known popularly in Newfoundland and Labrador is given a bit of a short-shrift in a book that otherwise does an admirable job of making a very important part of our collective history better known to a wide audience.  That is,  after all is said and done, why people should buy this book. 

Most topics in Canadian history have only been done one, some historian once said.  Well, in Newfoundland and Labrador,  most topics in politics and political history haven’t been covered at all.  That makes books like Letto’s biography of Alderdice and the Marland and Kerby collection all the more important.

It also proves to be a weakness that is especially evident in some parts of the latter book.  In Marland’s introductory essay, for example, he describes the way that two recent premiers  - Frank Moores and Beaton Tulk - supposedly ran their cabinets.  His only reference is one for Frank Moores and that is John Crosbie’s 1997 memoir that was written 25 years after the events.  Kerby has no reference for Tulk not only because he held office as a care-taker but because no one has written about the way cabinets in the province have operated. In another case, Marland mentions Clyde Wells’ supposed “autocratic style”.  He has two sources this time, but if you track them both back,  you discover that the sources are comments from the same person – Lynn Verge – who never set foot inside the cabinet room while Wells was premier.

Marland and Kerby’s publisher – McGill-Queen’s University Press – says the book is about how “political elites shape public policy, viewed through the lens of Premier Danny Williams’ headline-grabbing tactics.”  The publisher’s blurb, Marland’s introduction, and some of the initial publicity claimed that the book “suggests that the power of the premier is exaggerated” in other analyses and in popular impressions.

Unfortunately, First among unequals doesn’t really give us enough to say that.  For one thing, they have no comparative material.  We don’t know how other provincial administrations worked because no one has really done the basic academic spadework on it. For another, they didn’t fill in the gap with this project.  Chris Dunn offers us a very broad overview of the the public service in his chapter but this is, at most, an introductory essay.  It offers nothing on the public service and how it actually operated during the Williams years. 

To give you a sense of this,  consider that Nalcor is little more than a footnote in Dunn’[s chapter. Likewise, the Cameron inquiry revealed a great deal about Williams’ administration for many of the aspects that would be crucial to a discuss of the political power and influence of the Premier’s office.  Yet, in this book, the inquiry figures most prominently in a chapter that holds it out as an example of “judicialization” of public policy.  It isn’t really:  as the authors' conclude, Williams used a public inquiry to manage the breast cancer scandal.  But except for the fact that Williams used a judge to chair the commission, there's nothing here to make this more than a public inquiry. And that  is a basic technique that is as old as the hills in the world of political management of crises and problems. 

The problem seems to be that Marland’s book-ends try and put a single narrative thread through the book that the components don;t support.  Separate out Marland’s introduction, though and what you have left are a dozen excellent essays on different aspects of local politics. Marland’s chapter on political branding and Kerby’s chapter on cabinet changes stand out, as does Jim Feehan’s overview of efforts to develop the Lower Churchill.  Maria Matthews’ survey of health policy and Gerald Galway’s look at education are also well worth the price of the book as a whole. The rest have their individual strengths.  Be warned, though, of one of the biggest weaknesses:  some of the chapters will tax anyone’s willingness to sift through dense and entirely unnecessary argon to find the nuggets of value. If you want an analysis of the Conservative administrations since 2003that address the subject of the book’s publicity, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Writing about politics has been going through a bit of a renaissance in the past decade or so of a kind not seen since the 1960s and 1970s. Letto’s biography of the last prime minister of Newfoundland and Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby’s compilation of essays on provincial politics from 2003 to around 2010 are to fine entrees in that renaissance feast.  If you haven’t read them already, get both on your Christmas list for yourself or as gifts for the political fan in your circle. You won’t go wrong.

For those who are interested,  your humble e-scribbler has a review of First among unequals coming in the next issue of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.