27 January 2015

Opposition grows to antidemocratic House cuts #nlpoli

Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador,  the umbrella organization that speaks for the province’s towns and cities, doesn’t like the plan to slash the number of representatives the people of the province have speaking for them in the House of Assembly.

“We believe that a reduction in representation will have serious implications for municipal governments and the communities they represent, “ MNL posted to its Facebook page on Monday.

Easy and frequent access to our MHAs is critically important to municipal leaders. So much of municipal work is done in partnership with the provincial government, and any erosion of this relationship would set us back - particularly in rural communities. Effective democracy comes at a price. We need to think long and hard before we decide that price is too high.

A group of university professors also released a copy of a letter they sent to members of the House of Assembly.

As an institution, the House is intended to act as representative of the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador, and as a check on the executive power of cabinet and the office of the premier.  The proposal to cut the number of seats diminishes its ability to fulfill those roles.  To put it bluntly, the legislation is undemocratic and ill-informed.

The professors – from several departments within the university – also objected to the process used to set the boundaries.  The new boundaries will be drawn with “limitations that were drafted in the middle of the night and passed before ANY member of the public had a chance to review and comment on what was transpiring.  This simply is not an acceptable way to manage the province’s electoral system.”

And if that wasn’t enough,  political science doctoral candidate Drew Brown wrote a scathing critique of the plan to cut seats in the legislature on his blog coaker’s ghost

In other words, why jump straight to slashing seats? Other than to pay homage to the time-honoured Newfoundland tradition of gutting democracy at the first sign of economic trouble, I mean.

Again, we already know the answer to all this. Bill 42 was a ploy to rope-a-dope Dwight Ball and the Liberals, who fell for it hook, line, and sinker. For whatever reason it had been trendy going back to 2013 for the opposition parties to make unprompted calls for shrinking the legislature and the Tories, desperate to strike back against surging Liberal polls, gave them what they wished for.

Inserting themselves in the process

On Twitter, one Conservative supporter criticised the professors for speaking out at all.  Bear in mind this is Twitter, so the originals were a series of comments made with a total of 140 characters each.  That’s characters, remember, not letters.  A space is a character.  Your humble e-scribbler has added a few words here and there in square brackets to help the comment flow, but otherwise the comments are as they appeared in the original.

“Academics actively involving themselves in the political process is considerably worse for citizen engagement than any seat reduction.”  [It] “Takes discussion further out of public sphere & creates division between citizenry & those who claim superior understanding.”

“I'm not saying they shouldn't have opinions, I'm saying they should be scholarly observers, offer arguments, critiques, et al..”  [But] “once they send letters to governments urging change they lose that worldview and become participants of the process.” 

“But I'm not saying they shouldn't speak their mind, they absolutely should. But inserting themselves into the process wrong.”

This is an interesting notion.  Academics can comment on any subject they want to speak about.  They must do so as impartial observers, though.  Once they speak specifically for or against a particular measure, their comments become inappropriate.  At that point,  academics become “participants in the process.”  They are “inserting themselves in the process.”

There’s a longstanding tradition in our society that some people – like police, the military,  public servants, and judges – should stay out of politics.  They are supposed to be impartial.

But academics are different.  They don’t wield any power like, say, the police.  They can offer opinions on issues just as anyone else in society can.  Their right to free speech doesn;t need to be limited in any way.

In fact, on a subject like public policy, it makes sense to listen to what experts like political scientists have to say.  A key part of the argument offered by the professors is that the rushed process used by the legislature limited the opportunity for anyone to have a say in the process. 

Patterns of Behaviour

What’s interesting to note here is the suggestion that a perfectly legitimate action by a group of concerned citizens was quickly branded as ethically wrong by a vocal supporter of the Conservative party.  We’ve seen the same sort of thing before. 

A couple of years ago, Steve Kent attacked prominent and knowledgeable citizens who were critical of the Muskrat Falls project.  he did so not by dealing with their arguments.  Instead he attacked their character using smears.  The guy on Twitter didn’t stoop to that level but he did pretty much the same thing by branding the fact they spoke at all as ethically wrong.

Take another example:  Mark Griffin.  The central Newfoundland lawyer spoke against the seizure of hydroelectric assets belonging to three companies.  The Premier at the time attacked him as a traitor to the people of the province not just for what he said but that he said it all.  There are other examples of exactly the same behaviour, of efforts to discredit the critic personally rather than deal with the argument itself.  Even letters to the editor used to earn the writer a telephone call from the Premier of the day not to address the substance of the letter but to silence the criticism itself. It’s a pattern of behaviour.

The professors quickly faced some criticism that relied on another familiar argument.  Some anonymous comments on the CBC website site focused on the assumption that the professors were from outside Newfoundland and Labrador. “It's like we are too stupid to make out own decisions,” said one, “and we need the mainlander university-types to tell us how to do it. Smacks of elitism.”




Hatred of foreigners is a much more common political totem since 2003 than it has been for quite some time. Politicians haven’t used the arguments in this case, but you can see that the ideas are just below the surface.  Not so long ago, though, you would find the Premier and his partisan supporters using that deep-rooted, irrational belief to cover all sorts of political action. 

The provincial government characterized the dispute with the federal government over federal transfer payments in 2004,  negotiations with oil companies about Hebron, development of the Lower Churchill,  disagreements over Equalization in a way that tapped easily into the rich vein of hatred and suspicion directed by many Newfoundlanders at people perceived as foreigners.

Muskrat Falls was originally supposed to be a way to get back at Quebec for the injustice of the 1969 power contract.  The truth,  though, that the provincial Conservatives tried to sell Hydro-Quebec a chunk of the project with no redress for 1969, never came up.

Patterns of behaviour are hard to change.   They often reveal patterns of thought.

Both are very interesting.

Since we are still in the very earliest days of the looming problem with the electoral boundaries commission,  the fact these arguments are cropping up already could be a sign that this will become a very interesting year indeed.