06 February 2015

Government by Committee #nlpoli

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador (2015) – Part 5
In the fifth and final  instalment in this series on politics in Newfoundland and Labrador, SRBP looks at the latest move in continuing efforts by politicians in the province to make the House of Assembly irrelevant.
If you want to understand politics in Newfoundland and Labrador, look no further than Bill 42.  That’s the plan to cut eight seats from the House of Assembly before the next election.

Don’t look at the reasons the politicians offered for the cuts. Just look at who did it, what they did, and how they did it. After all, actions speak a lot louder than words.

The politicians in the House of Assembly did it.

What they did was cut eight men and women elected by the people of the province to represent them in the House of Assembly.  The politicians decided how many people would represent you and your interests in the legislature.

How they did it was simple:  they held a quick, emergency session of the legislature and voted in favour of the changes without any public consultation at all.  They did it entirely on their own.

They recognised the magnitude of what they were doing.  In fact, some members of the legislature said during the period for delivering speeches about the bill  that this very short piece of legislature would have very big consequences for the people of the province.

Not a single politician in the House of Assembly, from either of the three parties represented there, said – at any time – that this  issue should be put to the people themselves in a general election.

On the first day of the session that they actually talked about the cuts themselves,  the politicians used the word “election” 114 times.  On the final day of discussion, they used the word “election”  235 times.

Not once did anyone suggest putting the whole thing to the public in an election.  They talked a lot about whether the election would happen in the fall, as planned.  The Liberals were worried about that.  The New Democrats wondered about why the changes were happening so quickly, before an election assumed to be coming in the fall.

But no one in the chamber wondered for one moment if the politicians had the moral authority to cut public representation without a specific endorsement from the public.  There’s no question the politicians had the legal authority to make the changes. 

Moral authority is another matter.

And not one of them voiced any concern for it.

When anyone asked about public input, the politicians pointed to the consultations the boundary commission was obliged to have in the law.  The only problem was that those consultations would only be about where to draw the new lines, not whether or not to draw new lines in the first place.
Only the three New Democrats in the House voted against the boundaries bill.  But if you look at what they said,  the New Democrats were objecting about the process.  They didn’t object to the principle of cuts, nor did they think that putting the question to the public in an election was preferable to giving the commission enough time to draw the boundaries and to ask people where the boundaries ought to go.

Naughty Scholars and other Effective Foolishness

A group of professors from Memorial University and other universities in Canada wrote a letter to all the members of the House of Assembly. Some party supporters criticised the professors for speaking at all against the bill, after it had passed.  The proper role for the academics, they said, was to stand on the sidelines and observe. 

Once they stated an opinion about the legislation,  the professors crossed a line, at least as far as some party supporters were concerned.  The truth was that the professors were doing exactly what citizens are supposed to do in a democracy:  they expressed an opinion about a very serious public issue.
Anyone who has been paying attention to politics over the past decade will recognise that response to people who speak out against the  consensus among the politicians. They are traitors. They are quislings.  They are too negative. They are being partisan. They aren’t being helpful.

At one point,  the Conservatives were so concerned to shut down any public discussion of contrary points of view that the Premier himself would call up someone for doing nothing more than writing a letter to the paper.  Others, like lawyer Mark Griffin or Julia Trahey or the 2041 group suffered public attacks better characterised as vicious, unprincipled smears. 

Those are actually the more extreme examples of how the Conservatives worked to control the political landscape. Most of what they did was more subtle. We’ve already discussed this week the approach to the House of Assembly:  the less time spent there, the less time the opposition had to make any news.

The saturation of good news and calls to open line shows four times a year was a part of controlling the agenda, as well.  Producing a good poll served as justification for everything:  we are right because we are popular and we are popular because we are right.  Party activists used that logic relentlessly against any opposition of any kind.

And it worked.  The Liberals and NDP went along with the Fortis expropriation  - in part - because the Premier was popular. The same thing happened during the Bill 42 debate.  During the Bill 42 debate.  NDP leader Lorraine Michael said that she did not force the House to go an extra day in part because cuts to the House of Assembly were popular.  And the Liberals backed the scheme, partly because Dwight Ball had already endorsed cuts publicly and partly because they had a hastily-done poll that showed people liked the idea of cuts based on the superficial arguments offered by the provincial government before debate began.

Blocking access to information was another element of controlling the agenda.  Information is power.  By denying access to information, the provincial government and its bureaucrats denied access to power.

And then there were the consultations.  The Conservatives inherited the annual budget consultation farce from the Liberals.  As with poll goosing that they inherited from the Liberals,  the Conservatives turned it into an industrial scale exercise in public manipulation. 

Control uber alles

More recently, the government has added another layer to its effort to manage the public agenda. The Orwellianly named Office of Public Engagement is less about providing a role for the public in the development of public policy and more about managing and controlling public voices.

In most places,  the local legislature - the House of Assembly  - would be the way for citizens to voice their concerns about public issues through their elected representatives. In Newfoundland and Labrador, though, the government has progressively reduced the House to the point where even the members in it view the place as irrelevant. Now the co-leader team of Steve Kent and Paul Davis have added yet another layer to their approach with the appointment of more “advisory committees”.

They are touted as a sign of the importance the Premier gives to a particular issue. In practice, they are little more than officially-approved spokespeople from whatever segment of the society government wants to represent. These committees can be a way of controlling local elites, as the rural secretariat boards were. The advisory committees can also be reliable political allies. The head of the status of women council, for example, has proven to be extremely useful to the Conservatives in such a role on several occasions with her attacks on the Conservatives’ political enemies. Above all, they are controlled by government and that’s what makes them so valuable to politicians.

If current trends continue, we can expect to see more of these advisory committees appointed in the future. There’s no limit to the number of committees and boards government could set up.  The government – regardless of stripe – will encourage people to take their concerns to these committees. Supposedly these committees, chock full of politically-reliable appointees will be better able to get concerns in front of the Premier or cabinet than a politician in the House of any party.

With the House of Assembly already reduced in effectiveness and public stature,  the next logical step for government is to replace it altogether.  Advisory committees fit the bill nicely. They make it appear that government is listening to public concerns, yet they are completely controlled by the party in power at any given time. 

To see the reality of what the committees are. look at the rationale the Conservatives offered for these cuts.  They were popular.  Conservative Tracy Perry told the On Point audience recently that people had been clamouring for the cuts. The Conservatives delivered because they are listening.  What Perry never mentioned was that people were far more vocal in their concern about an unelected cabinet minister. For all that noise, though, the Conservatives stuck to their guns.

The Liberals are sticking to their guns as well.  Liberal leader Dwight Ball met with seven of the academics opposed to the cuts.  At the end of the meeting,  both sides said the meeting was productive.  Ball said the professors had offered some useful suggestions that would help with the process next time.  Next time, of course, will be in 2026, long after Ball is gone from politics whether he wins the next election or not.

But the cuts?  The cuts that Ball had publicly proposed himself in 2013?

They were staying.

There was no way he’d consider changing that.

He was willing to listen, though.

Don’t be surprised if Ball wins the next election that he appoints an advisory committee on elections.

It’s the next logical step, right before more cuts to the House of Assembly.