03 February 2015

One Big Party #nlpoli

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador – Part 2
The plan to cut public representation in the House of Assembly has drawn public attention to more than just the plan to reduce the number of elected representatives in the legislature by eight. 

In this new series, SRBP will examine politics in Newfoundland over the last 15 to 20 years The first instalment - “Making the rich richer” – and the second – “One Big Party” - look at the curious agreement among the parties on major public issues.

Cast your mind back.

Go back to 2008. Yvonne Jones was the leader of the Liberal Party. She was one of three members, sitting right next to Kelvin Parsons and Roland Butler, the sole Liberal survivors of a near sweep of the province by the Conservatives in the 2007 general election.

Jones turned up in the Telegram with what is, in hindsight,  a fascinating suggestion.
I always say that we're such a small province, when you've got three political parties, there's always a lot of energy and time and expertise spent in, I guess, staking out everybody's turf in the political arena...

I used to say to myself, "maybe we're expending it in the wrong direction? [sic]"...Maybe if a lot of that was just put into strengthening policy for people, we might end up with a lot better result at the end of the day.
Jones didn’t see any differences at all among the political parties. The members all believed exactly the same things. They wasted time and money “staking out everybody’s turf”, whatever that means. So Jones thought aloud that maybe it would be better if there were no parties, just a bunch of like-minded people, all working hard “strengthening policy for people.”

Making better policy

We don’t know what Jones meant by “strengthening policy”. We don’t know what she meant because Jones never explained it. 

Strengthening policy.

For people.

Policy is a curious word to use in that sentence. Policy actually means the course of action that the government takes to make a change of some kind in the real word. Broadly speaking, government social policy, for example, takes in all the things government does to deal with social issues.  That covers health, education, income support,  training for the unemployed, and so on. 

What’s so curious about Jones’ comment us that the House of Assembly with its political parties arranged on two sides is supposed to, strengthen policy. The idea of having a government and an opposition is to create two sides. The government brings to the House something they want to do. The opposition is supposed to look at it and find problems with it.  That’s what “criticise” and “opposition” means. 

They are supposed to oppose.  They are supposed to be negative, at least in the eyes of the naive or others who don’t understand what the whole set-up in the House is all about.  No one cares if a politician thinks a measure is a good idea or not.  In the course of debate, they are supposed to take up a contrary position if for no other reason than just to give it an airing. 

The belief is that when you bring two opposing positions together in conflict, what comes out the other side is inherently stronger.  You find the weaknesses or flaws in the original plan and fix them.  You can then go ahead knowing that the policy has been strengthened by the process.

You can see then, why it was odd that Jones wanted to get rid of political parties.  It was odd because what Jones wanted actually works against the goal of “strengthening policy” for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.   While Jones didn’t get her wish to get rid of political parties, she did act as thought it had come true.   And, in the process, she and her colleagues in the opposition demonstrated what a bad idea it was.

The Energy Corporation

What we do know, as SRBP pointed out back in 2008, was that the Liberals – and Lorraine Michael, the lone New Democrat - seldom hesitated to support Conservative policy, without question. The Conservatives introduced the energy corporation bill in 2007. Natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale said about 750 words, none of which discussed the substance of what the provincial government policy would be. She never explained why the government was creating the corporation or what they wanted it to do.

Jones and New Democratic leader Lorraine Michael did that. They got a briefing from government officials in the morning. In the afternoon, they trooped into the House and parroted the government lines back across the chamber.

What they didn’t do was question what the government was up to, what they wanted this corporation to do. That’s important since  - even at the time – the plan was for Nalcor to get billions of provincial government oil revenue without any indication where it would go.  On top of that, the plan for the Lower Churchill would add billions of new public debt in a province already burden with an enormous public debt. Incidentally, Nalcor is now responsible for more public debt than the entire unfunded pension liability.

They never questioned the relationship between the old Hydro corporation and the new Nalcor.  That’s become important since a recent report on the DarkNL blackout dealt, in part, with the relationship between the two as part of the problem that led to DarkNL. Imagine if Yvonne, Kelvin, and Lorraine had asked some questions. Imagine if anyone in the province had asked a few simple questions rather than go along with the crowd.

The Abitibi Fiasco

Before 2008 was out, Michael, Parsons, and Jones would be siding with the government on what turned out to be one of the biggest fiascos of recent times. The provincial government wanted to seize the hydro-electric generating plants owned by the Newfoundland company Fortis as well as ENEL, and Abitibi. That’s not what they told the public.  They had a story about some old agreement that Abitibi had supposedly broken.  The government needed agreement of all parties to suspend normal proceedings. They got it, easily. Jones, Parsons, and Michael never hesitated.

The bill did more than just seize the hydro-assets. It also halted a court case and prevented the company involved from getting any compensation for its legal costs or a fair hearing for its grievance. That part of the seizure bill was a shameless insult to the province’s legal system and the principle of fairness. The seizure bill also bypassed the province’s expropriation law and put the cabinet in charge of dictating the compensation the companies could get.

There was more to it than that. In a briefing the three politicians received, the provincial government ministers explained the scheme they had. They would strip Abitibi of the valuable assets and leave the nearly bankrupt company with the environmental mess. They expected the company would go bankrupt. In the talks over compensation for the seizure, the government would value the assets the same as the environmental liabilities.  The whole thing would be a wash.

As it turned out, the provincial government was so hasty in its rush to seize the hydro assets that they seized the mill by mistake. It was an environmental mess. Given that the company was going bankrupt, odds were high that the provincial government – and taxpayers – would wind up with the contaminated land anyway. They did.

The best example of the cost of this meeting of the minds took place in Buchans. Before it ran into financial troubles, Abitibi hired an engineering consultant and worked out a plan to deal with some contamination on land it bought from another company. They wanted to put the contaminated soil inside an abandoned mine shaft, sealed up so it wouldn’t leech out into the surrounding soil. The provincial mines department wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Their standard policy is to ensure that any mine can be re-opened. After all the noise had cleared from the expropriation, the provincial government wound up with the land and the responsibility for cleaning it up. They laid sods over the contaminated soil.  That’s all.

What happened with Abitibi – including the contaminated mill - was basically the scheme the government laid out in their briefing. Both opposition parties went along with it.

Without question.

A Game of Charades

What Jones was driving at, in her own way, seems to be that all this business of the House and opposition and parties is a gigantic waste of time and money. Politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador actually agree about most things. The differences are minor. Better to do away with all the play-acting, by Jones’ way of thinking.

Events in the House of Assembly over the past decade tend to confirm Jones’ perspective. Sure, there have been some heated exchanges at times, but the heat wasn’t based around anything more than some personal animosities. 

The events surrounding Bill 42 showed much the same thing.  All parties agreed that there should be fewer representatives in the House. They went through the motions of a debate. The New Democrats threatened a filibuster. The Liberals talked about a possible filibuster. In the end, all three parties went through the motions, in order to meet little more than the minimum  time for debate allowed by the rules of the House.

They put on a good show.  But in the end, they passed the bill through the House by a sizeable majority.  Only the New Democrats voted against  Bill 42, theirs a completely symbolic gesture.  You see, had the New Democrats opposed the bill on principle, there is plenty they could have done to delay the vote. They chose not to do anything at all because Lorraine had already endorsed the cuts back in 2013, just to save money.  What she said publicly, though, was also a big part of the reasoning opposition politicians have used for going along with the government.  The cuts to the House were popular.

Indeed they were popular, especially among the members of the House, or as it could be known,  the One Big Party. 


Even if the politicians in the House of Assembly wanted to do something besides act like One Big Party,  they would have some serious problems because of the way the House of Assembly operates.

 On Wednesday,  Part 3 of the series looks at  “The Dysfunctional House of Assembly. ”