In his major interview with NTV on the first weekend of the formal provincial election campaign, Premier Paul Davis insisted that his party was not the same as the federal Conservatives.
Then he argued that Liberal Dwight Ball would not be able to represent the province’s interest in Ottawa because the Liberal leader would not be able to challenge the Liberal prime minister, who Davis referred to as Ball’s “boss.”
It was a classic Conservative ploy to resort to fear.
Fear a Liberal government, Davis warned. Bad things will happen.
Ryan Cleary told a gaggle of reporters that the prospect of a Liberal government in Ottawa and a Liberal government in St. John’s kept him awake at night.
Then we got the hat-trick of fear. While the other two were pretty much par for the course, the third one was a gob-smacker..
Fear a Liberal government with all or almost all the seats after the next election, warned CBC’s David Cochrane. Without a decent sized opposition to keep an eye on things, a Liberal government might do as the Conservatives did in the 2008 expropriation and expropriate a mill by accident.
Read his commentary carefully.
Cochrane is not concerned that the government seized private property under entirely false pretences.
That is, he does not care about the abuse inherent in the expropriation itself.
Nor does he seem bothered that government claimed the expropriation was about a broken promise when, as we later learned, it was all about getting control of three hydro plants. The plants would have continued to supply electricity to the people of the province under contracts between Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and its partners in the power projects.
Cochrane is not concerned that the government rushed the expropriation so that it was very difficult for anyone to take a hard look at what it was doing.
Cochrane is not concerned for the kangaroo court established to pay "compensation" to those who lost their property under false pretences. Nor is Cochrane concerned that Nalcor was placed in a conflict of interest as both the beneficiary of the seized property and also the judge and jury for setting the cost of it.
Cochrane isn’t concerned about the fundamental injustice that one company was treated harshly while, ultimately two of the companies were treated differently in the compensation.
CBC’s provincial affairs reporter is not concerned for the lawsuit then underway that was ripped out of the courts, with no right of compensation to the plaintiff.
David Cochrane is concerned that because the opposition didn’t do its job, the government accidentally expropriated the cesspool of a mill in Grand Falls.
This is akin to saying we need an opposition to ensure that the next time government wants to lynch someone, the government brings enough rope to do the job right.
This is a familiar line. When the provincial government was forced by circumstance to admit to the stupid mistake, government supporters rushed forward to blame the opposition parties for not catching the mistake.
Not partisan, just wrong
To be sure, David Cochrane’s argument is not partisan. Rather Cochrane reflects the popular view of the expropriation and follows the attitude prevalent across the whole of the province toward the Williams government and the expropriation.
The government supporters we mentioned a second ago weren’t just Conservatives. With the exception of a handful of people like your humble e-scribbler, the rest of the province endorsed the government’s action in the expropriation, without question.
That is something that should keep us awake at night.
We should also be concerned that the passage of time and new information has not altered the old habits of thought among far too many people in the province. And although we have had plenty of time for reflection, clearly a great many thoughtful people haven’t looked back and come to grips with the problems with our collective behaviour in the recent past.
If a sweep of the House of Assembly is bad news now, then it was always bad news. The opposition party in the type of government like ours always performs a useful function. It is supposed to oppose government moves. It is supposed to hold up government’s plans and subject them to every possible examination in order to avoid precisely the sort of excess in the expropriation that did not attract a single mention from David Cochrane in his recent commentary.
The media’s role is to question and inform, not enable
The opposition parties are not the only people with a responsibility to ask difficult questions of government in our society.
Go back to CBC’s coverage from 2007 and you won’t see any warnings of a threat to democracy posed by a Conservative near-sweep of the legislature. We’d had plenty of examples of such potential from our own history since Confederation. There’s just no sign of even a notional problem in any of the media coverage from the time.
The biggest problem, according to CBC’s major post-election piece, was managing expectations. Things were just too good for Williams and the Conservatives.
There’s a quote from Danny Williams: “I [have] got a list longer than Santa Claus's list, after being out [on the campaign trail] for 21 days, I got to tell you." All those expectations and that money flowing from soaring oil prices spelled trouble, apparently. But the trouble was merely an embarrassment of riches.
There was also a problem with having so many people clamouring for a cabinet appointment in a caucus swollen by a bunch of new seats.
But the absence of legislative review committees?
The small opposition with a paltry budget?
Not a word.
All was good.
Nor was there much criticism from anyone other than the Liberals when, a few years later, Williams and his colleagues deliberately slashed money from the Liberal caucus budget and handed it to the NDP. The move was just like one the federal Conservatives tried as well, by the way, and for the same reason. They wanted to weaken the party they feared most and favour the one they considered most politically reliable or the least dangerous, take your pick.
Then there is the expropriation, itself.
Try to find the voices of caution in December 2008. Go ahead, look as hard you can. You will find some here at SRBP
Even two years after the event, The Western Star editorialist could write, without fear of contradiction, that few would question the rightness of the expropriation. The Star editorialist then slammed the Liberals for not making sure the lynch mob had enough rope.
For all your looking, the closest you might come to finding any questioning voice anywhere in the conventional media at the time was a Telegram editorial from December 18, 2008. The expropriation was both popular and right, offered the editorialists in that classic formulation linking the two, but it might not work. The courts might decide against the government and its rightness, just as they did in the 1980s over water rights in Labrador.
David Cochrane’s argument is not partisan. It is not partisan because what Cochrane is saying about the expropriation is like the silence at the time about the expropriation or about Williams’ sweeping majority or indeed, about anything Williams did. In the heart of his commentary, Cochrane accurately captures the soul of the province at the time.
Everyone thought that way.
And there is the real danger we face.
Dissent was treason
The worst excesses of the Conservatives after 2003 came once they had secured political dominance in the province. That dominance was confirmed in the 2007 election.
After the 2007, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador had an opposition of four members. The legislature did not have functioning committees, and still does not, but the four members of the opposition, representing two different political parties had the means at their disposal to offer an effective opposition to the government, if they wanted.
If they wanted.
The problem is that, as with the news media throughout the Williams period, the opposition political parties were extremely reluctant to raise any questions about the government’s actions. They – like the majority of people in the province, including the news media - either supported the government in its excesses or – if they felt a pang of concern – kept their tongues because the Conservatives were so popular in the polls.
After all, the Conservatives were right because they were popular and popular because they were right, as everyone agreed. That was the consensus. Your humble e-scribbler has used the quote and this example before but it is worth using again, if only because it typifies the insane thinking that seized so many people in the province after 2003.
Just as the Conservatives organized the way they released information in order to manage public opinion and influence opinion polls, they also tried to block access to government information. Williams started the first year he was in office, refusing to release public opinions despite the plain English of the law. In other instances, Williams used the access to information law as an excuse to hide information, knowing as he did at the time that he was wrong to do so. Not wrong as a matter of principle but as a matter of law.
Russell Wangersky is an editor at the Telegram. He is also one of the leading advocates in the province for access to information laws. And yet, for all Williams’ efforts to frustrate public disclosure, for all the times he ignored the law or misused it, Wangersky had no problem saying publicly that he had voted for Williams before and would vote for him again.
Only after Williams was gone from office did Russell offer up some suggestions for change that Williams steadfastly resisted. We should not focus in this current discussion on Wangersky or Cochrane any more than the media should try to blame the opposition for not double-checking the rope supply for the mob.
The root of the problem is that everyone - every single one - supported the lynching in the first place. They supported it by their actions. They supported it with their silence, but make no mistake, they were all there for the abuse of power inherent in the Abitibi expropriation, in the breaches of the access into information laws, in the deliberate breaches of the privacy laws to attack political enemies, in the ongoing and disastrous war with Hydro-Quebec, and, for most of the time, in the abuse of the legislature and its procedures.
In Newfoundland and Labrador after 2003, any dissent from the government’s official line was treason.
And few objected to that anti-democratic belief either.
An end to personality cults
Cochrane would be right to warn against a sweep of the House by one party or another, if that party was led by a demagogue and supported by an enthusiastic and compliant public.
There isn’t any sign that Dwight Ball is a demagogue. He might be, but there’s no sign of it yet. Nor is there any sign that the public are as enamoured of Ball or any of the party leaders as they were drunk on their adoration of Williams.
More importantly, the Liberals’ first commitment in their five-point election plan is to fundamental reforms that would go a long way to preventing the sort of abuses for which the Conservatives are now notorious. This is a very important part of the story. It is one that Cochrane ignored entirely.
It is true that Williams and the Conservatives made similar promises for reform in 2003. It is also true that they did not deliver on the most significant ones. And the ones they did introduce – like lobbyist regulation - was honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
The proof against a repeat of that will come not from electing even a single member of a party to the House other than a Liberal.
It will come only if people like David Cochrane and the rest of the people of the province play their part in our democracy rather than pointing fingers at others.
Let’s not give in to fear, though. Let’s hope instead that people have learned their lesson.