07 December 2015

Townies and Baymen #nlpoli

Last week’s post on the political narrative war currently under way was a combination of two separate, but related ideas.

The incoming Liberal administration – like all political parties – is faced with the challenge of identifying itself or defining itself in the public mind.  Inevitably, that also involves the image of and the public attitudes toward the leader.

We’ll turn to the narrative war but first, let’s unbundle the other part of the post, the bit about townies and baymen.  That’s both the most provocative bit for some people and also the bit that is an exploration of some much bigger ideas in Newfoundland politics over the past century.

For those who may not have noticed it,  sometimes posts at SRBP  aren’t statements of a conclusion but a work-in-progress.  They are a way of thinking something through, out loud, to see if the idea holds together.  We’ll that’s, what this is. 

What we are looking at are long-standing beliefs about politics and society in Newfoundland and Labrador.  If this goes according to plan, we should be able to describe those beliefs over about a century and track the shifts and changes until we wind up where we are today.

Same stimulus.  Two responses.

The townie part of last week’s post was actually part of an idea  - and that popped up right at the start of the campaign and that’s covered in the post “Fear and Hope”.  Just as in 2007,  we had polls in the 2015 election showing one party with the overwhelming support of the population.  The prospect of an electoral sweep was very high.

In 2007,  the news media marvelled at the prospect of a Conservative sweep. But in 2015,  the editorial line was fear.

Same stimulus.

Two radically different responses.

How come?

Right off the bat we can rule out a radical agenda from the left or right of the political spectrum coming from the Liberals.  All three political parties in the province offered up platforms that were remarkably similar.

We can also rule out the idea that there was some enormous amount of criticism.  It seemed to be coming from a relatively small number of people.  After all, the polls showed that something on the order of 60- or 70-odd percent of  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians supported the Liberals.  Even the lowest polling numbers had the Liberals with the support of half of the population with the others at less than a quarter.

Rule out the notion that all the criticism was driven by fear of obliteration by the Liberals from the New Democrats and the Conservatives.  That may well have had a role in why they were screaming but that doesn’t explain why a bunch of people said precisely the same thing.

And that wouldn’t explain why the Telegram editorials promoted such a biased notion or why columnists spit out the same thing.

We can also rule out the notion that the experience of one party with near absolute power soured people on handing power unchecked to a single group.

Far from it.

In itself, that’s amazing.  After the massive Conservative victory in 2007, we got the worst of their excesses.  They dramatically increased public spending and set the course for the ongoing financial problems we’ve faced in the province.  Access to public information?  Bill 29 came after the 2011 election  - in truth – all it did was put in writing what the Conservatives had been doing to hide information from the public, regardless of what the law said.

And then there was the expropriation.

An attack on public property rights, a quashing of  the rights of people to sue the government,  a breach of contracts signed and honoured by the victims of the government’s action and all of it justified, as we learned later, by a lie.  A falsehood.

All of that speaks for the need to restrain government power with a powerful legislature  but what we got instead during the election was a warning to fear such awesome power in the hands of the Liberal Party. The mill expropriation was the only problem and that – as all sorts of people insisted – was the fault of the three Liberals sitting in the House. If only they had done their job.  Tsk.  Tsk.

As your humble e-scribbler put it a few weeks ago, a lynching was just fine, in the minds of some people, but we needed a few people on the opposition benches to keep an eye on the government’s rope supply.

Common Beliefs

The most obvious explanation for a group of people all expressing the same opinion about the same subject is that they share common beliefs.  That is, they share a common ideology.

The beliefs most likely encompass history and politics.  They come, as many beliefs do, from shared experiences and a shared culture. The beliefs likely didn’t come out of thin air, so we will have to take a look at the beliefs over a period of time  And of course, along the way we will have to figure out the specific beliefs that make up that ideology.

But the first order of business is to look at some recent academic thinking about nationalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.