25 January 2016

Turmoil tamed #nlpoli

Few people would be brave enough to start out a book on politics in  Newfoundland and Labrador with the words “Paul Lane.”

Fewer still could bring it off successfully.

Telegram political reporter James McLeod does both and more in a deftly written and insightful new book, Turmoil, as usual.

McLeod only covers the period from 2013 to 2015 but so much has occurred  that he had a rich vein of material to mine. McLeod is such an astute observer that he is able to take only a few of many episodes during the time and pack each one with insight into the parties,  the individual politicians, and his colleagues in the local news media.

Some people won’t be happy with this book as his McLeod is far more frank than local reporters usually are. McLeod is balanced in his comments, though,  offering both flattering observations alongside pointedly critical ones.  What makes this book so important is that McLeod shows how to be balanced, fair, and honest.  He doesn't offer a critical comment of someone and then given an equally positive comment about the same person in every case.  Nor does he give an equal number of positive and negative comments on individuals or the parties.

That’s remarkable. Too often the local media interpret balanced as meaning equal. They will avoid a honest and fair but critical observation because they cannot say the same about all.  That gives as distorted a perception of balanced journalism as the issue of political attendance at district pancake breakfasts,  one of the little anecdotes McLeod uses, gives a complete false view of what is political and partisan.

New Democrats complained because Tory incumbent Kevin O’Brien used his influence to have them barred from participating in a pancake breakfast held in the district O’Brien represented.  The NDP claimed it was partisan.  In his telling of the story, McLeod uses Paul Lane to give the politician’s perspective. Having people from other political parties attend the breakfast would have made the event political. As it was, O’Brien alone was supposed to attend as the member of the House.

What Lane was giving us was an attitude that goes back a century or more.  It treats the politician as the patron and the voters as his clients.  As Lane says, in all honesty,  there was no way he’d be “betrayed” by any group in his district.  That describes a situation in which the incumbent politician is very clearly in the dominant position.

Those sorts of anecdotes all through the book are what give it depth beyond the obvious.  And it’s not like McLeod has hidden his opinions.  He rightly concludes that the House of Assembly is irrelevant in the province to the way it is run. It is a matter of power and the new Premier is no more likely to relinquish his power than any of his recent predecessors who have reduced the House of Assembly to this level of irrelevance.

McLeod also correctly asserts that no politician in the province believes that people have a right to government information of any sort, as a matter of principle.  In that respect, Dwight Ball is no different from Lorraine Michael from any Tory who voted for Bill 29.  Those sorts of observations may annoy some and shock others, but McLeod is correct both in his assessment and in making the observation.

Turmoil as usual covers all the leadership contests in the three parties and a string of by-elections.  McLeod’s telling of the story in each case is not a blow-by-blow affair. The details are not important since the stories are generally known to the audience. Rather he provides insight into how the politicians and the campaign workers viewed things.  Readers will draw their own conclusions in each case but they will draw that conclusion on the basis of a frank description of Frank Coleman, for example,  or Lorraine Michael and her leadership troubles.

McLeod and others have noted that this book contains all the sorts of things that McLeod does not include in his daily work for the Telegram.  You really do have to wonder why.  If McLeod is censoring himself, he should reconsider the practice.  If, as is more likely the case,  his editors are the censors, then they need to reassess the grave disservice they are doing to their audience and themselves by suppressing a talented writer whose keen eye can find the toad of truth that squats in the large swamp of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.