16 May 2016

Responsible Government #nlpoli

Many of you may not have heard of Jerry Dean until this past week.

Jerry is from Botwood. Last fall the people on Exploits district elected him as their member in the House of Assembly.  He's been a around the block a bit.  His official biography says he worked for Abitibi for 30 years and since 1997 he's been active on his town council and in some volunteer groups.

Last week Jerry said something in the House of Assembly that got some folks upset on Twitter. That helped get him some media attention  - here's the TransCon and CBC versions - and so the fellow has been getting a bit of a rough ride.

We'll get to what Jerry said in a second.

Before we do that,  let's just remember three things.

First, Twitter is nothing more than a way for political activists and the politically aware to yell at each other. There are a few others who show up, but for the most part, Twitter is not really a gauge of much beyond what line the province's political parties and their activists are pushing.  It's inside the echo chamber of local politics, which may or may not be connected to what is really going on in the rest of the province.

These days the online partisans are pushing the line that the budget is the most terrible thing ever. You've got a batch of folks, mostly Conservatives who claim they will go bankrupt if they have to pay all these new taxes.  If they are really in that hard financial shape, then they will be going under anyway.  The recovery in oil prices those same folks are praying for, coupled with Muskrat Falls will bring them at least the same increase in their household costs as the current tax increases.

Over in the orange corner, they are just screaming about the austerity in a budget that actually increases public spending. These folks are opposed to any cuts in anything at all. It's a different kind of crazy compared to the Conservatives but it is still crazy.

Second, we are talking about a huge financial problem in the government. Between Muskrat Falls and the deficit,  government will need to borrow $3.0 billion this year.  The public debt is more than $15 billion and the government's creditors have warned against too much additional borrowing. The problem for the government is that revenue isn't likely to grow by very much over the next decade.

Third - and this is the funniest bit - each of the three parties advocate taxes increases and some cuts in spending.  The Dippers and the Cons said they'd precisely the same thing as the Liberals did.  That's what Earle McCurdy and Paul Davis said, mind you,  when James McLeod from the Telegram asked them.  They just wouldn't do the stuff people didn't like.

The province's New Democrats and Conservatives are piling onto a wave of popular anger at a budget that hits them pretty hard with new taxes and fees. The popular anger at the tax hit is understandable since people don't like paying taxes at the best of times.

That brings us to Dean's comments.  Who is responsible for this financial mess,  Dean asked in the House during debate on the budget. Is it the premiers in the past?  The answer Dean gave to his rhetorical question is summarised by the Telegram here:
“No, they don’t deserve the blame  — everybody here tonight and everyone throughout the province, it’s time for us to take the blame. The unfortunate truth is we, collectively — the current population and previous populations  — are to blame. The rookie MHA and former Botwood mayor said there’s a sense of entitlement in the province “in which we demand jobs and services from government that our province simply cannot afford to continue enduring.
In a CBC interview, Dean said that we are "all guilty as politicians and sitting governments of unfortunately promising things to people and in a lot of cases delivering things that really the population themselves, the people themselves, every one of us collectively, couldn't afford to begin with."

People demanded things we couldn't afford and the politicians delivered stuff we couldn't afford in order to get elected. None of that is particularly controversial, you'd think. After all, this is a democracy where people get to vote for the people who run the government.  And it's not like people haven't accused politicians before of buying votes with the public's own money.

Now compare that to what people say about the budget, including those who are actively partisans. "This isn't *my* problem. It's the government's problem" is a common one. That's not just a convenient rationalisation. This a really old idea and it is a very strong belief among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. It reflects the idea that the folks in government have power but that they are disconnected from the rest of us. They are like hereditary monarchs, or the clergy or any other authority figures put in place by an essentially alien power from the time Europeans first arrived until relatively recently.

With the arrival of self-government in the 1850s, attitudes didn't change all that much from earlier times.  The government was still in St. John's far removed from the daily lives of people even as physically close as Holyrood or Foxtrap. Elections were a chance to pick someone to go to St. John's and bring back spoils.  The attitude is reflected in the popular notion, still prevalent throughout the province, that you lose your vote if your party or candidate didn't win an election. Supporters of the winner got rewards in the form of cash or jobs while the losers got nothing.

The Conservatives made it pretty clear during their most recent time in power that they still figured the world worked according to that old-fashioned patronage principle. They continued the patronage scam begun under the Liberals after 1996 and only stopped after the Auditor General caught everyone at it in 2006.  The Conservatives spent money on road paving based on the party representing the district, not on the local road conditions.

When voters turned against the Conservatives in 2009,  Danny Williams made it clear how he viewed politics:  the voters were ingrates.  He'd spent a fortune on the district and voters were supposed to thank him by returning his candidate to the legislature.  Five years later, Charlene Johnson said almost exactly the same thing when voters elected a Liberal.  She called then ungrateful liars.

That popular conception of politics doesn't absolve the voters of responsibility in the system.  To the contrary, they played their part in it by returning Williams and his party to power in 2007 and again in 2011.  In between, they told pollster after pollster they loved Williams' Conservatives more than any other party in the province's history.  At the same time, the Conservatives' spending wasn't a secret. Nor was it a secret that people like the province's Auditor General warned the government couldn't keep on spending that way.

Voters either ignored the warnings or, in some instances, attacked folks who were critical of Williams and his spending.  And when the Conservatives talked about trimming back their spending, voters turned against them.  Bill 29 wasn't a magic event that caused people to turn away from the Tories. Voters got angry about a bunch of things, including even the hint that the Conservatives were going to trim public spending.  That's precisely why the Conservatives kept spending full-tilt.

In the past few weeks, people have offered up all sorts of claims about what happened. They didn't know about the problems. Decisions happened in secret. And on and on. None of it is actually true. Nor does any of it matter. The simple fact is that the majority of people in the province supported the government as it overspent, gambled on megaprojects, and all the rest of it.  These people could have objected, protested, or done any of the things they are doing today. They didn't. To the contrary, they got grumpy when the Tories cut anything.

There's only one logical conclusion:  they supported the overspending.

Folks are turning on Jerry Dean not because he is wrong but because he is right and the angry people know it.  They turn their anger outward rather than acknowledge their own complicity in making the current mess. Others do as they did last year when they cheered as the politicians reduced the size of the House of Assembly. They tut tut about what a shame it is that we do not have an economy that can support our political system. The problem is not in the economy. It never has been.

The problem is in the people who think that they have no responsibility for what goes on in a place where the people govern themselves.  The problem is with irresponsible government and the people who demand it continue. .