12 November 2019

The importance of what we care about #nlpoli

When we do not talk about the most vulnerable people in our society – sex workers and people in homeless shelters to name just two groups – we tell the world that our community does not care about them.  Last week’s spectacle in the House of Assembly showed the world that the 40 people who Newfoundlanders and Labradorians elected to represent them and run the province do not care about very much at all.

Alison Coffin and Ches Crosbie
talk to reporters on Friday about Gerry Byrne.
(Not exactly as illustrated)
A 23-year-old man lay on the pavement in downtown St. John’s last Tuesday night, the blood running out of him and mingling with the rain on the cold pavement.

He died outside a shelter for homeless people. The community learned very quickly that it was a shelter, that it was a rental property, and that police frequently visited the place to deal with disturbances among the people who came and went from the house with great frequency.

We learned that information because neighbours put it on social media, where the local conventional media – newspaper, television, and radio - picked it up and repeated it.  Before anyone knew who the young man was, or what had gone on, they had decided what the issues were in the story.

That morning, in the House of Assembly,  the opposition parties asked for the Premier’s opinion on the fact that provinces in Canada received transfer payments from the federal government because they  - unlike Newfoundland and Labrador – didn’t make enough money on their own to meet the national minimum government income standard.  There were questions about flooding in a district on the west coast, a couple of questions about specific constituents who needed government money, and about the deaths of a couple of million salmon in a fish farm a couple of months before.

There was only one question thread - about ferry service to northern Labrador - that stood out for its consistency and seriousness - and the only question about homelessness was about people with high paying jobs in western Labrador who had to couch surf.

The morning after the death,  the few questions related to the murder were generic:  “’What plan does the government have’  to deal with crime and homeless in St. John’s?” opposition leader Ches Crosbie led with.  His second question was about a growth in payments to temporary shelters run by landlords, not not-for-profits.  That story had been in the local media before and brought back because of the assumed connection in media reports between the for-profit shelters and the murder.

Attention then turned to a general discussion of health care.  By the time the official opposition was done, the New Democrat leader Alison Coffin’s question about homelessness was also generic: 
“APEC reports that despite growth in the oil industry, our province is struggling. Homelessness, addictions, cost of living, bankruptcies, gangs, unemployment, electricity rates, out-migration are all on the rise.

“I ask the Premier: Will Advance 2030 address these pressing issues, or will we continue to stumble forward?”

That was the lone NDP question before her colleague got back to the dead salmon.

The next day the first question was a general request for information about a death at the provincial penitentiary.  The rest of the questions were about specific constituency problems, a question about Canopy’s contract with the provincial government to supply cannabis to the government’s distribution company, dead salmon, and the need farmers had to shoot moose at night on their land.

On Friday, opposition leader Ches Crosbie and New Democratic Party leader Alison Coffin called a news conference to demand that the Premier fire his fisheries minister over comments he’d made in the House about Jim Lester and Jim Dinn.  Gerry Byrne infuriated Lester by suggesting that Lester had broken the province’s wildlife laws.  He pissed Dinn off by accusing him of standing by as a member of board of directors of a group they both supported had made dismissive remarks about Indigenous people.

Bullying and intimidation one claimed, robbing the words of their meaning by applying them to something ultimately as trivial as the display in the House.  Priggish and prudish would be better words to describe the party leaders whose members had been played for a few minutes in the House of Assembly by a more able debater for their ego and their thin skin and, with the Friday news conference, their arrogance.

Gerry Byrne’s 20-odd years in the federal parliament and lately the provincial Assembly let him run rings around them.  He put them off their game – whatever they were actually up to - and left them sputtering and stumbling.  The opposition party line on Friday was about tone and tone is an old code-word in Newfoundland politics.  The Tories used to deploy it regularly when their critics after 2003 didn’t simply stay quiet in the corner.

Prissy lecturing.  Arrogant and detestable from the government side.  Arrogant still, but laughable, from the opposition. Prissiness about the tone of politics is the code that people who think they ought to be running things use to dismiss those they think shouldn’t be.  It is the same sentiment as the people who dominated Newfoundland before 1934 who appeared before the Royal Commission on the future of the country and told them that the baymen weren’t fit for democracy.

While the code-language may be decidedly townie versus bayman in its heritage,  on Friday,  Crosbie and Coffin's – above, not exactly as illustrated -  emphasis on tone merely looked weak.  “I just want to say,” Ches Crosbie tutted outside the House on Friday,” [that] Mr. Byrne should get a lecture from the Premier, which doesn’t seem to be happening.”  Had he put the back of his hand to his forehead and swooned, Crosbie could not have looked more feeble.

What people in Newfoundland and Labrador ought to have noticed this past week is that the three parties in the House are not doing their jobs.  Crosbie and Coffin are off put because they have not been getting the answers they want about the deaths of a few fish.  Local media have been treating it like Love Canal, complete with a university professor declaring the offal a “spill event” worse than – presumably a few hundred thousand gallons of petroleum. 

Unfortunately for the hysteria mongers, the fish involved have long-since been turned to crab crap and yet there have been no obvious signs of difficulty in the areas beyond an unpleasant smell.  It is hard to portray the deaths of a few million salmon in cages in the ocean as being more hazardous than the batch of humpback carcasses that blew ashore in 2014, for example.  As much as people might want to make this out as the next Deep Water Horizon, the truth is that Mother Nature has not co-operated in delivering up the natural disaster.

What was wrong in this case is more pedestrian.  The salmon deaths is firstly and foremostly a failure of government administration, so Gerry Byrne has been rightly getting roasted for that.  The more serious question raised by the salmon deaths is the *policy* of supporting ocean-based aquaculture and allowing the industry to monitor itself.  So desperate have recent administrations been for some economic development news that they government have given the aquaculture industry an easy time of it on virtually every aspect of their operations.  The politicians – regardless of the place-switching in 2015 – have avoided asking the very serious questions that might have helped prevent this mess or forced its disclosure much sooner than it did.

This is much the same laxness that has crept into the government's treatment of the oil and gas industry offshore.   There are hard questions to be asked about this, as well. But the politicians do not wish to ask hard questions. The first day the legislature opened after the largest oil spill in the province’s history *thus far*, opposition leader Ches Crosbie devoted his entire pile of questions in the House of Assembly to a cloud of Maryjane smoke that has still - almost two years later  - not turned into anything solid.  There is a reason why politicians ask weak questions.

We could forgive the opposition if it was just starting out but shirking duty is their stock-in-trade. We could forgive them for being a bit shell-shocked in the summer, right after an election.  But they have had months to prepare for *this* sitting.

Yet, in the first week of a new sitting of the legislature, with an opposition bolstered by larger numbers,  their performance in the House was as pathetic as it was after the 2007 election when the trio of Liberals left in the House couldn’t decide which of Danny Williams’ ass cheeks to kiss first. They gave the Conservatives a free ride on the expropriation of environmental liabilities that have still not been properly accounted.  They let the government breeze through the creation of Nalcor.  And after the 2011 election, led by the arch-Muskrateer Dwight Ball, they play-acted at opposing the financial disaster of Muskrat Falls.

*This* week, the opposition had a raft of issues they could have asked about.  They had a list of themes they could have pursued.  They had deeper and broader investigations they could have begun on aquaculture or on services to homeless people just from events last week alone.

Had they paid attention to the cliched drivel of the Premier’s speech at a $500-a-plate Liberal fundraising dinner that took place barely a kilometre from where a young man bled to death, they could have found more.  The economy, government finance, rate mitigation, the threat to the province’s future posed by the Alberta assault on the federal government, or how to reconcile the government’s plan to boost oil production with the threat of climate change.

Without breaking a sweat, a dozen subjects more important than Jim Lester’s question about farmers and moose.  Stuff more important than the way rookie Jim Dinn went after Gerry Byrne about the salmon mess.  And a better way to tackle that than the generic, amateurish questions in the House from either opposition party about anything last week.

The thing is that while there is better day-to-day management of government than we have seen in some time, the strategic trajectory of the province is the same as it was when the other crowd were running the place.  On the big files, the province is in very hard shape.  There is no sign that any politician sitting in the House of Assembly,  or community or business leaders too, for that matter,  understands the problems, let alone has an inkling of how to start tackling them. 

So it is that none of that laundry list of very important subjects was what the politicians cared about last week. Not Dwight Ball, not Ches Crosbie, and not Alison Coffin.  Dwight and Ches vied for the title of who was most out of touch with the province’s financial reality as they argued about Equalization.  When he was in opposition one could forgive Dwight his ignorance of federal-provincial fiscal relations. Now that he has been in office four years, his repeated talk of getting greater handouts from Ottawa is embarrassing.  When he tries to claim he will fight harder than Ches for something he knows he cannot get – Equalization – then it just looks pathetic.

People speak about and act on things they care about.  It is that simple.  They tell the rest of the world what they care about by what they do and what they say.  When a newspaper invents a phantom conspiracy out of whole cloth,  we know they care more for ego and bombast – which is where the story went – than about either the more complex story that’s been in public since April or the dispute about public policy revealed by a handful of emails.  When others chased after the superficial story, they agreed that how the government ought to treat sex work and sex workers was not something they cared about.

And so when a young man bled to death outside a government-funded shelter,  people quickly became more concerned with whether the shelter was run by a landlord or a not-for-profit than ask about the failure of government to provide the crucial “wrap-around services” to its clients regardless of who owned the room where they slept. 

When we do not talk about the most vulnerable people in our society – sex workers and people in homeless shelters to name just two groups – we tell the world our community does not care about them.  Last week’s spectacle in the House of Assembly showed us that the 40 people who Newfoundlanders and Labradorians elected to represent them and run the province do not care about very much at all.