03 February 2020

Sliding by #nlpoli

Sliding b'ys.

During the recent emergency in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, both the provincial government and the City of St. John’s denied the public access to basic information about the emergency.

Instead, they both preferred either self-serving political messages – “all is well.  We are doing great job” – or authoritarian edicts and directives -” stay off the roads”.

The City news release quoted in last week’s post typify this.

Supposedly it was about the lifting of some restrictions on the public. 

That’s what the headline said.

But the first sentence - supposedly the most important information in the release was a self-serving statement:

City of St. John’s snow clearing crews continue to work around the clock to clear streets for regular traffic.
The middle bit contained short statements about what stores could open for a few hours.

And the end was a return to the prime message, given the City’s chief interest was not in providing humanitarian support to residents during a state of emergency that had closed all community supports but conducting the municipal government job of cleaning city streets of snow:

Please stay in[doors] and off city streets.
The insertion of “please” does not really soften the strict nature of the message given that it was reinforced repeatedly by the police as their key message.

There is no surprise in that given the trend in provincial government public communication over the last 15 years.  Basic public information has been supplanted by an emphasis on superficially positive messages with the political party in power and the Premier - regardless of the Premier or party - as the focus. Around these parts, we call it uncommunication because it is the opposite of communication.

Uncommunication doesn't involve the conveying of facts, data or knowledge.  Quite the opposite.  It's not about conveying information at all.  Uncommunication actually leaves the recipient in worse shape - at least with respect to facts, data and knowledge - than if he or she knew nothing at all.
Uncommunication is all message but with no underpinning or supporting background.

You can see the same approach in the annual budget consultation as they are currently practiced in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The one for the upcoming budget started last week.

One would think – and the government says – the consultations are about letting people have input into the upcoming but.

There are two problems with this.  First, all the major budget decisions are made.  There is virtually nothing that anyone could present in these sessions that could change the substance of the budget.

Second, and for our purposes here, there’s no useful information in what the department has released that would help you make sense of what to do *next* year.  It is all about how successful the current government’s plan has been in the past.  It’s nonsense – of course – since the government abandoned its 2016 plan in 2017 in the face of huge public resistance to it and the Premier’s desire to get re-elected. 

If the government wanted you to help with next year, they’d tell you information about next year:
·        How much cash do officials expect to have and from what sources?
·        What spending have you committed to - like the raises for public sector employees – that you must do?
·        What extra expenses will we have to bear in the years after the one coming up for things like Muskrat Falls?
·        What impact will the aging population have on government spending?
None of this is public although it could be.  Other provinces have released lots of basic financial information – like revenue projections – as far back the 1990s when these sorts of consultations first became popular.  Newfoundland and Labrador never has, since the first pre-budget consultation in 1996.

Now put all of this in the context of democratic reform, which a few people say they want.
Democracy is rule by the people, most often through elected delegates or representatives.  Participatory democracy, which became very popular an idea throughout the western world in the last century, is about citizen involvement in decisions through things like meaningful pre-budget consultations.

You would expect there might be some complaints, then, about the budget consultations or about the failures obvious at the time to anyone who was in St. John’s during the blizzard exposed by a handful of media reports since the City lifted the State of Emergency.

Well, there’s not even cricket noises about the budget.  (There are no crickets in Newfoundland, anyway). 

On the City emergency, where people in addictions treatment couldn’t get access to methadone and the vulnerable were left largely to fend for themselves, we’ve seen nothing but praise for the way that everyone had a great time. 

We see an affirmation of popular Townie myths of resilience and supporting one another.  The City released – and the local media duly recited via Twitter – statistics about the number of truckloads of snow the City has shifted since the snow stopped falling.

And a couple of weekends after the Big Blizzard, as another winter storm pushed through Halifax on its way to smother the city with snow and rain, we got a picture, via Twitter of the the Mayor and the Bard of Resilience taking a slide down the hill in a City park, without an apparent care in the world.

One could hardly find a more apt metaphor for the attitude of the province's leading lights at such a trying time in our province's history.