20 May 2020

The Authoritarian Impulse #nlpoli

Special Measures Enforcement
Jim Dinn used to be a teacher.

As head of the provincial teachers’ union, he spearheaded a drive against the public’s right to know how politicians spent public money.

And now he is a member of the provincial legislature.

Let’s talk about rights,” said Jim Dinn on May 5, explaining why he felt it was a good idea to give the minister of justice the power to send police out to take people away to a detention centre. 

Not a judge. 

A politician.

“Funerals, people can’t be present for the passing of their loved ones. It is my right to attend a funeral, peaceful gatherings, …  for me, it’s the fact that I can’t be around my grandchildren. Now we have the double bubble and I’ll do anything to defend it. Weddings – all of them are rights. I took my mother to the hospital the other day. I couldn’t even go into the hospital with her. That’s my right, to go with her. I could not go.”

Not rights at all, really.  Things people like to do.  Things they expect to do.

But not the same as voting, speaking one’s mind freely, or – and this is the important one for this discussion – not having the police kick in your front door and spirit you away to some detention centre somewhere in the province because a minister said it was okay.

This is the kind of stuff they used to do in Argentina when the junta’s agents would disappear people.

They do it all the time in North Korea.

But in a democratic country like Canada, even in an emergency, we do not allow arbitrary arrest and detention, let alone do so quite so cavalierly as Dinn and the other members of the House allowed.

But in Jim Dinn’s world, this sort of thing is no biggie.  He felt it more important not to be like the United States.   

Not satisfied with his frighteningly shallow argument, Jim then praised himself and his colleagues for their “collaboration, co-operation and self-sacrifice” in attending the House of Assembly for a few minutes one afternoon to pass a few pieces of legislation.

The centre-piece of Dinn’s argument was that the Chief Medical Officer alone, as an expert, needed whatever power she wanted to do what she wanted during a public health emergency like the current one.  The most Jim was willing to do – the very most – was just ask her a few questions.

What Jim missed in his magnificent display of  blinkered, white, middle class privilege is that the person who could be spirited off to the lockup on a politician’s say so was not the people whose  right to come to Newfoundland and Labrador legally he poked fun at. 


Not a mainlander.

It would be the person attending a funeral or wedding, if those things are banned as they were when Jim stood in the House of Assembly. 

Or being the eleventh person in a gathering when the limit is 10.

The arbitrary detention powers Dinn endorsed so we would not be like the Yanks covers *all* the Special Measures Orders. 

“I think at this point in time we give the tools to the chief medical officer that she needs,” Dinn said in finishing his few minutes of comments.  “There is oversight from the House,” he said while acknowledging he had no interest in any such thing.

“There are checks and balances in place,” he said, without mentioning what they were. 

When the House unanimously voted to violate the constitution, your humble e-scribbler singled out opposition leader Ches Crosbie for criticism.  Crosbie knew what he was doing.  He had heard from lawyers concerned about what the government was doing.  Crosbie said so in the House that day.

But Ches was willing to vote for unconstitutional detention powers in exchange for letting a few people slip through the unconstitutional travel ban.  Crosbie got what he bargained for.

Crosbie has changed his mind, though.  On Tuesday, his office issued a statement that Crosbie wanted to recall the House and rescind approval for the detention powers.  Crosbie is bothered that the Canadian Bar Association delivered a scathing critique of Bill 38 to the Premier.  And he thinks a few more people need to get through the Chief Medical Officer’s unconstitutional border cordon.

Well, Crosbie really didn’t change his mind.  He is trying to bargain, as he did at the start of the month.  This time, though, he has no power.  The whole thing will come to naught and Crosbie has been caught in the glare of the headlights – as he did on the senior appointments business – caught taking whatever position suits him at the moment. 

Someone asked Crosbie while the whole Carla Foote business was on the go if he would change the practice of letting the Premier make appointments to senior position were he to become Premier.  Heavens no, said Ches.  The Premier had to be able to pick the person he wants to do the job.  So he would keep the power for himself.

And now, agaon, we have Crosbie saying one thing one minute and saying another when it suited him.

No one should think it is only opposition politicians who get criticism here.  Health minister John Haggie fathered this monstrosity through the House.  He offered no good reason for it and since May 5 has offered nothing but weaselly replies amidst bluster about doing what is right and stating what he claims are “the facts of the case.” 

And ultimately the House voted unanimously to let any justice minister throw people in jail during a public health emergency.  They all failed in their duty to the people. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association will take the provincial government to court over the whole sordid mess that is the travel ban and the detention powers.  The people of Newfoundland and Labrador will be well served should the courts strike down these measures.

Regardless of what happens in court, though, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are in far worse shape politically than they might have imagined.  You see, what the politicians did on May 5 was overwhelmingly popular.  They did it in secret, behind closed doors, and without doing their duty to the people whose interest they are supposed to protect by scrutinising such drastic measures fully and in public.

But they acted with the support of  the majority.

We might excuse them if we had not been through precisely this sort of thing before.  But we have been down this road before, many times this past 20 years, and it has always ended badly.

In the House of Assembly spending scandal report, then- Chief Justice Derek Green repeatedly noted the number of times the members had avoided debate through back-room deals.  He spoke of “the normal checks and balances that are inherent in an adversarial parliamentary system” and the need for substantive measures such as the ones debated on May 5 to “receive considered reflective attention” from members. 

The duty of the government is not to do wrong things.  But in our system of government, as Green reminded us, the “duty of the Opposition is to challenge and test, through questions and debate, the policy decisions made by Government.”  That is how we are supposed to avoid mistakes. This is the politics too many despise.

What is most dismaying about the detention powers decision is that it reminds us all how deeply seated the anti-democratic, authoritarian impulses are throughout Newfoundland and Labrador society.  You see, 13 years ago, we might have imagined the politicians were naughty.  The harsh truth is that the politicians do what the public wants. 

Politicians behave in this arrogant, paternalistic fashion because they can.  Try to find an editorial in the local paper, for example, raising concerns about the detention powers bill.  Look around to see how many people raised any objections to the creation of the coalition.  You might find a few.

See if you can find anyone – aside from your humble e-scribbler - who publicly objected to the idea that the House of Assembly had to go to a government bureaucrat for permission to meet.

You will find a lot more people who praise doing away with what Dinn dismisses as “politics”.  

And  a few who think just having such powers of arbitrary detention are not enough.

What you will also find are online discussions praising government and condemning those who have questioned decisions.  It is not just a partisan impulse.  The desire to suppress public debate, the feeling that it is improper to question authority extends across society.

What you will find, very quickly, is that the checks and balances that Jim Dinn claimed to exist on government excess are simply not there. *Obviously* not there when an opposition member like Dinn – who is supposed to be a check – sees his job as supporting the government and giving it as much power as possible.

This is a government, by the way, that health minister John Haggie said a couple of weeks ago was “beginning to regulate almost every aspect of daily life in a way no one has done before.”

Haggie also said that some people are quite right to be concerned about that.

Some are.

Only some.

And none of them are in the House of Assembly.

That what is so frightening.