N.L. democ­racy sucks

Advertiser (Grand Falls) - - Elections - BY JAMES MCLEOD

Here’s some­thing to think about when con­tem­plat­ing New­found­land and Labrador democ­racy: it’s been lit­er­ally a gen­er­a­tion since we had a truly com­pet­i­tive pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

Older and wiser po­lit­i­cal watch­ers say the 1989 tilt between Tom Ride­out and Clyde Wells was le­git­i­mately com­pet­i­tive. The prov­ince hasn’t seen the like of it since.

Brian Tobin steam­rolled the com­pe­ti­tion in the 1990s, and then af­ter he handed things off to Roger Grimes, Danny Wil­liams pasted the Lib­er­als in 2003.

Kathy Dun­derdale breezed to an easy vic­tory against the ut­terly hap­less Lib­er­als un­der Kevin Ayl­ward, and then when the hour­glass fi­nally ran out on the Tories, Dwight Ball and the Lib­er­als tram­pled them into the ground.

The pic­ture when it comes to mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics is, if any­thing, worse.

There are lots of elec­tion signs up right now, but Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties N.L. CEO Craig Pol­lett is sound­ing the alarm about how many coun­cils across the prov­ince are be­ing partly or to­tally ac­claimed, with­out any need for a vote.

The same lack of mean­ing­ful democ­racy rears its head in the leg­is­la­ture, too. Any­body who has the mis­for­tune of lis­ten­ing to reg­u­lar de­bate in the House of As­sem­bly can tell you it’s largely mean­ing­less the­atre. Politi­cians spout talk­ing points, no­body lis­tens and none of it mat­ters.

Leg­is­la­tion in this prov­ince is passed with­out any real study or de­bate, which is how all three par­ties can unan­i­mously sup­port changes to the prov­ince’s elec­tion law which in­tro­duced some spec­tac­u­larly un­con­sti­tu­tional rules when it comes to spe­cial bal­lot vot­ing.

The courts struck down the statute ear­lier this month, and the gov­ern­ment is ur­gently try­ing to un­tan­gle that mess. Elec­tions NL took a year and a half to post the po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions in­for­ma­tion from the 2015 elec­tion, so god help any cit­i­zen try­ing to fig­ure out whether their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives are giv­ing favours to their friends.

Re­mem­ber Frank Cole­man? The po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte who very nearly be­came premier with­out any­body in the prov­ince ever cast­ing a bal­lot for him? Re­mem­ber when his one se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, Bill Barry, quit the Tory lead­er­ship race in 2014, es­sen­tially say­ing the whole thing was a rigged fait ac­com­pli meant to in­stall Cole­man as the heir ap­par­ent?

This isn’t democ­racy, not re­ally. Now, in a prov­ince where the roads are full of holes and the taxes are high and the schools are frus­trat­ing and the hos­pi­tals are frus­trat­ing, too, it’s hard to ask peo­ple to get worked up about some­thing as ab­stract and in­tan­gi­ble as demo­cratic struc­ture.

But it mat­ters, be­cause it’s the foun­da­tion on top of which ev­ery­thing else is built.

In a sys­tem of feu­dal­ism with demo­cratic win­dow-dress­ing, it’s a lot eas­ier for a mostly all-pow­er­ful premier to ram an ill-con­sid­ered megapro­ject through to sanc­tion­ing. And with­out mean­ing­ful over­sight by the leg­is­la­ture, it’s a lot eas­ier for that project to spi­ral out of con­trol with in­sane cost over­runs and sched­ule de­lays.

A lack of real demo­cratic cul­ture sti­fles de­bate. It sti­fles dis­sent. It gives rise to the cul­ture where ev­ery­body knows you’d bet­ter keep your mouth shut, or else there’ll be trou­ble.

Re­mem­ber when Andy Wells said that while he was chair of the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Board, he knew Muskrat Falls was go­ing to be a dis­as­ter, but he didn’t speak out and con­demn it pub­licly be­cause he was wor­ried about los­ing his job?

Well, now Wells is run­ning for mayor and, iron­i­cally, it looks like the elec­tion is shap­ing up to be a le­git­i­mately com­pet­i­tive race.

We would be bet­ter off if there were more elec­tions like it.

This isn’t an easy prob­lem to fix. This is an en­trenched cul­ture that goes back at least to Joey Small­wood, if not fur­ther. Any so­lu­tions will be slow and dif­fi­cult, and al­to­gether too of­ten, it feels like politi­cians aren’t re­ally in­ter­ested in try­ing.

Per­haps “The Democ­racy Cook­book” will be the start of some real change, al­though in my more pes­simistic mo­ments, I sus­pect we’re headed some­where darker.

Back in the 1930s, in New­found­land they talked about tak­ing a “rest from pol­i­tics” when we gave up our democ­racy and our sovereignty, fall­ing into the pa­ter­nal­is­tic arms of colo­nial rule.

Pol­i­tics and democ­racy is ex­haust­ing, es­pe­cially when it’s as deeply flawed as in New­found­land and Labrador. I worry that if we don’t start ex­er­cis­ing our demo­cratic rights more ac­tively soon, we’ll start long­ing to take an­other rest.

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