N.L. democracy sucks
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.