Democ­racy Cook­book: Can New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans gov­ern them­selves?

The Labradorian - - EDITORIAL - BY DREW BROWN

In the con­clud­ing re­marks to a re­cent col­lec­tion of case stud­ies about public pol­icy and pol­i­tics in 21st-cen­tury New­found­land and Labrador, Alex Mar­land broaches the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion of the prov­ince’s political his­tory: “What can be done to limit … New­found­lan­ders’ tacit ac­cep­tance of an im­per­fect demo­cratic sys­tem?”

I would like to ven­ture that this is largely a ques­tion of political cul­ture.

For the sake of ar­gu­ment, let’s fol­low the­o­rist Lau­ren Ber­lant here and call it “na­tional char­ac­ter.”

Na­tional char­ac­ter is not sim­ply a shared his­tory or political al­le­giance, but is rather what struc­tures our col­lec­tive forms of so­cial life, what at­taches us to them and what makes them mean­ing­ful.

Un­der­stand­ing and ad­dress­ing New­found­land’s na­tional char­ac­ter is cen­tral to any gen­uine ef­fort to­wards demo­cratic re­form. We need to take it se­ri­ously as a struc­tur­ing force in pro­vin­cial pol­i­tics.

We do not have time to go into it in any depth here, but any se­ri­ous sur­vey of New­found­land’s political his­tory will es­tab­lish that its na­tional char­ac­ter is pro­foundly melan­cholic.

Me­lan­cho­lia is the mal­adap­tive cousin of mourn­ing, char­ac­ter­ized by de­spon­dency and ex­ag­ger­ated self-de­pre­ci­a­tion, punc­tu­ated by bouts of ma­nia. It is gen­er­ally best de­scribed as “patho­log­i­cal self­ab­sorp­tion.”

Mourn­ing and loss fig­ure heav­ily in New­found­lan­ders’ cul­tural mem­ory; philoso­pher F.L. Jack­son has ar­gued that New­found­land’s his­tory, as pop­u­larly un­der­stood, rep­re­sents a kind of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. This is also, per­haps es­pe­cially, true in the last cen­tury of pol­i­tics — the “lost gen­er­a­tion” at Beau­mont Hamel; the loss of self­gov­ern­ment in 1934; the loss of in­de­pen­dence in 1949; the loss of our tra­di­tional way of life through re­set­tle­ment and the cod mora­to­rium; and even now, the loss of our short-lived pros­per­ity.

Po­lit­i­cally, our na­tional char­ac­ter is melan­cholic pre­cisely in­so­far as it has never ap­pro­pri­ately rec­on­ciled it­self to these losses and in­deed re­mains haunted by Baron Amul­ree’s ba­sic diagnosis of our con­di­tion: that New­found­lan­ders are ul­ti­mately, per­haps in­her­ently, in­ca­pable of self-govern­ment.

As R.M. Kennedy has writ­ten, New­found­lan­ders are trau­ma­tized and taunted “by the shame and hu­mil­i­a­tion … (of) the legacy of our in­abil­ity to ful­fill the mod­ern dream of political au­ton­omy.”

This is the hori­zon of the prob­lem(s) in our political cul­ture. There is no im­me­di­ate way to re­solve this com­plex in its en­tirety with­out sus­tained re­flec­tion, anal­y­sis and a gen­uine col­lec­tive de­sire to change.

Iron­i­cally, it is mostly New­found­land na­tion­al­ists who have been keep­ing this psy­chic wound open from the 1970s on­ward; as Ed Hol­lett has ob­served, “New­found­lan­ders do not even know them­selves. They must strug­gle daily with the gaps be­tween their own his­tory and the his­tory as other New­found­lan­ders tell it to them, wrongly, re­peat­edly.”

There are, how­ever, in­sti­tu­tional changes the govern­ment can make to start break­ing the chains of our na­tional char­ac­ter. Af­ter all, char­ac­ter is largely the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of habit — ac­tions and re­sponses to stim­uli re­peated over enough time that they crys­tal­lize into reg­u­lar pat­terns of be­hav­iour, feel­ing and think­ing.

Small in­ter­ven­tions into political be­hav­iour will go some way into dis­lodg­ing bad demo­cratic habits and en­cour­ag­ing new ones. New­found­lan­ders must be re­minded that they have al­ways been able to gov­ern them­selves if pro­vided with the tools and op­por­tu­ni­ties for do­ing so.

Par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees are one such sim­ple (but ef­fec­tive) mech­a­nism for em­pow­er­ing cit­i­zens as demo­cratic ac­tors. Com­mit­tee hear­ings are spa­ces where cit­i­zens — ex­perts, stake­hold­ers and lay peo­ple — are able to come be­fore their elected of­fi­cials and pro­vide di­rect tes­ti­mony and in­sight into a leg­isla­tive con­cern, on the record.

Es­tab­lish­ing smaller com­mit­tees also has the up­shot of cut­ting down on the child­ish political the­atrics of the Com­mit­tee of the Whole that tend to alien­ate peo­ple from fol­low­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in pro­vin­cial pol­i­tics.

The House of As­sem­bly is so small that put­ting par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in di­rect of­fi­cial con­tact with cit­i­zens will both gen­er­ate bet­ter leg­is­la­tion as well as bring the daily grind of demo­cratic gov­er­nance down to earth for the av­er­age per­son.

The prob­lems with the prov­ince’s political cul­ture that I have sketched here ap­pear daunt­ing in their scope and seem­ing ab­strac­tion.

Cul­ture — the realm of emo­tion, mean­ing, mem­ory, af­fect, habit — is by its very na­ture supra­ra­tional, which makes di­rected, ra­tio­nal and/or in­sti­tu­tional in­ter­ven­tion dif­fi­cult.

It is not a ques­tion of right­ing his­tor­i­cal wrongs or dis­pelling false mem­o­ries of New­found­land’s vic­tim­hood.

Demo­cratic re­form should in­stead fo­cus on build­ing more ro­bust civic and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions that have no room for the ghosts of New­found­land and Labrador’s failed na­tional project.

Democ­racy is a way of life that must be prac­tised, and there are many ba­sic prac­tices that the pro­vin­cial state can en­cour­age and foster to help New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans live more like cit­i­zens and less like sub­jects.

It is my hope that by pro­vid­ing and pro­duc­ing new modes of demo­cratic political ac­tion, this con­tri­bu­tion will in turn gen­er­ate new modes of demo­cratic thoughts and feel­ings and, ul­ti­mately, a health­ier, more demo­cratic na­tional char­ac­ter.

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