The idea for this project originated at a public discussion about political crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development held a “Memorial Presents” session in June 2016 at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). The gathering was predicated on more than the province’s ominous financial situation, a consequence of short-term thinking, poor financial planning, and lower revenues than projected from offshore oil royalties. In addition to an unwieldy deficit and ballooning public debt, there was a revolving door in the premier’s office. There was considerable civil unrest even after the election of a new government.
The audience was eager to blame politicians for the province’s political and economic instability. The idea that the public bears any responsibility was anathema to their views. Comments that criticized politicians were cheered on; anyone running up against that mood risked being the target of an angry mob.
It was obvious that to get past blaming others, someone would need to do something. Academics are granted tenure and hold dear the principle of academic freedom precisely so that they can safely challenge conventional wisdom.
Unfortunately, few of them study local governance, and in recent years Memorial University has not even offered Newfoundland and Labrador politics courses.
This is consistent with a so-called “comparative turn” whereby growing numbers of scholars and students are drawn to studying global phenomena.
As a public institution in a cash-strapped province, MUN could and should play a leadership role in helping to resolve the local political turmoil, provided that thinkers and writers could be encouraged to do so.
Our initial vision was loosely modelled on the University of British Columbia Press openaccess compilation Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy and Democracy. That project published short, snappy pieces from over 60 political scientists and journalists from across Canada.
We decided that a similar number of contributors could be mobilized to write about ways to improve democratic governance in Newfoundland and Labrador.
This would provide a strong support resource and an energetic foray into exploring new ideas that might aid in the work of the province’s All-party Committee on Democratic Reform.
It would become a reference tool for local journalists and a reminder of the range of issues and subject matter confronting political thinkers and the public. The compilation would generate awareness among contributors and others about the opportunities and challenges associated with democratic reform. It could be freely used in classroom settings and spur public conversation. Finally, it would connect the academic community with broader society on a matter of public concern.
A democratic project should convey diversity of authorship in terms of both demographics and political world views. Jacques Parizeau, Quebec’s premier during the 1995 referendum on sovereignty-association, once said that province’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s “consisted of three or four ministers, twenty civil servants and consultants, and fifty chansonniers.” The implication was that political elites were not responsible for political change: it was the broader populace, led by musicians who inspired the public through song.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the artistic and cultural community is strong and vibrant, but generally speaking this community is disconnected from the policy wonks involved with government administration. A democratic project would need to act as a bridge between these two solitudes.
After meeting each other for the first time in June 2016, we agreed to submit an application for a Public Engagement Accelerator Fund grant through the MUN Office of Public Engagement. Part of our application stated: “Bringing together a wide variety of voices will constitute grassroots mobilization on the matter of ‘fixing’ democratic governance in Newfoundland and Labrador after a period of acute political turmoil. … This is timely as it has the potential to inform a society and government that is preoccupied with other priorities in a period of fiscal restraint, and will constitute information for the All-party Committee on Democratic Reform promised by the current administration.”
We recruited a number of external partners and collaborators: Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based national advocacy group that urges citizen participation in democratic governance; The Telegram, the St. John’s-based newspaper; the Harris Centre; and the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER Books).
How We Recruited Authors We followed a two-step approach to recruiting authors. We began with academics, followed by members of the community at large. Potential contributors were provided with a background document to outline the nature of the project, establish contribution parameters, and identify some examples of topics that they might write about.
Some members of Memorial University’s department of political science provided opinions on a draft list of suggested topics.
We decided early on that we would strive for gender equality among authors. We also sought to include people of different ethnicities (particularly Aboriginal people), ages and geographic location.
Moreover, diversity of subject matter, political ideology, and opinion were important editorial values. We would avoid recruiting contributions from office-holders, public servants and others whose involvement might inhibit objectivity. This invokes a trade-off of sacrificing important insider perspectives.
We are thrilled with the broad participation of so many scholars from diverse disciplines and institutions. Even so, we hoped for stronger uptake. Generally speaking, the reasons for declining centred on scholars prioritizing other commitments and lacking sufficient familiarity with the politics and governance of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Recruitment of community contributors was more challenging because, unlike academics, most private citizens do not have a public webpage with readily available contact information. We sought suggestions and referrals from various project contributors and from some of those who otherwise declined to participate.
How We Reviewed Submissions
Our editorial approach was to ensure that submissions were of a reasonably high standard and generally followed our contributor guidelines. Draft submissions were reviewed independently by each of us. Our comments were merged into a feedback file that included a checklist of common parameters, such as word count limits. Sometimes alternate sources were suggested for the author to consult, as we did not want an editor’s own publications to be unduly emphasized.
Authors then resubmitted their work. All resubmissions from academics were ultimately accepted for inclusion in the draft manuscript. One academic did not resubmit and thus that work is not included.
Community contributors needed a bit more guidance given that we were following academic conventions in order to ready the work for external peer review.
One contributor remarked that the feedback was communicated in a manner that “very much embodied that balance between rigour and support.”
A common frustration for some members of the community was citing obscure information. As one put it when resubmitting, “I’ve been out of university for a long time, so I’m not sure if I got the citation format exactly right.”
Submissions from eight community contributors were rejected because the work was deemed to be unsuitable for this project or else the author was unwilling to act on our suggested changes. In some cases there was a distinct similarity of subject matter, which rendered a few well-written pieces nevertheless redundant.
The draft manuscript was sent out by ISER Books for external review to two anonymous academics located elsewhere in Canada. They provided detailed feedback on the work as a whole and comments on individual contributions.
All authors were given the opportunity to revise their work and, if applicable, to make changes in response to the external reviewers’ suggestions. The revised manuscript is considerably stronger as a result.
The peer review process meant that the time from submission to publication was much longer than with the Canadian Election Analysis 2015 project. In any event, political life in the province was preoccupied with an ominous budgetary situation. Few people were publicly discussing democratic reform. One exception was changing the rules surrounding political financing, a matter that the government House leader said would get underway in 2018.
As we were readying the manuscript for publication, a staff member at MUN saw the book’s cover, and wondered what kind of food recipes it contained. We decided to recruit some recipes for meals and desserts with a Newfoundland and Labrador political theme. We contacted a number of former premiers, ministers and MHAS by drawing on our own networks, suggestions from contributors and by performing an online search.
We then contacted a variety of restaurants around the province drawn from a tourism contact list. Recruitment challenges persisted, particularly among those affiliated with political parties.
As with any edited collection, the content of this book is somewhat different from what we imagined. Some ideas and approaches pleasantly surprised us.
Conversely, many of our initial questions surrounding ways to improve governance in Newfoundland and Labrador went unaddressed and warrant attention in another forum.
Some authors were captivated by topical issues, such as the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador, which will generate renewable energy but is billions of dollars over budget and has been the source of heated protests.
Much should also be read into what is not presented in these pages. Nobody we contacted was willing to put their name to an indictment of a society that historically pushes for public funding and protests government cutbacks, for example.
We lack a deep appreciation for some voices that are underrepresented in political circles, such as recent immigrants.
What we compiled is indicative of a diversity of opinion, but also of the limited number of public commentators who are intimately familiar with the inner workings of governance, who have training in the study of public administration, or who are willing to push the boundaries of what can be publicly expressed in a small place.
Conversely, new perspectives and ideas are raised that represent a meaningful addition to the conversation. All told, as editors we share the opinion expressed by one contributor and echoed by many others: that no matter its strengths and shortcomings, this represents a “very worthwhile project.”