Monday, 4 June 2012

THE LIMITS OF PARTISANSHIP

The following Essay penned by Uncle Gnarley’s writer, appeared in The Telegram, Saturday, June 2, 2012 edition, and is re-produced here with minor edits.)          

Once the tyranny of the Smallwood years had been lifted, after the 1972 general election, it did not take long for new government systems to be introduced. 

Modern management practices including a more formalized public information system, a system for hiring public employees based upon merit, a public tendering system, as well as others were introduced.  A restructuring of the legislative and executive branches of the public service occurred; capable people became involved in the governance of the Province.  While the system was far from perfect and backsliding was sometimes manifest, major advances in the overall system of governing for a democratic society were evident.  Somehow, that process was halted with Muskrat Falls.
The Muskrat Falls project was a big head butt! Not at first. Not until the questions started to emerge. Maybe it wasn’t even then; perhaps, it was when Minister Kennedy was heard voicing outlandish and accusatory statements in an attempt to discredit certain individuals.  Many people then took the time to review the information on Muskrat Falls.  Personally, I came to the conclusion that it was not only ill thought out, it was reckless. Still, that is another matter.


From the perspective of my own experience in a senior role and, as an observer since then, I was not used to seeing a Minister, on an important file, as unprepared as Kennedy, to entertain discussion and debate.  During the Peckford years, the Premier got personally involved in the major issues and clearly enjoyed engaging people; he organized public speaking events and put on hundreds of miles, often with small audiences.  Interaction with the public was an integral part of how he performed.  Premier Clyde Wells, on the proposed privatization of Newfoundland Hydro, and Premier Brian Tobin, on the denominations schools system,  in later years, allowed public debate to influence the outcome of those significant public policy issues. 
I have often thought about this question: how was Brian Peckford able to achieve major gains on offshore royalities and management and retain a high level of popularity, to the end of his tenure, in a government with limited financial ability to satisfy even the most modest demands of the voters?

I believe the answer is firmly embedded in our system of democratic government.
Political parties are integral to that system.  Politics is about attracting ‘adherents’ who become ‘partisans’; the party that attracts more of those, gets to run the government; those who get fewer, become the opposition.

Hence, it makes sense to support political parties, however loosely.  Many people do, some for a lifetime; others temporarily, for a single election or for a single cause.   
Partisans are not blind, as some suggest. Neither is partisanship a one way street.  In the same way political parties look for support, partisans also have expectations.  Put another way, supporters of parties come with strings attached.  At a minimum, they require that the leadership will represent their views with integrity and ability; that they will not govern arrogantly or with malice, that they will spend from the public purse wisely and advance the common good.  There is no expectation that they will do these things perfectly, only that they will try hard!  

‘Partisanship’ often demands conformity; it discourages dissent, especially if such dissent is put on public display.  Those partisans who have had a long association with a party, and identified by it, are expected to ‘maintain the party line’.  When a member criticizes the party leadership, he is viewed as a ‘troublemaker’.  Alternatively, if the party leadership is at fault, as Smallwood was, he is the one viewed as having engaged in questionable or egregious behavior, justifying rebuke.
During the Smallwood era, Joey had insulted the democratic process for too long; people wanted him gone.  Arbitrary to the point of being dictatorial, he had racked up a string of reckless ‘investments’, which threatened our solvency and our sanity. The ties of party loyalty were tested and broke down under the strain.  Partisans drifted away from the Liberal Party; some loudly, many quietly.

The election of the Moore’s government in 1972, under the slogan “It Won’t Be Long Now”, was not just a repudiation of Joey’s style of putting down dissenters, it was a cry for fundamental political change, a demand for stronger institutions, a rejection of arbitrary edicts and a desire for a more open, transparent and participatory style of government. 
Following the Moores years, Brian Peckford engaged in a gargantuan effort to establish a fundamental basis for economic prosperity in the province. 

His timing wasn’t great; the provincial debt was growing, infrastructure and services were still backward.  He faced an outwardly unfriendly federal government on all the resource issues and an urging by local unions and businesses to settle with the Trudeau and, later, the Chretien Liberals, who had nothing for us. 
If Peckford proved anything, it was that a solid group of ‘partisans’ supported his cause; he had acknowledged, respected and engaged them and he knew, intuitively, that he was safe in their hands.  They outnumbered those ‘conflicted’ by other loyalties, jobs or boards of directors.   

The ‘partisans’ who support the Dunderdale government, I submit, still comprise a large group whose memory of Smallwood and how shoddily he treated decent people, is still very raw. I submit there is also a younger group who dislike being taken for granted because they appear disconnected from some key public issues.  When you see, as we have recently, former Premiers, former Ministers including a former Minister of Finance and as well as former MHA’s express genuine concern, privately and in the media over Muskrat, all of them ignored, you know that these are not normal times.

So, when a Minister, ostensibly with the approval of the Premier, decides, first, to quell legitimate speak, and then, presume that the public should play no role in understanding, debating or approving a $6.2 billion undertaking; one that places them at serious financial risk;  ….it might cause one to consider a new slogan.  How about this one? We Got Rid of a Bunch Like You in ‘72 …!

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