The abrupt end to the Opposition filibuster in the House of Assembly on June 8th served to underscore the larger issue of the Tories’ legitimacy as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
Government House Leader Andrew Parsons told the media that the Tories “were agreeable to finishing up”. As well they might have been. Even if the Liberals’ budgetary measures were misguided, as many deem the case, only the mindless would be capable of denying that Tory fiscal mismanagement was the root cause of the debate in the first place.
The Sitting was the first of the 48th General Assembly. In the preceding General Election, the remnants of the Progressive Conservative Party had been sent to the Opposition benches less by a Liberal juggernaut than by its own determination to self-destruct.
A province is facing penury from overspending and a reckless energy strategy devised by a bunch of ‘rink rats’. A vulnerable society, one perennially on the edge, has seen its tenuous financial stability frittered away in less than a decade.
Opposition Leader Paul Davis still recites lines that reflect blissful economic ignorance of our current circumstance. More frequently, Keith Hutchings is sent out to play the Opposition role. The smiley Member for Ferryland tackles important budgetary issues as if he were commenting on a sporting event. Gravitas is lost to sound. Incredulity is grafted onto light-weight. Bemusement is the consequence.
And so it is that a province in trouble has been robbed not just of leadership by a newly-elected government, but even of essential parliamentary opposition too.
At any other time since Confederation a Party, even if battered and bruised, was allowed to retain some semblance of legitimacy regardless of how deep the rout. Not this time.
The Tories are a Party disgraced. Theirs is a legacy that cannot, in any practical way, be undone unless the province first suffers years of human and financial misery.
Is all forgiven because the electorate exacted its pound of flesh at the polls, or because the Liberals are proving themselves unequal to the task of cleaning up the mess?
Is there another political Party that the public can count on if the current political vacuum persists?
The NDP is fundamentally irrelevant except when kneejerk politics demands a parking lot, so we can’t include them in this conversation.
But the Tories are a longstanding and successful political Party, one that — prior to the leadership of Danny Williams — boasted a serious legacy of institutional and policy development. Its resource policy initiatives (especially the Atlantic Accord), which include provisions for local benefits, were the envy of many governments.
No one, except Tory apologists, can claim that the province’s current financial debacle is due to the fall-off in oil revenues rather than to mismanagement — some suggest, on an almost criminal scale.
Again, the problem is serious not least because the British parliamentary system is predicated not only on effective government but, at least minimally, on a credible Opposition too.
If the Liberals are eventually forced to face up to the budgetary crisis, and great public angst results in the process; if important services are cut, which is likely, or if the power bills arrive showing a rate reset of 21.4 cents per kWh (a blended rate - not even one reflecting the full cost of Muskrat Falls), stressing both the economy and the society; from whom will the public look for intercession on their behalf, to argue fairness or relief?
To the very group of fools who ran us off the fiscal cliff in the first place?
Why would we expect the public do that? Because they are prescient enough to blame the Liberals? Because acknowledgement of Tory responsibility is submerged by denial or profound ignorance?
Who is kidding whom?
It is inconceivable that the only punishment awaiting the Tories is a term or two in Opposition.
Likely, the public is not nearly finished with them — that a day of far more severe reckoning awaits.
Admittedly, partisanship is a blind state. In this province it is made worse because the cronies of Danny Williams still possess a firm grip on the Party’s apparatus.
No one, it seems, has thought through the threat to that political institution, nor to our political system either.
In time, the public will better comprehend their pitiful financial condition and want to better understand its origins. When that circumstance occurs, it won’t only be the Consumer Advocate, Tom Johnson, and Wade Locke who will be tendered for public flogging. The former Constable Premier and his most recent accomplices, including Williams, Dunderdale and Marshall, will also be in for a drubbing.
Unless the P.C. Party initiates a purge of those who hold it hostage and repudiates the policies which have led to this province’s virtual financial collapse, it too is likely to collapse.
It is natural to think that a new political party will emerge. History shows that newbies have enormous difficulty finding their footing, even if populism is fertilized best when social and economic misery is at its worst. Still, it is tough to worry what any new partisan incarnation would look like when democracy, such as it is, allows a Party fit only for the funeral pyre to inhabit the people’s House.
On that account politics, perhaps like nature, abhors a vacuum. We will see.
The immediate question, however, is whether an “old line” Party, having set the stage for demise by its own hand, can survive.
Honourary Degree Recipient, Edsel Bonnell, an icon in this community as well as a policy wonk, served seven years during his lengthy career as the Premier’s Chief of Staff and chaired the Strategic Economic Planning Group under Clyde Wells. Bonnell wrote in the Telegram recently a four step approach to dealing with our financial condition.
The first step, he suggested, should see the Government elicit support from the opposition parties in the formulation of a strategy to resolve the budget deficit before the lending agencies turn off the taps.
While Bonnell’s proposals need discussion in a dedicated article, they are a serious attempt at offering a prescription for dealing with our economic crisis. An Opposition Party on the road to annihilation might have embraced his approach by offering sensible ideas, helping an ill-prepared Government find bearable solutions — even as it worked to maintain its constitutional obligation to provide opposition. The two roles are neither incompatible nor mutually exclusive. It’s just that Bonnell’s suggestion is far too idealistic - too much to expect from a Party lacking the wisdom to understand the depth of its own failure.
Indeed, it is inherently contradictory that an unrepentant, unreformed, conflicted Party, one hi-jacked by private interests, is capable of putting the public first.
The P.C. Party has not learned that it needs to demonstrate the capacity and the willingness to admit its monumental blunders, throw itself at the mercy of the public, shed the super-egos with which it is possessed, and expose its willingness to adhere to a major program of public policy reform.
It is only because a political party is constituted of a mass of people, and not just the egos, that the question deserves to be put at all.
The Tories don’t have a long time to institute their own revolution. It may be too late anyway.
But, at the outset, the P.C. Party must recommit itself to the fundamental principles which underlie decency and common sense; it must rid itself of the stench of private agendas, and of its penchant for deceit that the Muskrat "boondoggle" exposes by its origins and execution; it must shed the demons that overshadow its vital role within our parliamentary system. If it can’t do all of those things, slim chance will be no chance at all. The P.C. Party will be banished to history.
Soon there will be few who will even care.