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Monday, 6 August 2012

Who are the Guardians of Democracy in NL?

Democracy, and all the rights and freedoms represented by that most cherished of systems, historically, has demanded the spilling of blood as the price of victory over tyranny.  Canadians are an exception.  The Great Wars notwithstanding, no blood was spilled in this country in pursuit of such a noble cause.  But as many democrats know, winning democracy is only a beginning; rights are constantly under threat of being diminished.

Poor access to information and the capacity of government to be willfully secretive is a daily issue for the media and for everyone else. Arrogance and ‘legislative creep,’ translated as the progressive restriction of rights over time by modest changes to legislation, is an ever present danger.   Most of us know that public release of information exposes poor analysis, shoddy administrative systems and, sometimes, outright illegality. Governments often prefer to tighten the process of disclosure rather than fix the root cause of the problems.
Bill 29 is an example of legislative creep.  Then too, Muskrat Falls is an example of poor analysis.  But powerful interests want Muskrat Falls built.  Those vested interests, I suggest, are in conflict with the public interest.  Most people want to believe that governments are well intentioned. Still, experience suggests that government decisions are often subject to competing interests and influences rather than objective analysis or the rigid criteria of cost vs. benefit. 

While many agree that this government’s determination to beat off dissenters of Muskrat Falls is a serious display of poor democratic practice, we should ask: who has the responsibility to be on guard when such practices threaten basic rights?  

Brits will inform you that elites played a key role in the signing of the Magna Carta to kick start Britain’s very robust history of democratic government.   Ask a Pole and you will be reminded that ordinary people took to the streets in a ‘Solidarity’ movement for basic rights. Hence, let’s ask the question again, who should be on guard?  The answer is, all of us!
Having been born into a system of good democratic practice, we have no claim to the term ‘freedom fighter’ as do citizens who fight for basic rights everywhere democracy is prevented from taking root.  But, we are, or have a responsibility to become, ‘guardians’ of democratic practice. It is not a job to be taken for granted.

We live in a society of relative wealth where everyone has access to a high level of education; it comprises a large professional group; business people, lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers and many others, like the academics of our university.  Some of our brightest populate boards of directors and occupy senior positions in the private sector.  In fact, many have the expertise to take note when challenging issues arise.   

It is not as if Muskrat Falls were a partisan issue; though, in a real democracy, individuals should not recoil, no matter their partisan leanings. The issue does not require a purely qualitative analysis either.  On the contrary, most of its components have a quantitative aspect.  Several disciplines are required to conduct the analysis; all participants need not be experts, though an appreciation of business risk would be useful.  
Without re-stating the wide range of arguments on both sides of the issue, suffice it to say, Muskrat Falls has the potential to overtake our limited financial means. Therefore, it deserves the attention of the whole population, and especially those who are academically equipped to make assessments that lack bias.

Has the media performed its historical role to ferret out the truth and to inform its subscribers?  I believe most media have performed poorly on this issue, with possibly the singular exception of The Telegram. This is a matter that requires greater discussion at another time. Suffice it to say, journalists, today, enjoy less the status of “gatekeeper” or “watchdog” they once claimed.  They too, seem preoccupied with the problem of declining market share.
Is it not the job of opposition parties to raise the alarm when government is acting contrary to the public interest?  Indeed, it is.  But, to be blunt, neither opposition party has done a credible job of challenging the government on Muskrat.  In part, the problem maybe their small size and limited resources, but I fear it is not that simple. 

The NDP has conflicts, both ideological and political. The Liberals are conflicted, too.  They would prefer that the Government ‘fall on its own sword’ rather than be forced to take a position contrary to a potential leadership contender in the Liberal Party.  That relationship has an unhealthy aspect.  Afterall, “opposition” is not only called for, it is a constitutional obligation; hence, the title “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”.
Who will speak for NL when everyone is conflicted? 

This is an interesting state of affairs; not merely an academic one, either. At other times, writers, including this one, have discussed the problem of small societies and the reticence of individuals to speak out for fear of bringing rebuke on family members and business associates.  But government does not touch everyone.  It is unlikely that the ‘unconflicted’ group, however small, have studied the project and that all are in complete agreement.  
We might well ask this question: has recent social change failed to note a fundamental alteration in the way we behave to ‘threats’, whether economic or on a more basic democratic level?  Perhaps.  But other questions need asking, too. For example, are we, as members of a modern transnational economy, no longer seeded to the place that nurtures us?  Is the failure of one place, a licence to move to the next rich economy? In other words, is the 21st century citizen now no more than a franchise is to modern business; a Starbucks, ready to close shop the minute the money runs out?  

Does the concept of nationality or patriotism even still exist?  Is there no longer a need to worry about an esoteric concept like responsibility in a democratic society? Is all that remains a slavish regard to the pay cheque, irrespective of whether it is Canadian or Chinese?   
The questions are certainly easier to state than are the answers. But we can be certain of one thing.  If our only interest is to ensure that we get our piece of the Muskrat Falls pie, there is little to be done. 

If we fail to assess the project’s foolhardiness and risk to this Province, or if we refuse to face the issue of how well we have fared as guardians of our democracy, Kathy Dunderdale and Danny Williams will not be the only ones with a lot to answer for.