god guard thee, newfoundland

There’s an old joke I read once about a well-known Newfoundland lawyer giving a talk to the Canadian Bar Association back in the early 1930s. “That’s the real difference between Newfoundlanders and Canadians,” he quipped as the group finished singing O Canada. “In Canada, you guys can sing ‘we stand on guard for thee.’ Back home, we have to sing ‘God guard thee Newfoundland’ because no one else is up to the job.”

That first bit may or may not still apply in the age of Stephen Harper, but the last week of provincial politics proved the rest of it still holds. The Honourable Members of the House of Assembly have historically been masters of the Newfie joke and when it came time for them to tackle the problem of “democratic reform” they certainly brought their A-game. Despite what our legislators and their partisan cheerleaders tell you, Barnum & Bailey would be hard pressed to put off a better circus than the late-night passage of Bill 42.

We now know, for instance, that the move to reduce seats in the legislature was motivated less by a high-minded commitment to democracy (or even fiscal expediency) than it was a crude PR ploy by the Tories to get us talking about something – anything! – other than how incompetent they are. And hey, nothing says “great PR” like rushing through a desperate bill to dramatically alter the provincial electoral map ahead of an election they’re almost doomed to lose. Especially given that the last-minute amendments are likely to hurt them in the next election anyways. I hope they can get a refund on whatever consulting fees they paid for this advice because gentle Mother of Christ, guys.

The Tories are hoping that the plebians they’re about to hammer in the forthcoming austerity budget will see the self-inflicted seat cuts as our politicians nobly leading by example and sharing in the financial pain. They’re also hoping this will draw attention away from the fact that we’re in this mess thanks in large part to their own reckless approach to the province’s finances.

The financial argument for reducing seats has never made a lick of sense, given the dearth of money to be saved. If we’re trying to scrimp pennies by renovating the legislature, why not shave off a few cabinet portfolios or shrink the number of parliamentary secretaries in the House? Why not skim a little off the top of all MHA salaries? The argument that we need to cut seats in order to be ‘on par’ with the Nova Scotia or New Brunswick legislatures is equally baffling. Since when is democratic representation a race to the bottom? And if we’re so concerned with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, why not start by modernizing the roles MHAs actually play instead of cutting them wholesale?

In other words, why jump straight to slashing seats? Other than to pay homage to the time-honoured Newfoundland tradition of gutting democracy at the first sign of economic trouble, I mean.

Again, we already know the answer to all this. Bill 42 was a ploy to rope-a-dope Dwight Ball and the Liberals, who fell for it hook, line, and sinker. For whatever reason it had been trendy going back to 2013 for the opposition parties to make unprompted calls for shrinking the legislature and the Tories, desperate to strike back against surging Liberal polls, gave them what they wished for.

Credit where credit is due. The Liberals did manage to get Bill 42 amended from its initial state – protection for the 4 seats in Labrador, only eight seats cut instead of ten, no election delay, and a population-requirement exemption for two as-yet-to-be-determined rural districts – but in all likelihood the Tories introduced the measure expecting to make some, if not all, of those concessions. And no one ever said bad legislation couldn’t be bipartisan.

Unlike the NDP, I don’t believe this bipartisanship is a case of deliberate collusion. I think it just shows that on the question of legislative reform, the Liberals and the Tories are of the same mind – which is to say neither has any mind at all.

It’s all the rhetoric from both sides about democracy that really turns my stomach. If their main concern was crafting a functional legislature they would not start by arbitrarily cutting seats. Dr. Kelly Blidook already dismantled the Liberal/Tory rationale but it’s worth rehearsing some of the bigger problems with Bill 42 again. Unless other reform measures are brought in, fewer MHAs means more concentrated power in the hands of the premier’s office. Fewer MHAs means more inefficient committees (if indeed we get legislative committees at all), which means the quality of debate and discussion in the House will continue to suffer. Fewer MHAs means more power for party leaders, which means the few sensible MHAs who do manage to get elected will be more muzzled than they already are by the dictates of the leader’s office.

Cutting seats, in and of itself, is actively counterproductive to democratic reform. Bill 42 is almost the exact opposite of reform and the fact that it’s being praised as such by party hacks both in and out of the legislature is a shocking case of civic illiteracy.

Believe it or not, I’m not opposed to the reduction of seats in principle. But the seats cut and the terms of reorganizing electoral boundaries shouldn’t be up to the parties in the legislature themselves. Virtually every other democratic system on earth leaves these decisions up to an independent body. That commission looks at the province’s demographics and finances and whatever else and takes all relevant factors into consideration when deciding how (or if) to redistribute and refashion the electoral districts in the House of Assembly.

Instead, the government is moving backwards. It’s effectively deciding what the commission must find in advance and then telling them to find it, in significantly less time than is normally required. And if they can’t get their work done in the time allotted, they’ll have to scrap whatever they have and start over in 2016. Then we’re out about as much money as cutting the seats would save in the first place.

The whole process is so asinine I’m almost at a loss for words. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t a sign that the vast majority of our legislators don’t understand the nature and function of their own jobs.

It’s unclear just how many people support Bill 42. I don’t doubt that if you started asking people on the street if they’d like to see fewer scrubs cluttering up the backbenches, most of them would give an enthusiastic yes. Given our farce of a legislature I can definitely understand the appeal. Part of me wishes they’d just shutter the House indefinitely and spare us the pretence – especially now that they’ve been practically unanimous in affirming their own uselessness.

But I also believe that if you asked people what they really wanted – do you want a legislature that works? – they would also say yes. And I believe if we had an opposition party capable of living up to its purpose – giving a voice to popular sentiment, articulating and framing and focusing the abstract sentiments of citizens into concrete proposals, and actually working towards a more mature and robust democratic system – then they would have been able to call on the Tories to respect the institution and the processes in place to safeguard it.

Representative democracy, on its best days, isn’t about catering to the lowest common denominator but raising the level of public discourse – and citizens along with it.

Instead, the Liberals have proved that they can only see as far as the next opinion poll and they’re terrified of sticking their necks out and losing the lead. They’re more worried about Dwight Ball coming off like a ‘flip flopper’ in the endless, deafening, tediously shallow soundbite war of media-driven politics than in seriously thinking about how to make the House of Assembly work.

I didn’t expect much from the Tories. But admittedly – and perhaps foolishly – I expected more from the Grits. They may have helped tone down some of the coming changes but they were still eager participants in a shallow debate about bad legislation designed to address a completely fabricated problem that will actively aggravate the issue it’s meant to solve. Dressing it in the language of democracy is just adding insult to injury.

But what odds. Every media observer, concerned citizen and political scientist in the province is up in arms about butchering the legislature and both the premier and the premier-in-waiting are patting themselves on the back as though they were the new Fathers of Confederation.

Old John A. might have been a genocidal drunk but even he had at least cracked a book on parliamentary government once in his life.

God guard thee Newfoundland, indeed.

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