r”, sneers the headline in Ryan Cleary’s latest literary-ish output for the Newfoundland Weekly Separatist
The opening paragraph confirms the tone:
How do I say this nicely? MP Loyola Hearn seems to be coming down with the same political sickness that took out heavyweight John Efford. What happens to our politicians when they get to Ottawa? Why do they suddenly get the urge to defend the federal government and its wicked ways? Are they not strong enough to stand up for us? Are they so easily defeated?
It’s followed by:
If Hearn was a fighting Newfoundlander… Let’s review our wish list of things Hearn needs from the feds…. Financial support for Gander airport…. Financing assistance for lower Churchill development…. An early retirement package for fishery workers… Cash.
What we need, more than ever before, are political representatives with the backbone to do the job.
Cleary’s column brings into sharp focus, more than anything else (other than possibly Danny Williams' speeches
) the two twin demands that the local political culture makes of politicians. Let’s call it the The Hobbit rules:
Slay the Dragon
Bring Home Loot
The identity of the Dragon has changed over the decades. In the early 19th century, the enemy was, in many respects, Britain, the denier of representative and then responsible government. Those battles having been fought and won, the new institutions, and the politicians elected to them, began to fustigate against new enemies. For a while France and the French fisheries were the top of the list. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by the Americans, and, in repeated, periodic episodes, Canada. Canada, of course, has remained the Dragon since 1949, although Quebec, Foreigners Who Fish, and even, to some degree, visiting American forces, have served as lesser Dragons.
Bring Home Loot, too, has been firmly ensconced as a governing demand of the political culture. A politician who fails to deliver the bacon, in the form of transfers to persons, subsidies, grants, and general largesse, is, well, a failure. A quick glance through the Journals of the pre-Confederation House of Assembly confirms that this phenomenon is as old as responsible government in Newfoundland (though not in Labrador, which, it must be pointed out, was never given the franchise by pre-Confederation Newfoundland, and hence missed out on the 19th-century heritage of supplication to a local MHA.)
In the post-Confederation era, the two demands have even enjoyed a crossover. Smallwood made great hay out of Slaying Dragons to Bring Home Loot, in the form of countless contrived battles with Ottawa over funding of, well, just about everything.
Slay the Dragon and Bring Home Loot explains a lot of features of electoral politics. It helps explain the longevity of post-Confederation provincial governments; Smallwood’s 22-year run; 17 years of Moores and Peckford; 14 of Wells-Tobin-Grimes. Punishing the party in power is a risk that’s only safe to take once it’s clear that everyone else is willing to do it, too.
And the infertile ground for third parties, for instance, can be viewed as a direct result of the unwillingness of the electorate to bite the hand that Brings Home Loot. The veiled, and not-so-veiled threats made during the recent by-elections, especially in Humber Valley, continue to illustrate that quite well, even in the 21st century.
Joey Smallwood also threatened to cut Ferryland off of the public teat, unless Greg Power was elected there.
Many other provincial political cultures have at least one of these rules as a guiding principle. The Maritimes have long had a culture of Bring Home Loot, although in Nova Scotia, the spoils system was largely dismantled by the late former Premier Savage, contributing both to his own downfall, and to the rise of Nova Scotia’s distinctive, and surprisingly persistent, three-party system. PEI’s spoils system is alive and well, but PEI has never been overly big on Slaying Dragons. Parva sub ingenti.
Alberta, Quebec, and to a lesser degree B.C. all have some elements of Slay the Dragon. Alberta Premiers love to bash Ottawa; to what political end it’s hard to say, given the decidedly non-competitive nature of a province that has changed the party in power exactly three times in its first century in Confederation. It’s a bit less popular in B.C. In Quebec it takes the form of a leader’s having to prove his or her nationalist credentials, even as federalists or crypto-federalists.
The middle provinces, Saskatchewan through Ontario, no longer show terribly strong tendencies towards either demand. In fact, when SK or ON try, as they have recently, to play Slay the Dragon with Ottawa, something rings hollow and uncomfortable about the very attempt.
So that leaves Newfoundland and Labrador; the province where the Premier Slays Dragons by tearing down the Dragon’s flag, by calling the Dragon “politically unstable”, by opening up petty disputes with the Dragon at every turn, hoping to parlay one of them into a full-fledged rain-of-arrows war that will accomplish – well, only the Dragon Slayer seems to know the plan.
It’s also where the Premier, and indeed all MHAs, are utterly addicted to Bring Home Loot; whether in the form of by-election promises of honey or the withholding of honey, in the form of constituency slush funds, or in the blatantly partisan distribution of basic infrastructure funding.
It’s all so 1857.
And it might be funny.
Except it’s 2007.
It’s public money. Your
money. And your country, to boot.
Just when the province needs the opposite – measured spending, especially of windfall resource revenues; mature relations with the federal government and those of sister provinces – the public seems to demand, and the politicians are only offering, more of the same. Lots of loot, and lots of defeated dragons.
After a particularly brutal decade, Clyde Wells left the provincial economy well on the route to the meaningful structural changes it needed to have made. The private sector economy was growing, as measured by the source of personal income. Private-sector employment and investment income was growing as a proportion of all personal income. Public-sector income and government transfers to persons, as a proportion, was declining.
Now, in the decade since Wells has been out of power, that trend has reversed, and with a vengeance. It is sustainable neither in the long run, nor in the short run. The political response?
Demand more federal spending, especially on civil service employment. That way the provincial government can spend its unsullied money on other, more visible ways, of buying votes.
The “federal presence” fraud has been an especially good tool to exercise both demands. Never mind that the province as a whole, and St. John’s in particular, have among the highest federal civil service presences in the country, certainly well above the national average, torqued figures and appeals to emotion have allowed the issue to serve both ends; Dragons are slayed, Loot is brought home.
When the Dragon hunt should be cast aside as an anachronism, it is being revved up instead. New opportunities are being sought in Labrador, for instance, not to sensibly and rationally develop resource projects, but to open up new Dragon-slaying prospects against the flying worms of Canada and Quebec.
Meanwhile, Danny Williams’ notion of “independence”, in the fiscal sense, or whatever other sense he is getting at, seems to be to make the provincial government more dependent on transfer payments from Ottawa, and the provincial economy more dependent on transfers from both orders of government.
“Ask not what we can do for our country,” as Danny Williams said, “because we have done enough. Let’s ask our country what they can do for us.”
It’s the diametrical opposite of what the province needs.
It’s the opposite of what an independent-thinking person would be seeking at this time in history.
And it’s why it’s not hard to see that independent thought is NOT what the “Independent” in the PWG paper’s masthead stands for:
There’s an unwritten rule that says our MPs have to strike a balance between what Newfoundland and Labrador wants and what Ottawa is prepared to give….
That’s the “rule” in every province. In every country. In every democratic society.
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Politics is the authoritative allocation of values.
Only in the 19th-century-going-on-9th world of the Newfoundland crypto-nationalist orthodoxy could “having to strike a balance” be seen as a problem. And if that is a problem in a democratic society, then, well, how democratic is that society to begin with?
The Dragon Must Be Slayed.
And only in the 19th-century-going-on-9th world of the Newfoundland crypto-nationalist orthodoxy could a wish-list of federal largesse be published, without any sense of irony, even as a scandal concerning provincial largesse swirls around the paper and its erstwhile dragon-slaying champion.
Bring Home Loot.
There is a day of reckoning coming for that political culture. There is a day of reckoning coming for the provincial government's decades-long congenital failure to act like an adult, not a two-year-old, in its intergovernmental relatiosn. There is a massive day of reckoning coming for the culture of Bring Home the Loot.
It’s going to be ugly when it comes. Brutal, in fact. But there are some days it seems like it can’t come soon enough.