All Together Now

In NL, "working together" is code for rule by the few

There’s something about seeing Alan Doyle’s face smiling at you from a book’s dustjacket at Chapters.

The Newfoundland and Labrador section at the Kenmount Road store is smaller these days than it ever was.  Down now to maybe four sections six feet long with five or six shelves in each.  There’s one on the end where they display the books with the front facing out.  On the other three blocks, the books are crammed in, as in a library, so that all you see are the spines.  More than a few of the books are not actually about Newfoundland and Labrador at all.

Doyle’s second book took up most of that display space.  Row after row. There were a few copies of Andrew Furey’s book on a shelf underneath Doyle’s.

This is what celebrities do these days.  They write books about themselves.  Or to be truthful, more often than not their publishers get someone else to write the books. The first is usually about the celebrity’s life and experiences.  If there is a second, like Doyle’s, the book builds on the marketing image – the brand – that is the core of modern celebrity.

What caught a cynic’s eye was the title of Doyle’s second book, All together now.  The words are full of nautical allusions, of men on the deck of a sailing ship hauling ropes and singing shanties to make the hard physical work go more easily. Others will see a musician in a pub, calling all the patrons of a night to join in singing the chorus of whatever charming ballad he is singing.  The publisher’s blurb catches all of that and a few more cliches of Doyle and his home province that Canadians – Mainlanders,  the target market – will recognize. 

An audience in Newfoundland and Labrador, though, might notice the similarity of the phrase  - coincidentally - to what Doyle’s buddy Andrew Furey said a couple of weeks ago. In his very brief comments after last month’s Throne Speech,  Furey said:  “We can disagree with each other.  We should. We can offer opinions and best advice, but we must all be guided by what is best for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador in this critical moment of our history. Our province's legacy asks that of all of us. The people of this province expect that of us, and we must work together to achieve it.”

The same idea is in the Throne speech itself: 

  • “Together, with continued perseverance, we will overcome this challenge [of COVID-19].”

  • Dealing with the financial problems the province faces “will also require every Member of this House of Assembly to put aside partisan issues and commit to work together.”

  • “Now is the time to work together to put the good of the province first.”

The newly elected Liberal member who led off the debate after the speech said the same thing in almost exactly the same words.  So, too, did Sherry-Gambin-Walsh who spoke next.

Lately, lots of politicians have been talking about the need to work together for the good of Newfoundland and Labrador.  In the incredibly short Throne Speech after the 2019 general election, the phrase “working together” appears four times. In  November, the Lieutenant Governor told the House that the “opportunity exists to meet these challenges [facing the province] by working together.” At the end of her speech, the Lieutenant Governor added this sentiment:  “I encourage you to take the opportunity that you have been given to work together in the best interest of this province that we all love, and which has so much to offer.”

The same words turn up about 20 times in that one day after the 2019 Throne Speech.  Ches Crosbie, then leader of the opposition said three times that all parties must work together. Dwight Ball said that the “people that we serve expect us to work together. It's been loud and clear coming from this re-election and from this election, they expect all of us to work together to make Newfoundland and Labrador a better place to live, to work, and to raise a family.”

There’s more to this than the simple idea that everyone should play nice.  The NL Alliance among others,  blames partisan politics for all the province’s ills.  That’s just ridiculous but that doesn’t stop people from insisting politicians need to work together, meaning they must stop disagreeing.

That’s the same sentiment Furey has been pushing both in words and especially in actions. People can have different opinions, he allows, but Furey doesn’t seem to appreciate there could be anything more to it than that.   

Furey is just the latest politician to push this notion that everyone must work together, without any dissent. Shortly before the 2003 election, Danny Williams explained how he would run the province. “If an MP happens to be a Tory or a Liberal or an NDP,”  Williams said,  “it's not going to make any difference to me. They're Newfoundlander and Labradorian representatives and we need to work together.”

Williams was good to his word.  Williams was so committed to the idea everyone should sing from the same sheet that he spent the rest of his time in office going after anyone who disagreed with him. Outside the province, inside the province, inside his own caucus:  didn’t matter. Anywhere a contrary voice turned up, there’d be Williams and his supporters fighting against the folks they called quislings and traitors.  

One of Doyle’s bandmates put the idea in the Pea Sea’s 2007 campaign song. Originally written in 2004 for an expected fight with Ottawa, the song told the locals to “stop your ‘more for me, please’ rants, ‘cause if we don't stand together, then we don't stand a chance."  The song later became a hit for Shanneyganock with new lyrics.

The Pea Sea tactic worked. Public debate dwindled. Even newsrooms changed how they covered politics. When stories turned up that the government was meddling in the way Memorial University worked, for example,  local newsrooms didn’t touch the story.  The most the Telly would do is let editor Pam Frampton write an opinion column or two.  But no one covered it as a news story because none of the people talking dared be identified in public. None of the newsrooms wanted to deal with the stream of crap from Williams’ fan club. Once the Globe and Mail broke the story everybody could pile on, but if the Globe hadn’t covered it,  the story might well have disappeared just as others did during the same period.

Working Together means more than just stifling contrary speech. Political parties carry on the old way of doing business in the House.  They cut deals in private and pass legislation with only the minimum of talking in the House. Seldom does the public know what is really going on.  The short public debate keeps the public from figuring out what could be wrong with government’s plans and plots. 

Forget the popular cries for democratic reform.  What’s really interesting about all this is that the politicians keep working together in these secret deals despite the experience of the bad that  happens when they do. Don’t think of Muskrat Falls, which is probably the best example. Think of the botched Abitibi-Fortis expropriation in 2008.  Think of the unanimous vote in 2020 to give politicians power to throw people in a detention camp without involving a judge. Think of how easily they pass laws that allow the government to spend billions more than it takes in. They keep doing it even as they say they need to stop doing it.

Working Together doesn’t just apply to political parties. Government likes to make decisions by dealing in secret only with representatives of select groups.  It set oil and gas policy only by talking to the oil industry.  No one got a chance to talk about the environment or the need to shift away from oil and gas to cleaner forms of energy. No one got a chance to speak up about subsidizing multi-billion  dollar companies in the offshore.   

The same thing happened with the recent decision to rename a lake in central Newfoundland.  All done in secret.  An angry Mi’sel Joe complained to CBC’s Ted Blades last week after his plan to put a Mi’gmaw name on the ancestral homeland of the Beothuk people went sour.  Why didn’t they say anything before now, he asked Blades, referring to the people who complained publicly about the plan.

Well, they would have, of course,  if they had known about what Joe and others were up to. But the whole thing was a secret until Lisa Dempster and Andrew Furey announced the done deal to rename the lake. It’s hard for people to come up with a different idea if they never knew what was going on until it was too late. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians might also might have had some supportive, constructive advice about the repatriation of Beothuk remains and what happens to them next if Government wasn’t Working Together, in secret with only a few of the people who have a legitimate interest in what’s going on.

All Together Now or Working Together is political code in Newfoundland and Labrador for the way politics works in Newfoundland and Labrador these days.  Rather than welcome debate and discussion, government sets the agenda in secret.  Government limits who gets to make important decisions about the province and its future.  

Some of you may be thinking it is the same thing as “patriotic correctness.”  That’s the term CBC reporter David Cochrane used over 15 years ago to describe the way political supporters shout down anyone who didn’t follow their party’s line.

What Cochrane was talking about was just a symptom, a superficial sign of something much larger.  All Together Now is really about not working together at all.  Well, at least not everyone working together.  It really starts from the premise that only a handful of people in the province have the right to make decisions about public affairs and have any meaningful say in them.  Unlike modern liberal democracy that calls for more debate and more discussion from more points of view,  Working Together ironically means limiting who matters.

Everyone outside that circle is supposed to know their place.  Ideally, they should keep quiet and go along.  The most they should do is make some perfunctory statements in a forum controlled by the government, like say the House – for politicians – or rigged “consultations” for the rest of us.

What Cochrane identified was the way things were at the start of All Together Now politics.  These days, since everyone knows how the game goes,  very few step out of line.  Those that do break the rules find themselves isolated.  Since the three parties are tied to the groups that dominate politics, dissident movements face an up-hill struggle from the start.  They have to fight the whole tidy little compact of Newfoundland politics, not just a single political party.

All Together Now politics is another reason why, as much as some people in Newfoundland and Labrador know that we need to move the province in a new direction, change just doesn’t happen. As long as politicians keep telling us we need to Work Together, change will not come.