Paternalism created our current mess and keep us from cleaning it up.
Last week, everyone got a lesson in how politics works in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Thursday morning, health minister John Haggie finally admitted what everyone knew: some unknown hackers took down the provincial health system the Saturday before.
We were in Day Six of the latest health care crisis on Thursday. The question politicians could have asked about in the House of Assembly would have been things like “why is chemotherapy shut down?” This is the only stuff anyone could really talk about. And it’s important to the ordinary people whose lives are turned inside out by this latest crisis.
So, opposition leader David Brazil wondered about daily briefings. Why weren’t the public getting them. That wasn’t what Brazil was interested in, though.
He made a dig in the first question: “the Premier has been missing in action.” A couple of questions later, Brazil mentioned that last year Premier Andrew Furey said – to quote Brazil’s version – “residents need to see and hear from their Premier during times of crisis. Why doesn’t the Premier take his own advice now?”
Eventually, Brazil got to his point: rather than tweeting about his junket, “the Premier needs to be talking to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. They’re the people who he serves.”
Why is the Premier front and centre when election campaigns are on, but silent when the people of the province need true leadership?
Now the reality is no one needed the Premier to deal with this problem. Coady and Haggie could make all the decisions anyone needed to make. That’s how our system works, as Brazil should know.
Brazil was playing to the popular idea that unless the Premier is around – any Premier - no one is in charge. No one can do anything. Furey himself had used the same idea as an excuse for showing up at daily briefings, which is what Brazil was talking about in one of his questions.
Truth is, in the COVID health emergency Furey didn’t need to be there any more than Dwight Ball did before him. Given that the briefings seldom mentioned anything *but* health care, there was no reason for any minister except Haggie to be front and centre. Furey was just puffing up his public image before the election. There was nothing more to it than that.
What Furey and Ball were playing with was the idea the Premier runs everything in the provincial government. It’s an old idea that dates back to Joe Smallwood. Since then, almost every Premier deliberately pushed the same idea. Even the Premiers who didn’t work the way Smallwood did looked like they worked that way, at least in the popular imagination and in media reporting. The notion is baked into the local political culture.
Smallwood’s kind of paternalism is one of the defining characteristics of local politics, restored to its former glory by Danny Williams. The notion of an all-powerful leader is so ingrained in the political culture that the Pea Seas tried to make Kathy Dunderdale out to be the new patron. So too have the Liberals with Dwight Ball and then Andrew Furey, even though neither fits the model of a decisive leader any more than Dunderdale did.
Come Friday afternoon, Furey was back from Scotland and polishing the paternalistic image again. He chaired the afternoon cyberattack briefing even though – as Premier – he didn’t need to be there to deal with the update. Yet there he was, without a TelePrompTer for a change, name-dropping and defending his trip.
Furey fluffed up the importance of a trip he initially had said was only about giving him “insight” into something or other. He also claimed that while he was in Scotland he was “fully engaged” in the cyber-attack response. His lines about the cyber-attack were stale. Maybe appropriate for Sunday or Monday when he was in Scotland with the rest of the hangers-on trying to look relevant while other people worked. Out of place on Day Six of a perpetual crisis.
While Coady and Haggie did real work, Furey posted selfies of his meeting with a couple of people from Fortis or his meeting with the federal environment minister. A chance encounter with the Ontario environment minister. Or a quick courtesy meeting - just a photo op, with no business involved - with the UN General Assembly’s president, arranged through one of the President’s speechwriters who happens to be from Newfoundland.
In his interviews with provincial media on Tuesday, Furey didn’t talk about the cyber-attack. Furey claimed he was pitching Newfoundland oil to a conference that was decidedly anti-oil. We need to be at the table, Furey said, (Furey wasn’t even in the room where they kept the table) or else we’d have to “follow the prescription” set by others.
Furey did one interview while he was in Scotland with international media. We only know about the one overseas interview because Furey’s staff tweeted a picture of it. Then they quickly and mysteriously disappeared it.
Left the other stuff up. Deleted the picture of Furey speaking with Tom Harwood. Once a reporter for the saucy website Guido Fawkes, Harwood now does a daily show for GB News alongside other hosts like Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party.
The interview was fair, which is really all you can ask of any reporter. Furey told the GB News audience was that climate change was really important to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Something about a carbon sink and the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current not working because of changing ocean temperatures.
Harwood asked Furey about Canada’s failure to hit its emission reduction targets so far. Furey said that he was confident the country would hit the Prime Minister’s targets now. We are an oil and gas producing country but, Furey said, “we need to move away from that.” He told Harwood about the abundance of hydro-electric resources in Newfoundland and Labrador.
But there was no mention of our low-carbon oil. For the overseas audience it was all about getting rid of oil and filling the prescription from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the letter.
We’ll come back to the policy implications of last week’s junket but for now, focus on the need for Furey and the Liberals to reinforce the illusion of Furey as all-powerful leader. Furey and his brain trust changed messages rather than stand by Furey’s decision to go to Glasgow. He must have had a good reason for doing so. People can understand good reasons. Furey could have brushed off Brazil’s claims or media questions with a brusk statement of confidence in his fellow cabinet ministers.
Furey re-imagined the week that everyone just lived through to fit the political culture rather than change it.
We saw another version of paternalism in the attitude toward the federal government that turned up in some comments both by reporters and by ordinary people. This version maps the same family hierarchy – Dad the head of the family looking after the dependents – onto the relationship between the federal and provincial governments.
Furey likes to use this one when he talks about how Justin sees us and hears us. It sounds a little bit like a priest telling the flock that God hears our prayers but even in that Christian belief there are echoes of the same paternalistic notion.
That’s why in the Friday briefing Furey mentioned his conversations with the Prime Minister about the cyber-attack. It’s also why people like CBC reporter Peter Cowan or another commenter on Twitter over the weekend both lamented the fact no federal officials had said anything about the local cyber-attack.
The premier agree[s] with experts that the fed government needs to take the lead on cyber security. Yet a week into the attack I haven’t heard a single federal minister say anything about the attack. [italics added]
Andrew Furey said he’s spoken to the PM and intergovernmental affairs ministers [and] John Haggie has spoken to his federal counterpart in health but none of them have spoken up to condemn the attacks. Any requests for interviews CBC has put in has returned only generic statements
Cowan added a reference to a cyber-attack on a piece of national American infrastructure. Biden talked, yet in Canada, there’s silence.
Take that as a bonus bit of local culture these days - local elites look to the United States as an example for local policy, even if the situations are nothing alike – but just think for a minute. The health system is 100% provincial. The federal government can offer technical support, especially from the ultra-secret agency that handles government communications and computer security. That isn’t something anyone should talk about.
All that any federal politician or official do is state the obvious: This is terrible. They are helping. The people who did this are real meanies. That sort of thing. Cowan wasn’t just looking for words to fill out a hole in a story he needed to file. He and others were looking for an important political symbol in a paternalistic culture: the Father must show love for the children.
You can see from this language that paternalism reduces ordinary citizens to subjects. It infantilizes them. Paternalism robs them of their right to take part in decisions that affect them. Paternalism also allows those with power and authority to escape accountability. Shifting talk of the cyber-attack to the federal government allows provincial officials to hide.
If you want to understand how this happens, look no further than the Burton Winters tragedy. That also made the news late last week as public inquiry commissioner, retired judge James Igloliorte issued his preliminary recommendations.
His first recommendation repeats the popular lie told from the start of the search. Ground search and rescue is a provincial responsibility. Yet, from the start, citizens and provincial politicians alike looked to Ottawa first for the magic helicopters to save the boy and, when he died, as the scapegoats to blame.
The retired judge looking into the tragedy continued the theme of the federal Daddy looking after his children in his first recommendation. Igloliorte wants the federal government to provide its magic helicopters in the future “so that the Government of Canada helicopter resources are made available to support [ground search and rescue] operations on an equal basis to their support for [military search and rescue] operations.”
Given that the judge promoting this paternalistic view is Indigenous is nothing more than a reminder of just how strong paternalism is. This isn’t the place to examine Igloliorte’s recommendations in detail. Let’s just note that *this* recommendation from an Indigenous judge shows just how popular paternalism - the Canadian historic attitude to Indigenous people - remains in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Back from his publicly-funded swan to Glasgow, Furey told Liberals on Saturday night that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are ready for the tough decisions to come.
Furey is wrong.
We are not ready.
Paternalistic politics works well in non-democratic societies. In democracies, where politicians need to get re-elected, paternalism creates a bizarre dependency between the Father and the children. To stay in power, the Father figure needs the children’s votes. Usually, he buys those votes with public spending. Sometimes, he hides things that might upset them.
Furey’s been no different than his predecessors dating back to Danny Williams. Paternalism means that the people who Furey needs to support major changes of direction are not ready to make them. Furey hasn’t talked about changes so they have no idea what is coming or why it is coming. Like his predecessors, Furey likes to make decisions in secret. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, like the superficial decision to change the name of a lake, the public push back.
That’s where the political problems start. Paternalism tells politicians to work in secret. Yet, the kind of changes Furey hinted at over the weekend need lots of public discussion. Way more than changing the name of a lake. There’s been no such discussion. None. The Premier’s advisory team dropped a report on his desk with no discussion. He hasn’t started any since. Same goes for the Health Accord team.
What’s worse, Furey doesn’t have any political capital to spend that might persuade people to follow him down a rocky path. He slipped quietly into the party leadership on a cloud of fluff. He fluffed his way through the first year in office, carefully avoiding any controversy. He’s backed off anything people complain about, including his trip to Scotland.
Last winter’s general election was a pile of Furey fluff. He made promises he did not keep. He barely won a majority. Like Dwight Ball, who followed the same misguided strategy, Andrew Furey got the Premier’s job without connecting with voters. The result is that he the public doesn’t trust him in the way they would need to if he really plans to shift government spending radically. They don’t even care about him.
Andrew Furey and his brain trust are not idiots. They know that if Furey tries anything, people will get as angry as they did in 2016. That’s why Furey won’t try anything. He will just talk about it.
That won’t stop change. It will just make Furey’s position that much harder to live in. Other things that Furey does will make it harder again to stay in office using the old paternalistic tricks.
In that GB News interview, Furey told people in Newfoundland and Labrador he supports Justin Trudeau’s oil and gas plan without hesitation. Federal policy will cut carbon emissions from the oil and gas industry in Canada by 25%. The federal government will stop Canadian subsidies to oil and gas within two years from now. That means all the things Furey has done since he took office to placate the oil industry must stop.
The Offshore Exploration Initiative is dead. The Innovation and Business Development Fund is dead. Sweetheart royalty deals. Tax incentives. Anything that make it easier to develop oil and gas resources is gone, if not today then very soon.
The province’s offshore supply industry association got excited this past week about the re-start for Bay du Nord. They can get un-excited. A billion barrels of likely oil reserves. Jobs and taxes during the construction. Expected production of 200,000 barrels a day. At current prices, that is $16 million a day, every day for the better part of 15 years. The provincial share would be royalties plus the share of profits from its operating stakes.
Kiss it all good bye.
The province’s plan to double oil production by 2030 is gone, too. Even if the provincial government tried to keep going, the federal government’s changes to environmental regulation will make it so hard to develop the project, the oil companies will likely look away from Newfoundland and Labrador. We cannot expect any federal help to streamline the needlessly complicated offshore regulations. After all, the federal goal is to get rid of oil by making it expensive to produce or use. besides, as Furey said, we need to move away from oil. That will be sooner not later.
Politically, Furey is caught between his comments to GB News and Justin Trudeau and his media lines recited to the punters at home. The two cannot live in the same space. The more Furey tries to hop from one stool to the next, he makes it more likely he will fall from both and land in the dog stool on the floor.
Financially, oil was the only way Furey or anyone else could get out of the provincial budget mess without radically changing anything in the provincial budget and the provincial economy. Without oil, Furey has nothing else to help him get by. Non-renewable resources will not produce either the revenue or the jobs the oil industry does. The bits of Moya Greene’s report that talk about a green fund and a green economy are nonsense. Newfoundland and Labrador has no natural advantages when it comes to green energy. Not in making it. Not in the technology to produce it. And the provincial government doesn’t have the money to pay for the Greene Fund of subsidies the report talks about.
The people who came up with the original oil strategy in Newfoundland and Labrador over 40 years ago understood that oil would run out. The long-term strategic potential was in creating local businesses that could produce jobs working in energy fields around the globe after the local oil fields were gone. There was a potential in science and research from Newfoundland and Labrador that could exploit.
When the oil money flowed fast over a decade ago, the provincial government could have started a Future Fund. Salted away a bit of the cash. They spent it instead. Now Furey will create a Future Fund although there is no money to fill up the bank account and he just promised to cut off the flow anyway.
The thing about oil is that not everyone has it. For places like Newfoundland and Labrador, oil was a sweet accident of good fortune. Literally. That’s what made it so valuable. Sun and wind and water aren’t like that. Everyone has them. Any money to come from them will go to the folks who have advantages Newfoundland and Labrador cannot match.
Even with the potential we have, there isn’t enough demand for local electricity to make it profitable. That was always true of Muskrat Falls and it will be true of Gull Island too. People who need electricity are too far away for Newfoundland and Labrador to supply them. You can move oil long distances to drive their generators. You cannot move water or wind the same way. Nor can you ship electricity like you can ship gasoline. You can see the problem.
Economics made Muskrat Falls a moronic idea. Economics make it moronic to think you can replace oil in Newfoundland and Labrador with electricity and everything will be the same. If oil is gone, Newfoundland and Labrador has nothing to replace it. Nothing. While we used to plan on replacing oil 15 or 50 years from now, Andrew Furey’s commitment in Glasgow mean we must shift 15 months from now as oil production from existing fields starts to trail off.
Getting rid of oil, as Andrew Furey now wants, will mean far more dramatic changes in the provincial economy than building a few windmills or the last big dam on anyone’s list of wild dreams. We are not ready for any of that because paternalistic leader after paternalistic leader preferred to bribe the kids with ice cream and sugar fluff than have adult conversations with them.
Now that Justin Trudeau is guaranteed three years to work his plan, Andrew Furey cannot afford to turn his back on Trudeau. Danny Williams dream of restoring newfoundland and Labrador to dependence on Ottawa is complete. If nothing else, there is no rate deal for Muskrat Falls. Furey will need more federal money as Furey follows the prescription handed to him. Justin can write the prescription. Andrew will have no choice but follow it.
Since Furey will not make real changes to anything willingly, he doesn’t have a choice but follow Justin. Nor does Furey have policy levers to offset public anger or encourage the change he wants.
Provincial carbon taxes help pay for overspending. Furey cannot give them back to low- and middle-income taxpayers through rebates. Places like Alberta can let homeowners install solar or wind power on their property and sell any surplus into the grid. Some can actually make money from the program. Furey needs everyone to buy more electricity and pay full price for it. He also needs them to pay more for electricity every year under his electricity rate scheme to pay for Muskrat Falls.
Paternalism created the political and economic mess we face in Newfoundland and Labrador. Paternalism keeps us from cleaning it up.
Last week, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians saw paternalism in action.