Politics and Political Culture in NL since 2003
A CBC reporter does a feature interview with the Speaker of the House of Assembly for the Corp’s supper-hour newscast.
The subject: not the ongoing controversy at the provincial elections office and a report that the Speaker had kept secret and sat on for months but new chairs for the members of the provincial legislature to sit on.
A Telegram reporter knows that something the Premier called a news conference to trumpet is not true. He reports the Premier’s comments, without noting the false information the Premier relied on.
Politicians in the House of Assembly know of the Premier’s plan to grab three power plants as part of a scheme that will also see taxpayers assume liability for decades of environmental damage from a company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They go along with his scheme, without raising concerns about it publicly.
Everyone - politicians and news media alike - stay silent on a conflict of interest involving the Premier, his best friend, secret cabinet orders, and an energy project in an economically desperate part of the province.
This is not how things are in other places across Canada.
This is not how things used to be in Newfoundland and Labrador.
We can see how different things are here if we look at the democratic values we believe in.
“Canada advances democracy around the world,” the Government of Canada website says, “ by promoting the full participation of all citizens in the decision-making processes and institutions affecting their lives. “
So that everyone knows what this means, the government website includes a list of how the government supports democratic values around the world.
Supporting and strengthening civil society
Civil society organizations create a crucial link between citizens and their elected governments and are essential to all democracies.
Increase media independence and freedom of the Internet
These two characteristics are essential to an informed and open society and encourage participation in political processes.
Supporting legislatures and other advocates
Legislatures play a critical role in ensuring that governments work in a responsible and transparent manner.
Supporting electoral institutions and processes
Free, fair, and inclusive elections, organized periodically by strong institutions and conducted in accordance with international standards, are essential for any functional democracy.
Strengthen political systems with several competitive political parties
Canada recognizes the importance of political parties for functional democracy and encourages the development of inclusive and representative political party systems.
Support respect for the rule of law
Canada promotes respect for the rule of law. We encourage legal reforms that contribute to the development of independent, impartial, and accessible justice systems. We encourage governments that are subject to the law to protect the rights of all citizens.
Promoting and protecting human rights
Human rights are founded on the human dignity inherent in all human beings and are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Canada considers them to be the minimum standards to enable people to live with dignity and to be protected from all forms of violence.
Political participation of women
The empowerment of women and girls, through their active and meaningful participation, including elected representatives, is not just a question of numbers. It is also about creating spaces where they can express their needs and interests and influence decisions that affect them.
There are at least three international projects that track the health of democracy in countries around the world. They all rate Canada as among the most open, transparent, and democratic countries in the world at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise globally. They also give us a remarkably similar view of what democracy means.
The Polity Project looks at “qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions.” Polity places countries on a “spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed "anocracies") to fully institutionalized democracies.”
Varieties of Democracy looks at core principles of democracy and measures variables like “free and fair elections, civil liberties, judicial independence, executive constraints, gender equality, media freedom, and civil society” in order to compare countries. Freedom House produces regular reports on the state of democracy globally. Its most recent report highlights the growth of authoritarianism around the world.
We can use their rankings and the way they view democracy as a guide to assessing democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador. We shouldn’t use terms without making it clear what they mean. While there are many definitions of democracy, let’s use the Freedom House definition as our guide. We’ll break it down so that the elements are easier to see.
“Democracy … is a governing system based on:
the will and consent of the governed,
institutions that are accountable to all citizens,
adherence to the rule of law, and
respect for human rights.
“It is a network of mutually reinforcing structures in which those exercising power are subject to checks both within and outside the state.” This includes “independent courts, an independent press, and civil society.”
Democracy “requires an openness to alternations in power, with rival candidates or parties competing fairly to govern for the good of the public as a whole, not just themselves or those who voted for them.” That alternation in power – usually through elections – “creates a level playing field so that all people, no matter the circumstances of their birth or background, can enjoy the universal human rights to which they are entitled and participate in politics and governance.”
Newfoundland and Labrador
While people pay attention to countries, no one pays much attention top what happens at the sub-national level, that is, at the level of American states or Canadian provinces.
If they did, they would notice that Newfoundland and Labrador is different. It has the trappings of western democracies. There are regular elections contested by political parties. There is a legislature that debates new laws. There are courts that enforce the laws. There is an access to information law to let citizens find out what government is doing. There are news media to report on politics.
In a democratic political system, there is the potential for change. Yet, in Newfoundland and Labrador, there is little change in the long-term or strategic goals of the dominant political actors, including those within the government bureaucracy.
“In a genuinely democratic system,” as American political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it in his 2008 book Democracy, Inc. ,“…citizens would be viewed as agents actively involved in the exercise of power and in contributing to the direction of policy.” Instead, citizens - “supposedly the source of governmental power and authority” and participants in their exercise - are reduced to voters whose only political life or political action is for the few moments at a polling station once every four years if they cast a ballot.
Totalitarian states of the 20th century kept the public in a state of constant political mobilization. By contrast, the managed democracies of the 21st century deliberately demobilize the public. They alienate them from politics and political involvement. Elections are spectacle. Once active participants in politics - the authoritative allocation of values in a society - citizens become merely people who hold opinions.
That sounds like Newfoundland and Labrador, where government officials not only facilitate the expression of acceptable opinions but also frame and filter those opinions through “consultations.” Decisions happen in private, involve a handful of select people, with little public disclosure afterward. The news media support official government messages, report less political and public affairs news, and seldom break news stories that are not leaked by officials. Elections are theatre with rules that favour incumbents and existing political parties and make it hard for challengers to enter. Secrecy abounds, with support from politicians, bureaucrats, business, and labour leaders who dominate the corporatist political landscape. Citizens are reduced to subjects, to clients.
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Managed Democracy: the series
The Managed Democracy series will explain what has happened to politics and the political culture of Newfoundland and Labrador over the past 25 years. We’ll explore how politics works these days. Some of the changes are purely local. Some reflect changes across the western world. Some features are rooted in the 19th century. Some are brand new.
Each Wednesday through July and August, we will look at the state of politics and the state of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador through specific elements of our political system:
provincial government information,
local news media,
Cabinet and the Premier,
the legislature, and
Through it all, we will see the values, attitudes, and other beliefs that influence the way people behave.
In the final installment, we’ll take a deeper look at the idea of managed democracy in Russia - where the notion originated - and in the way Sheldon Wolin sees it operating in the United States ands compare that with what seems to be happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Start the exploration of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador on July 6 with government control of information.
Chapter 1 - Control of Government Information
Chapter 2 - News Media