THE LIMITS OF PARTISANSHIP

The following Essay penned by Uncle
Gnarley’s writer, appeared in The Telegram, Saturday, June 2, 2012 edition,
and is re-produced here with minor edits.)          

Once the tyranny
of the Smallwood years had been lifted, after the 1972 general election, it did
not take long for new government systems to be introduced. 

Modern
management practices including a more formalized public information system, a
system for hiring public employees based upon merit, a public tendering system,
as well as others were introduced.  A
restructuring of the legislative and executive branches of the public service occurred;
capable people became involved in the governance of the Province.  While the system was far from perfect and
backsliding was sometimes manifest, major advances in the overall system of
governing for a democratic society were evident.  Somehow, that process was halted with Muskrat Falls.

The Muskrat
Falls project was a big head butt! Not at first. Not until the questions
started to emerge. Maybe it wasn’t even then; perhaps, it was when Minister
Kennedy was heard voicing outlandish and accusatory statements in an attempt to
discredit certain individuals.  Many
people then took the time to review the information on Muskrat Falls.  Personally, I came to the conclusion that it
was not only ill thought out, it was reckless. Still, that is another matter.



From the
perspective of my own experience in a senior role and, as an observer since
then, I was not used to seeing a Minister, on an important file, as unprepared
as Kennedy, to entertain discussion and debate. 
During the Peckford years, the Premier got personally involved in the
major issues and clearly enjoyed engaging people; he organized public speaking
events and put on hundreds of miles, often with small audiences.  Interaction with the public was an integral
part of how he performed.  Premier Clyde
Wells, on the proposed privatization of Newfoundland Hydro, and Premier Brian
Tobin, on the denominations schools system, 
in later years, allowed public debate to influence the outcome of those
significant public policy issues. 

I have often
thought about this question: how was Brian Peckford able to achieve major gains
on offshore royalities and management and retain a high level of popularity, to
the end of his tenure, in a government with limited financial ability to satisfy
even the most modest demands of the voters?

I believe
the answer is firmly embedded in our system of democratic government.

Political
parties are integral to that system.  Politics
is about attracting ‘adherents’ who become ‘partisans’; the party that attracts
more of those, gets to run the government; those who get fewer, become the opposition.

Hence, it
makes sense to support political parties, however loosely.  Many people do, some for a lifetime; others
temporarily, for a single election or for a single cause.
  

Partisans
are not blind, as some suggest. Neither is partisanship a one way street.  In the same way political parties look for support,
partisans also have expectations.  Put
another way, supporters of parties come with strings attached.  At a minimum, they require that the
leadership will represent their views with integrity and ability; that they will
not govern arrogantly or with malice, that they will spend from the public
purse wisely and advance the common good. 
There is no expectation that they will do these things perfectly, only
that they will try hard!
  

‘Partisanship’ often demands conformity; it
discourages dissent, especially if such dissent is put on public display.  Those partisans who have had a long association
with a party, and identified by it, are expected to ‘maintain the party
line’.  When a member criticizes the
party leadership, he is viewed as a ‘troublemaker’.  Alternatively, if the party leadership is at
fault, as Smallwood was, he is the one viewed as having engaged in questionable
or egregious behavior, justifying rebuke.

During the Smallwood
era, Joey had insulted the democratic process for too long; people wanted him
gone.  Arbitrary to the point of being dictatorial,
he had racked up a string of reckless ‘investments’, which threatened our
solvency and our sanity. The ties of party loyalty were tested and broke down
under the strain.  Partisans drifted away
from the Liberal Party; some loudly, many quietly.

The election
of the Moore’s government in 1972, under the slogan “It Won’t Be Long Now”, was
not just a repudiation of Joey’s style of putting down dissenters, it was a cry
for fundamental political change, a demand for stronger institutions, a rejection
of arbitrary edicts and a desire for a more open, transparent and participatory
style of government. 

Following
the Moores years, Brian Peckford engaged in a gargantuan effort to establish a
fundamental basis for economic prosperity in the province. 

His timing
wasn’t great; the provincial debt was growing, infrastructure and services were
still backward.  He faced an outwardly
unfriendly federal government on all the resource issues and an urging by local
unions and businesses to settle with the Trudeau and, later, the Chretien Liberals,
who had nothing for us. 

If Peckford
proved anything, it was that a solid group of ‘partisans’ supported his cause; he
had acknowledged, respected and engaged them and he knew, intuitively, that he
was safe in their hands.  They outnumbered
those ‘conflicted’ by other loyalties, jobs or boards of directors.   

The
‘partisans’ who support the Dunderdale government, I submit, still comprise a
large group whose memory of Smallwood and how shoddily he treated decent people,
is still very raw. I submit there is also a younger group who dislike being
taken for granted because they appear disconnected from some key public issues.  When you see, as we have recently, former
Premiers, former Ministers including a former Minister of Finance and as well
as former MHA’s express genuine concern, privately and in the media over Muskrat,
all of them ignored, you know that these are not normal times.

So, when a
Minister, ostensibly with the approval of the Premier, decides, first, to quell
legitimate speak, and then, presume that the public should play no role in understanding,
debating or approving a $6.2 billion undertaking; one that places them at serious
financial risk;  ….it might cause one to consider
a new slogan.  How about this one? We Got
Rid of a Bunch Like You in ‘72 …!

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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