You know the government is in trouble when a public library consultation erupts into a near riot.
The scene at the public library consultation Thursday night in St. John’s was a remarkable one — both in terms of gauging public anger at the government, public passion for the endangered provincial library system, and the emerging level of awareness among the public of government techniques for manipulating public discourse.
I didn’t attend the consultations as a journalist, but rather as a concerned member of the public who’s also a member of the Friends of the St. John’s Public Library Association. But what I witnessed that night was truly remarkable.
Those who showed up to the session—the second of 10 happening across the province—expecting to be able to speak their minds in a public forum setting quickly learned otherwise. Attendees were instructed to divide themselves among the various tables, each of which was equipped with a large over-sized writing chart and staffed by a government consultant. The attendees would be divided into small groups, it turned out, and a private consultant would instruct us on what we were allowed to talk about.
As the room filled up, however, things began to take an unsettling turn. It turns out EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young), the consulting firm hired by government to conduct the consultations, had underestimated how many people would show up. They apparently had capacity for 80 people, and many more turned up at the door; according to social media reports from those at the previous session in Bay Roberts, attendance had also been underestimated at that consultation.
Once the seats were all taken, EY staff began turning people away. They vaguely promised another session in future, but that wasn’t satisfactory for several who had rearranged their schedules or driven in from outlying areas in order to attend, some of whom barged in to let everyone hear their thoughts on the matter. One local author angrily denounced the entire consultation as a set-up. City of St. John’s poet laureate George Murray was turned away at the door.
When the session finally began, behind schedule, EY staff explained the process. They would give a half hour presentation about the library system—featuring such information as what you can do with a “valid library card”, underlined and italicized for some reason fathomable only to private consultants—and then host breakout groups and “facilitate an open, independent but guided discussion.” The groups would then report back to the whole room on their “findings”.
EY didn’t get much further; the attendees were in no mood to be divided and guided in their discussions.
“These questions are diversionary! There’s only one question we need to be discussing: should our libraries remain open!” yelled one attendee (quotes are based on notes I took by hand, and thus might not be entirely accurate, but are almost entirely accurate). That broke the ice and the room exploded into angry denunciations of the process.
— Hans Rollmann (@hansnf) October 6, 2016
“Where is government? Why are there no elected officials here?” demanded one speaker, and others repeated the sentiment. They shouted down the facilitators, who tried helplessly to get people back onto the breakout group plan.
“We have nothing against you,” said another angry speaker. “You’re just the messenger and we don’t want to shoot the messenger. Government sent you in as a buffer to avoid facing the public!”
Again, EY tried helplessly to calm down the angry crowd, and begged them to cooperate with the process. “If you don’t like the way this session was organized, then you should complain to government,” said the consultants.
“That’s what we came here for tonight!” exploded several attendees in response, and the room went up in supportive cries.
Another attendee did take issue with EY. “Why is an accounting firm evaluating our libraries?” she demanded. “What do you know about libraries?”
The EY representative tried to explain they were a massive international firm that does many things, and that none of them even had accounting degrees, but that didn’t particularly help matters either.
“We’re getting no answers here!” yelled one person, finally, and announced he was leaving and not wasting any more time. A second person stood up, and they urged others to leave as well, in order to avoid lending credibility to a flawed process. Within seconds, more than half the room had stood up, people were putting on jackets and a CBC camera team materialized to videotape the dramatic exit scene.
— Hans Rollmann (@hansnf) October 6, 2016
A few remained—about a quarter to a fifth of the original group. The EY reps, visibly shaken, suggested they regroup around a few tables and try to complete the session as best they could. But even those who stayed weren’t content playing along. They fired question after question at the reps. Many of them, myself included, were concerned about how EY would represent the events of the night if they went ahead with the session. How would they explain that the consultation featured the views of only a fraction of those who had initially showed up, not to mention all those who had been turned away at the door?
“We’re not sure how we’ll do that,” admitted the rep when pressed.
I asked the rep how much EY was being paid to conduct the library review. The government liaison replied that the contract for the library review was $187,000.
By comparison, the price-tag for closing over half the province’s libraries is $1 million. In a budget of billions of dollars, a million is a mere drop. Yet government is spending a fifth of that amount on a private consultants’ contract to review the library system from which it is cutting $1 million.
The irony was not lost on those present. Many also pointed out the lack of consultations in rural communities, especially those targeted for library closures.
Finally, with about an hour left to the schedule, the EY reps conceded defeat, and announced they were shutting down the session.
“What happened here tonight, government needs to make note of it,” they acknowledged.
Seeing through government tactics
One of the most remarkable aspects of the evening was the degree to which it demonstrated a public that is no longer willing or capable of being fooled by governance techniques designed to manipulate public opinion and dialogue.
Right from the beginning, one of the library supporters who was barred entry after the room filled up denounced the entire set-up of the consultation. By avoiding a large forum-style session, and instead breaking the room up into small tables each facilitated by a private consultant, the consultants were simply breaking up the group into smaller controllable units and diverting people’s attention onto diversionary questions designed to produce answers useful for government’s agenda, said the irate woman before she was kicked out.
The process did indeed appear designed to dissipate and ultimately filter out public anger. The lack of any accountable representatives meant there was no one for attendees to vent their anger to. Many of them expressed this concern, noting that EY consultants were being sent out as a way of protecting and buffering the people who made the actual decisions. No one wanted to get angry at a bunch of people who were simply hired to do a job, when the targets of public anger should be the politicians who hired them.
No more dodging accountability, was the theme of the evening.
Yet the attendees also made it very firm and clear that they were unwilling to allow EY to get away with the job they’d been tasked with by government. Allowing the consultations to proceed would lend credibility to the process and give EY “data” it could report back to government and use in the preparation of a report. The public was not about to allow them to get away with this, and so they shut down the consultation instead.
As EY tried to defend their consultation style as one supposedly tried and proven by experts, one attendee interrupted the EY consultant to read from a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, outlining methods used by governments and private consultants to derail democratic dialogue and produce predetermined outcomes. Many of those methods—small focus groups instead of mass meetings, consultations geared around specifically framed questions instead of an open floor, avoidance of open dialogue and sending out low-level bureaucrats and consultants to do the work while elected representatives stay out of sight—indeed resonated with the experience people were having.
They also resonate with other ‘consultations’ put off by this government, such as the budget ‘consultations’ last year (and, on social media, one commentator said the experience sounded just like their experience with consultations over public school closures).
But these criticisms reached a head Thursday night. Those in attendance said they’d had enough of private consultants, pre-framed questions and small group discussions. By shutting down the session in protest, they sent a clear message: consultations must be open, must be broadly framed to allow people to speak their mind to their elected officials, and most importantly must be organized and hosted not by private consultants but by the elected officials themselves. No more dodging accountability, was the theme of the evening.
Framing the case
The presentation EY tried to give was a very deliberately framed one as well, providing selective information that appeared to support the rationale for cuts while omitting important background context. For instance, one page featured four “user trends” in large print, including the fact that “circulation has declined 3.5%” and “computer sessions have declined 32%”.
What these statistics neglect to mention is that during the past five years, the provincial library system endured a $1.2 million cut (in 2013-14) resulting in the loss of 17.5 positions. As a result of these cuts, 77 of the province’s 95 libraries were forced to operate with a single staff person. Technical positions were also slashed; after the 2014 cuts there were only five technical staff to serve the entire provincial library system. And in 2012-13 the Community Access Program—supporting public access computers—was cut to the tune of half a million dollars.
Reductions in library and computer usage, then, are likely the result of previous cuts to the library system, not a reason for further cuts. But the background context of previous cuts and the impact they have had was, conveniently, omitted from the discussion materials that were distributed.
E-library usage has increased—another ‘trend’ offered by EY—which is great but doesn’t say anything about who is using e-library access, and who is not. A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that only 56 percent of Canadians earning less than $30,000 annually had Internet access at home. In an economically depressed province with high unemployment and excessively low wages and earnings for many households, there’s a lot to be said about the inaccessibility of electronic access for people in many of our communities.
But the point is, framing matters. One of the reasons attendees did not want to let EY continue their ‘consultation’ is because it appeared to them to be deliberately framed to produce certain results.
A passionate public
One of the most moving aspects of the evening was the passion evinced by those who showed up. It was most powerfully articulated by one attendee in particular, who remained with the small group that stayed after most of the crowd walked out in protest. The reason he stayed, he said, was that he lived in Harbour Grace, and he’d come to fight for the future of the library in his hometown.
“We just fought for our court house, and now we’re fighting for our library,” he proclaimed, a vivid statement of the struggle many rural communities are now facing.
“Why are people passionate here tonight? They’re passionate because we’re losing what makes rural communities,” he finished, in a voice resonating with emotion.
We just fought for our court house, and now we’re fighting for our library. — Harbour Grace resident
The evening was disheartening for many, but inspiring as well. While it’s unclear what message will be conveyed to government, and whether government will even act on it, the public made very clear they’re no longer willing to be led where government wants them to go.
The importance of this shift should not be underestimated. Infamous for our ‘friendly’ nature, the often accurate stereotype of many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians is that we’re too friendly and easygoing to put up any real challenge to the powers that be.
But the crowd at Thursday’s library consultations conveyed a very different attitude. This was a public no longer willing to be pushed around by government, and no longer willing to accept the claims of ‘experts’ and private consultants about what works best. This was a crowd that had one goal: to speak its mind to its elected representatives, and save the library system. And when those representatives didn’t show up to be accountable, the crowd shut the entire meeting down.
The overwhelming majority of those at the session had a unified and clear message: not one library closure, not one eliminated staff position, and not one dollar cut from the provincial public library system.
Even the EY rep, in closing the meeting, conceded that a clear message had been sent to government.
Whether government is willing to listen, and act, remains to be seen.
But with a mobilized public like this, their political future would appear to depend on it.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.