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Here’s why democracy is better

in Opinion by

It is disheartening to read Brian Jones’ recent editorial in the Telegram, “Go ahead, bring in commission of government.”

Being generous, it is possible to understand the article as Jones’ attempt at being pithy, the underlying intent being to spur people to get active and make change. But Jones does not seem like much of a satirist, and reading it literally the article is deeply troubling for two main reasons:

  1. For the way it denigrates Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as irrational and incapable of making informed political decisions.
  2. For the way it calls for the end of our democratic institution.

I am going to demolish Jones’ cheerleading for a Commission by showing, first, that the historical Commission was such an abysmal failure that even suggesting its repetition is to be ignorant of history; and second by arguing that we need more democracy, not less, as a way to address the challenges facing the province.

Following significant unrest in the early 1930s, Newfoundland’s democratic government collapsed and was replaced with an authoritarian regime, the Commission of Government. The belief of many powerful people of the day, including union leader William Coaker, was that an authoritarian government modeled on Mussolini’s Italy was best to deal with the many social and political issues plaguing the country.

However, the Commission was unable to effect any significant improvement in the lives of the people, even though it did try various economic and social policies. As Sean Cadigan notes in Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, “the commission’s social and administrative experiments did not improve the colonial economy,” and the government overlooked the wellbeing of workers and their families.

Although the commission was unable to solve the social issues that created the context for unrest, it was quite successful in containing protests and revolts through various authoritarian means. The Department of Justice files, held at the provincial archives, show evidence of a system of surveillance and subversion of dissident political organizations on a shocking scale (ask for GN 13, Box 155 if you’re interested). At the same time, the police force and local militia was upgraded and expanded, and any public displays of dissent were met with harsh crackdowns.

It is also something of a taboo (and understandably horrifying) to talk about the transition from responsible government to the Commission, as the political party that facilitated this switch, United Newfoundland, was quasi-fascist. Historians, such as Sean Cadigan in his books Newfoundland and Labrador: A History and Death on Two Fronts, John Fitzgerald (in an interview with Chris Brookes), and Gene Long in Suspended State, have noted this tendency in the politics of the time. Likewise, sociologist James Overton, in “Riots, Raids and Relief”, examines some of the blatant anti-democratic rhetoric in the newspapers, such as a 1932 Evening Telegram letter to the editor explicitly calling for a “dictatorship” via a “bloodless revolution.”

This last point about anti-democratic rhetoric echoes in Brian Jones’ editorial. Because anti-democratic is precisely what it is. The belief that regular folks are irrational and cannot make informed political decisions is, with respect to political theory, called “reactionary,” and reactionary thinking leads down a path to disregarding democracy and on to authoritarianism.

In my own writing and work in the community, I contrast reactionary politics with what I call grassroots politics. A perspective on grassroots politics assumes that regular folks are fully capable of making informed decisions, and moreover that there needs to be decentralized forums so that people can not only make decisions by voting but can also be involved in generating and debating the issues.

I elaborated these ideas in a more formal manner in my contribution to the recently released Democracy Cookbook, outlining a few ways that directly democratic elements, through which people could get more involved in the political process, could be built into our current representative system. There are lots of other ideas for renewing democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador in this wonderful collection – freely available online – that we should also consider.

In short, I take the exact opposite view from Brian Jones. What we need at this challenging time is more democracy, not less, and certainly the last thing we should consider is another Commission of Government. A more robust democracy would create a forum in which all the innovative and creative people of the province could get together to address the challenges we face; it would be a vehicle for harnessing the energy and vitality of Newfoundland and Labrador, an engine for discovery and change. In the face of adversity, boldness and inventiveness will serve us better than old, worn out ideas like Commission of Government.

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