It’s an awkward reflection on the convulsive nature of the current times in Newfoundland and Labrador that this over-used headline seems so appropriate so often. We’ve used it at least twice already here at The Independent (and if I had my way it would become a regular feature).
But this month truly is: the best and worst of times. On Jan. 21 the entirety of the province’s social media networks threw the biggest party I’ve yet witnessed (a practice run, perhaps, for the elimination of poverty, or even Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, when and if either of those two blessed events ever come about). Out came all the long-awaited Dunder-puns and Facebook memes that people have been scripting and storing up for the past two years against the glorious day Dunderdale declared: “Done!”
For tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (if opinion polls are to be trusted, which sometimes they are) it was the best of times.
And why the worst of times? The answer to that is two-fold.
The worst of times, first, because of what we are left with. The legacy of recent PC governance will not be undone simply because she no longer has the biggest office in the building. Repressive and scandalous laws are still on the books; the province is hurtling headlong toward a multi-billion dollar debt designed to ravage Labrador in a dubious gamble at achieving some energy profits (while the island cannot even keep its own lights running in the present); thousands of formerly gainfully employed hard-working Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are laid off or unemployed, important literacy and basic education programs have been sold off to the profiteering private education industry, and the viability of many of our rural communities are in far greater jeopardy now than they were even 10 years ago. Dunderdale’s stepping down will change absolutely nothing unless the interim leadership moves quickly to reverse at least some of the more devastating and widely condemned initiatives this government has pursued.
It’s not (only) what you do, it’s how you do it
But that is not the only bit of distaste left in the wake of Dunderdale’s resignation as premier. There remains still the question of how it was done. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu: this is the second time in less than six months that a woman running a fairly successful party (the PCs have a majority government, whatever their popularity; the NDP have more seats than ever and the most popular opposition leader in the country) has been driven, or nearly driven, from office while on vacation. Both incidents were either precipitated by, or resulted in, members leaving a party whose election chances have been described by many pundits as doubtful. Some of those members have joined, or have been thought to have speculated joining, the party that’s leading in the polls.
In neither case was the removal, or near removal, of the woman in question the result of any sort of mass democratic action; in each case it was engineered by party elites.
None of this is particularly helpful for our democratic culture in this province. And while it’s easy to blame the figurehead at the top, the fact is that in a democracy we all bear some measure of responsibility for the state of our, well, state. When public officers – from the police to the bureaucrats – willingly enforce repressive or unjust laws, they assume some responsibility for the situation. When the courts and judges side with the powerful propertied and corporate classes over the right of average citizens to express political protest, those courts assume some responsibility for the situation. When members of government in positions of (potential) influence fail to challenge the unacceptable actions and initiatives of their leaders – openly, transparently and publicly, not scheming behind closed doors while their leader is on vacation – then they assume some responsibility for the situation. And when we, as everyday citizens and people who live in this place, fail to assert our collective democratic strength – in the streets, in the workplace, wherever we have the opportunity to grind the progress of an oppressive machine to a halt – then we too come to bear some responsibility for the problem. We can’t blame the weather: Ukrainian protesters have occupied their streets night after night in -20 Celsius temperatures for weeks on end.
Suffice it to say that Newfoundland and Labrador faces a great number of problems – from the strength of our democratic institutions to the future of many of our communities to, for some, putting food on the table next week – that will not go away just because Kathy Dunderdale has gone away.
So yes, today: the best of times. But tomorrow we must face up to the fact it is also the worst of times, and figure out how we shall turn that around. And it will require the sort of collective effort that we have, as yet, shown ourselves unable to make. We need to demand better of our leaders. But we also need to demand more of ourselves. After all, we’re the ones who put them there two years ago.
The communication disasterization
Pundits, analysts and political hacks attribute Dunderdale’s ‘downfall’ to her communications style. To quote the Dundster herself: “Oh please.” History is full of leaders who have adopted completely illogical communications styles and continued to rule/reign/re-elect quite happily for years. Under certain circumstances the public can be quite accepting of a wide variety of communications styles. The fact is that the PCs, under Dunderdale’s leadership, pursued a lot of terribly bad policies at a time when the public was not in a mood to tolerate terribly bad policies.
Take Ronald “I’m not worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself” Reagan, or George “You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror” Bush. Or Margaret “If you want to cut your own throat, don’t come to me for a bandage” Thatcher.
In fact, perhaps it was one of these tough leader personas that the premier was going for. After all, it worked for Thatcher. But then, Thatcher inherited her office from a (slightly more kindly) Labour government. Perhaps Britain was simply ready for a change. On the other hand, we’ve had years of tough leader bravado in this province, in the context of a lot of very troubling and dramatic social and economic change. Maybe we simply had enough of the tough love. Maybe we just want somebody nice in the premier’s office for a change. Maybe that’s why Lorraine is so incredibly popular with the public (if not with everybody in her own party).
Communication is important, but what is even more important is what you’re communicating about.
Who knows. The point is, the problem was not botched PR or a failure at communicating. Writing this off as such is one of the more irresponsible and inaccurate superficialities that some of the provincial media (many of whom are already far too chummy with the politicians they write about) are guilty of perpetrating. The problem was bad decisions, reflecting bad government. To say it was all a matter of PR and communicating suggests that somehow bad decisions can be magically transformed with a good line at a press conference. People who make their money off of media work – PR agencies, opinion pollsters, marketing firms, journalists – would certainly like for us to think so, because it’s how they convince politicians and other public persons to pay them big money (our tax dollars, all too often) for advice on how to do it.
But much of it is a façade. Communication is important, but what is even more important is what you’re communicating about. Dunderdale should indeed have exuded more supportive energy over the airwaves during the blackouts, but even if she’d led the province in open-line sing-alongs it would not have changed the fact that this government neglected important maintenance and upgrades to the provincial power grid, and officials entrusted with the upkeep of that grid made asinine gambles about how nasty our winter would be.
Communications and PR is nothing more than a reflection of a much deeper problem. A witty tweet can mollify and keep on side the journalist elites who enjoy such games, but they will not change the outcome of bad policies on the everyday Newfoundlander and Labradorian. They won’t get people back their jobs; they won’t restore search and rescue, they won’t change the nature of reprehensible access to information laws that kick us back to the medieval era.
It will take years to fully analyze the causes, consequences and implications of the PC years (yes I, like many pundits and analysts, can fairly confidently say this is the end of the PC era: the final few months of drama finally spinning themselves out). Likewise the political legacy of Kathy Dunderdale. For her legacy extends far beyond these last painful years of PC government.
We, as a society, have been deprived the chance to render judgement…
Indeed, her impact has been far more profound and far more positive than those of us who live merely in the moment might realize. There is her background as a community activist who worked to save rural Newfoundland from the ravages of the mismanaged fishery, and to keep fish plants open. There is her pioneering role in pushing the boundaries of equity in this province, co-chairing the campaign that got the province’s first woman party leader elected (Lynn Verge in the 1990s) and then becoming the province’s first woman premier. There is the fact that her first act in office was to resolve an ongoing (more than year-old) labour dispute between home care workers that Danny was simply too stubborn to manage, and her ongoing support for promoting women in the trades and in the workforce. Yet against that are the troubled Muskrat Falls gamble, the unconscionable access to information laws, the cuts to education and post-secondary, the about-turn on a dangerous free trade deal with Europe and the failure to cultivate and grow the province’s still-young-and-fragile democratic institutions and democratic culture.
So yes, this is what I wanted to happen. It’s just not the way I wanted it to happen. We, as a society, have been deprived the chance to render judgement on a government that growing numbers of people have become very critical of.
The only silver lining: if Tom Marshall and the interim PC leadership do not move quickly to rescind some of the repressive laws and actions of recent years, the chance for us to render judgement is not far off.