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The Doctor is In: Andrew Furey as Technocrat

in Analysis/Featured/Longread by

On August 3rd, the next premier of Newfoundland and Labrador climbed the steps to the podium with a loping stride and a furrowed brow. After a heated (but ultimately predictable) race, Dr. Furey was declared the winner of the Liberal leadership race in a landslide. It was not, however, the coronation that some had expected, or that some perhaps desired. In fact, the room that night was largely empty, any celebratory tone muted under COVID-19’s long, lurching shadow. And in the wake of this widely predicted victory, out of this dim and mostly vacant hall, there rippled waves of fresh uncertainty. What kind of premier will Dr. Furey be?

Throughout the leadership race, Dr. Furey faced accusations from his opponent John Abbott and others that he was excessively vague on policy. Perhaps there’s some truth to this accusation. Sure, Dr. Furey has committed to $25-a-day childcare, and legislation protecting amateur sports organizations from liability in COVID-19 related lawsuits. But a number of his major policy planks, like his pledge to create a non-partisan Economic Recovery team, more or less amount to assurances that he’ll come up with a game plan. In John Gushue’s words, “his general tack is to talk widely and generally.” As a result, it’s tough to predict what a Furey premiership will look like.

Thankfully, policy platforms are not the only way to discover a leader’s politics. Their political rhetoric can be just as illuminating. Even if a politician avoids giving straight answers, their approach to politics—their ideology—is often revealed in the language they use. A look at the esteemed doctor’s rhetoric suggests that Dr. Furey does in fact have a principled vision for Newfoundland and Labrador’s future. It is a vision that is deeply technocratic, and troublingly elitist.

Speaking Optimistically 

Back in June, the CBC Here and Now Leadership Debate opened with the two candidates sparring over Muskrat Falls. When Abbott bluntly suggested shutting down the project and pressing the federal government to take over the financial liability, Furey seized the opportunity to act as peacemaker. 

“I look forward to working with Ottawa, not against them,” Furey said. “We need to work with our federal partners to ensure that we get this done in an effective, timely, efficient manner, so that we can return the value to the province.” Unlike Abbott, Furey does not see the Muskrat Falls project as an unsalvageable boondoggle—on the contrary. With enough cooperation and compromise, a Furey government could straighten out this whole mess and reach a beneficial deal for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Compromise is a recurring theme for Furey. He’s confident that he can effectively manage the needs of underpaid workers and the bottom lines of small businesses, all without raising the minimum wage. He wants to diversify the economy by encouraging an influx of tech jobs in the province—jobs that would require highly educated, highly trained employees—but insists that being a natural resources economy is “core to who we are.” For Dr. Furey, there are no irresolvable conflicts. So long as government goes about things in a “responsible, balanced, measured” manner, a solution can be found that disenfranchises no one, and benefits everyone.

Interpreted this way, Furey might appear naïve. Frictionless politics have always seemed impossible in a province so historically hot-tempered and divided along class lines. Past premiers and premier-hopefuls have infamously played on these antagonistic tendencies, to varying degrees of success. On the other hand, as moderator Peter Cowan pointed out during the debate, Dwight Ball ran as a compassionate dealmaker in 2015, only to end up facing hostility from all quarters after passing a brutal austerity budget. Now, in a time of unprecedented crisis, Furey seems just as convinced that he can play the diplomat. Tactical questions aside, his rhetoric poses a tantalizing question: how can Dr. Furey be so optimistic?

The key to this optimism is Dr. Furey’s profound faith in the political tradition of technocracy.

Thinking Out Loud

In his essay “The Technocratic Image and the Theory of Technocracy,” John G. Gunnell defines technocracy as meaning “the government of society by scientists, technicians, or engineers—or at least the exercise of political authority by virtue of technical competence and expertise in the application of knowledge.” Put simply, technocracy is a top-down approach to governance, where politicians promise to study the problems that their constituents face and outsource finding solutions to cadres of highly-educated experts.

A political faith in nonpartisan expertise is technocracy’s distinguishing mark, but as a political approach it comes with an array of other traits. Technocracy is essentially a mediated (and mediating) type of governance. It involves placing between the public and the state a third party—a group of scientists, economists, businesspeople, and/or bureaucrats—whose responsibility it is to investigate, evaluate, and propose objective solutions to various social problems.

There are two results of this third-party mediation: the first an intentional goal, and the second an unfortunate consequence. First, technocracy’s ‘objective,’ scientific lens means that technocratic operations prioritize information gathering and optimization. The problem is studied, better understood, and then resolved using the most efficient, cost-effective solution available. The downside is that this objectivity runs the risk of distancing a government from its people and weakening ties between the government and the public. In its most potent and problematic form, technocracy alienates elected governments from the public altogether, with the public existing only as something to be observed and adjusted.

Putting aside easy observations about the candidate’s medical credentials, Furey gave his own rather unsubtle endorsement of technocracy during the Here and Now debate. When pressed on the issue of policy specifics, Furey replied: “We need to look at the framework of decision-making and gain the best evidence available. I’m not afraid to seek advice. I think true leadership is surrounding yourself with people that are able to provide the advice that is needed. Smarter people on certain issues than you in the room, so that you can use that in a decision-making matrix, weigh all the variables, and make the appropriate decision.”

This technocratic “framework of decision-making” is at the center of Dr. Furey’s politics. On issue after issue, Furey declares his intentions to defer to the experts. On the matter of budget management, Dr. Furey explains that although “our public service is incredibly important,” it has “escalated over time.” In a Q&A with CBC, Furey explained that “I think we need to look at program triage, because no waste can be tolerated … we need to have a strong evaluation of those [programs] and if programs aren’t delivering what they’re supposed to be delivering, or doing so in an ineffective and inefficient way then they need to be looked at being eliminated.”  Here, Furey couches everything in a language of evaluation, one which stresses re-examining the public service and identifying inefficiencies. 

The same applies to raising the minimum wage. Furey argues for keeping it tied to the Consumer Price Index and “taking politics out of decision-making, having a framework in place that evaluates all the metrics, all the parameters, and looks at the best way to weigh this in a responsible way.” Furey continued, suggesting that the province “do a full poverty review” and “figure out if there are educational opportunities, social opportunities that we haven’t fully exercised in order to lift people into that middle class. Later in the campaign, Furey would go on to promise a new Poverty Reduction Action Plan, and this review would presumably be its backbone. In this way, Dr. Furey’s technocratic style crystallizes directly into technocratic policy. His stated aim is not to directly attack poverty in any particular way, but to carefully study it, and eventually propose a plan.

Governing From Away

Dr. Furey’s approach suggests a politics that is incapable of engaging directly with its constituents. Instead, Furey’s politics are routed through layers of obscure technocratic machinery, through a vague, bureaucratic woodwork that will study, evaluate, and means-test its way to an acceptable solution. Such a solution will not involve a systemic change, but rather an optimization of existing government structures.

The natural consequence of this technocratic politics is that Furey is disconnected from the people he aspires to lead. His politics sees the voting public to be something to be worked on, rather than worked for. The government, then, is seen as a higher power, an authority that knows better than you what your problems are, and reaches indirectly downwards to “lift” you out of squalor.

Again, these premises echo Furey’s own words. During the Muskrat Falls segment, Furey claims that “I think there’s a deal to be had there. I plan to use my relationships and leverage them in Ottawa to get the best deal for Newfoundland and Labrador.” The language of “relationships” and “leverage” is essential here, implying that Dr. Furey’s major strength lies not in his profound connection to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, but in his unique access to outside networks of patronage and power. It follows that Furey has pitched himself not to the public, but rather to his fellow Liberals, who likely to see his exclusive connections as a vital shot in the arm for a party that needs every ounce of bargaining power it can muster.

This is the final source of Dr. Furey’s optimism. A technocratic politics means that the candidate does not actually need to engage with the public. The government defers the issues of everyday political life—issues like poverty, systemic racism, unemployment, et cetera—to a group of professionals that will produce studies and means-tested solutions from a pre-established set of “parameters” and “metrics.” 

This insulates government from social issues, relieving politicians of the responsibility to be directly accountable to policy preferences of voters. The result is that social issues come to appear less real, less urgent, less profound. And since these issues are being worked upon by only the best and the brightest, whatever solution they deliver will inevitably be branded with the unquestionable authority of nonpartisan expertise. For a technocrat, every problem, no matter how pervasive and structural, is thus made minor, or at the very least manageable.

Technocracy is therefore self-justifying—at least for technocrats. Regardless of whether or not the problem actually gets resolved, the mere creation of ‘solutions’ proves that the technocratic approach works. If this circular logic is allowed to run out of control there emerges a very serious danger that the technocratic state could enter a cycle of constantly reproducing itself, of commissioning another study, another taskforce, and another consultant, all while social problems continue to fester unabated. This is the darker and inevitably unintentional double-meaning of Dr. Furey’s question, “what’s the next sentence and the sentence after that? What’s the next set of plans?”

A Diagnosis

A different problem is that nonpartisan expertise is hardly ever actually nonpartisan. In matters of governance and political economy, knowledge infamously intersects with power. What is taken to be preferable or intolerable is almost always a political decision, and this decision greatly determines what sort of solutions a technocratic politics produces.

Take the issue of homelessness, for example. One possible ‘solution’ might be to expropriate all vacant homes and give them, rent free, to the destitute. However, this solution is always pre-emptively ruled out, because it would wreak havoc on the housing market and render the current socioeconomic model that the Liberals support and maintain—liberal democratic capitalism—suddenly and disastrously untenable. This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the basic dynamic nicely: there are always options deemed politically unfeasible, and as such excluded.

This problem is especially acute when it comes to a proud dealmaker like Dr. Furey, who ran on his ability to maintain and enlarge existing political alliances. Dr. Furey hasn’t refused to increase the minimum wage because it is impossible, but because doing so would be insufficiently “responsible” to the small business owners and Boards of Trade that would likely respond with hostility to such a change. In other words, Dr. Furey’s position as a technocrat open to any and all evidenced-based solutions actually greatly limits his available policy options, since anything that rocks the boat would be unattractive at best.

Furthermore, experts themselves limit the political solutions they deem appropriate based on the school of thought they ascribe to within their discipline. A neoliberal economist, for example, might see any enlargement of government expenditure to be unacceptable, and would therefore produce research advocating for a drastically reduced deficit. Exactly what sort of policy a technocratic government produces, then, largely depends on the relationship between the political beliefs of elected representatives and the disciplines of their appointed experts.

In that regard, it remains difficult to predict in detail what a Furey government would look like. Exactly who Furey would hire would be a major factor in the sort of legislation his government would produce—though the (re-)appointment of fellow Alderon alumni Gary Norris to the clerk of the executive council post he held for nearly a decade under Danny Williams may be an early glimpse of things to come. As would the degree to which Dr. Furey would decide to toe the party line and emulate the legislative priorities of his cabinet members and party allies.

Some advocates of technocracy argue that its emphasis on careful evaluation and expertise can be a safeguard. Technocracy, they claim, moderates a leader’s worst impulses and ensures that nothing too extreme or destabilizing occurs. But the extent to which this is true depends largely on whether political conditions and expert advice permit it. When Dr. Furey told iPolitics that everything is on the table, what he might really mean is that a softer approach, one that minimizes harming the livelihoods of working families of this province, may already have been ruled out. “Sometimes you have to cut off a leg to save a patient,” he remarked, “but that can be a measured and balanced decision.” (Furey has since backed away from the possibility of mass layoffs.)

In sum, it’s essential that Dr. Furey’s politics not be confused as vague, fluid, or absent altogether. If we take Dr. Furey at his spoken word—and that does seem to be his preferred method of campaigning—we discover a very particular political approach. It is an approach that is deeply invested in existing power structures, in the governance of the many by an elite, highly-credentialed, and highly-paid few. It is an approach that sees this province’s political problems as being far too complicated for the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian, and as better handled by nonpartisan appointees. It is an approach that favors the scalpel over the bucksaw.

And now that Dr. Furey is premier, Newfoundland and Labrador had better be prepared to lay back and stare up into the operating light.

Photo by Marcel Scholte on Unsplash.

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