An Impertinent PERT; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Technocrats

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Do you trust the voting public of Newfoundland and Labrador to make good decisions about the future of their province?

It’s an important question. And for a lot of influential people, the answer seems to be “no.”

Consider the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT). Last week, Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, abruptly quit her position on the PERT citing concerns that its recommendations for “economic recovery” would put her in a conflict of interest with her duties to represent the interests of the province’s unionized workforce. This comes about a month after Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, had his own meeting with PERT chair Moya Greene where he soured on both Greene’s personal positions and the demand for secrecy around discussions.

The silence guaranteed by various non-disclosure agreements means we’re not privy to which straw(s) in particular broke Shortall’s back. But labour is telegraphing pretty heavily that the PERT is leaning towards some “controversial” measures—job cuts, privatizations, rural service reductions, that sort of thing. You know: the standard nightmare austerity stuff everyone has been talking about for years. (The PERT’s enthusiastic endorsement from Richard Alexander at the NL Employer’s Council also lends some credence to this theory.)

Greene’s final report is due by April 30, and a draft is supposed to appear by the end of February. The timing here is significant. Given accelerating rumours about an imminent provincial election—every provincial party ramping up its nominations over the course of December and January suggests it is coming very soon—we will likely be heading to the polls well before the final recommendations arrive, if not also the draft. If this is indeed the case, voters will be asked to endorse the Liberal government to carry through whatever sweeping changes the PERT is pitching—sight unseen.

An election before the Greene report is made public would be profoundly anti-democratic.

If we take the basic definition of democracy seriously—that is, self-government by equal constituents of a given polity, where legitimacy rests with voters giving informed consent about the broad outlines of how they are to be governed—then it is clearly thwarted by a pre-PERT election call. It would deny Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the ability to give meaningful consent and input to the proposed restructuring of their lives and communities. This might be different if the PERT was engaged in extensive public consultation and discussion as part of its process, but this is obviously not the case.

As it stands, the process does not give the voting public a real say in deciding its own future.

That said, for many people this anti-democratic exercise in “economic recovery” is a feature, not a bug. The “solutions” to Newfoundland and Labrador’s “problems” are both obvious (i.e. too many people on the public payroll providing too many services to too few people living too far away from the TCH) and necessarily painful (i.e. laying off all these people and closing all their public buildings and transit services). So—the argument goes—if the public got a heads-up about what the PERT wants to do, they would panic and vote it down (due to moral weakness, personal ignorance, etc), postponing our inevitable and painful reckoning even further. Given the stakes, the only way to get anything done is for the governing Liberals to secure, by hook or by crook, a majority government that can “do what it takes” to implement Greene’s recommendations against the protests of the unwashed masses.

After all: you just can’t trust voters to make the right decisions themselves. If Dame Greene is the spiritual successor to Baron Amulree, this attitude is the spiritual successor to the lie that “Newfoundlanders are incapable of self-government.”

Anyways: we don’t actually need to go all the way back to the 1930s for examples of why this cloak-and-dagger approach is self-defeating if you are interested in policy outcomes that make the province a better place to live. Remember in 2011 when we had a “referendum” on giving Kathy Dunderdale’s Tories—fully invigorated with New Energy!—a “mandate” to move forward with sanctioning the Muskrat Falls project, even though all the detailed nuts and bolts were hidden inside the Mystery Box of “world-class expertise”?

Yeah, me neither. I’m sure it worked out great though.

Of course, I will admit to making some big assumptions here about what Greene’s report will contain based on nothing more than her personal record of privatization, the aggressive secrecy surrounding the process, the public claims made by both defenders and detractors, and a solid decade of ideological priming about the need to make “tough decisions” on behalf of an ignorant and cowardly voting public. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she will come back with a programme for fully-automated luxury communism, high-speed rail, rapid green transition, and firing various Nalcor executives into the sun. But I have my doubts—and the Liberals’ rush to settle the electoral question before voters can even glimpse their sweeping plan for “economic recovery” would seem to bear those out.

We’ll find out what our future holds whenever the Greene recommendations are made public, sometime between the end of February and the end of April. But we’ll find out how little the public has a role in deciding it whenever the writ drops—as early as this week.

Photo by Zach Bonnell.

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