Charting a Course Through 2019

To those who do not know the world is on fire, I have nothing to say. – Bertolt Brecht

Here at the Independent, the engines are being plugged in and warmed up. Soon they will thrum with paid (!!) content from the country’s finest writers, about everything that matters in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the meantime, it’s more or less just me. The Indy’s still in drydock at the moment, but I wanted to say a few words about the political forecast before we really take this thing out to sea.

It’s barely three weeks into 2019 but it already feels like forever—and I’m not just talking about the weather.

We are living in historic times. This much seems obvious if you are following America’s slow-motion implosion, or the post-imperial nervous breakdown called Brexit. Or the Gilets Jaunes roiling France, or the simmering trade and diplomatic wars with China, or the wildfires in California and the Arctic Circle, or, or, or…..

You get the pointthe world is on fire. But that fire’s been burning since the world’s been turning, or at least since the Billy Joel song. One of the great charms of living on the eastern fringe of Canada is that we are safely insulated from much of the world’s wider madness. We just need to cope with our own collective cabin fever.

Canada has so far mostly avoided the degenerative diseases corroding other liberal democraciesDouglas “Buck-a-Beer” Ford notwithstandingbut it’s not clear how long our splendid isolation lasts. The federal Liberals have promised us this year’s election will be among the most “divisive” in the country’s history, and they’re every bit as loaded for bear as the increasingly unhinged Conservatives.

Federal politics is largely a spectator sport as far as Newfoundland and Labrador is involved, so the final battle between wokeness and toxicity will be settled far from our rocky shores. It should be a pretty good show, even if nobody involved seems headed for a happy ending. Thoughts and prayers especially to our man in Ottawa, Seamus O’Regan, who is out of the frying pan of Veteran’s Affairs and into the fire of Indigenous Services at the exact moment the whole ‘reconciliation’ experiment is being dashed against the rocks. But Newfoundlanders historically have an excellent record on the Indian question, so I’m sure the whole thing will be a breeze.

Anyway, that’s Canada. But there is more than enough going on in Newfoundland and Labrador to draw our attention from the problems upalong.

We toss the word ‘crisis’ around a lot in the province these days, and no one since Kathy Dunderdale’s political suicide would dare try to talk anyone down. But while the nature and severity of the province’s problems depend on who you ask, it’s hard to escape an impression that things here are more than a little out of whack. The province’s fiscal health is dire, but few solutions seem to be on the table beyond “hope for better oil prices” or “fire more bureaucrats” or “resettle the outports into CBS,” all of which arguably cause more problems than they solve. (The good news at least is that on close inspection, our taxes are actually pretty reasonable.)

Muskrat Falls continues to cast a long shadow over the province and they haven’t even turned the damn thing on yet. The best is yet to come, and the Leblanc Inquiry might even solve this megaproject manslaughter mystery before they flip the first switch. The provincial Liberals assure us they have a plan to mitigate any rising electricity rates. Or at least they have contracted out consultants to think about it and then punt it back to the Public Utilities Board for a final report next January. Given that the government is incapable of handling basic hiring without immediately bursting into flames, I have very high hopes for a plan that will not be revealed to us until after the next election.

The fishery is in some pretty deep trouble, and has been for some time. The labour dispute between FISH-NL and FFAW now approaches its third year with no resolution in sight, and a divided industry makes it harder to take meaningful action that addresses the declining stocks, plankton collapse, or rapid ocean warming that all threaten the continued existence of any fishery at all. But the Newfoundland and Canadian states have historically approached the fishery more as a welfare program than the backbone of the provincial economy, so don’t expect any sudden big splashes from state actors. (Unless you’re an aquaculture company slapped with an inconvenient environmental assessment, I mean.)

Speaking of government: maybe it’s a bit too soon to start talking about a legitimacy crisis, but all signs suggest we are barreling towards a breakdown in provincial politics. 2019 is a critical election, but the prospects on offer seem as grim as the grave.

Dwight Ball and the provincial Liberals have stumbled from one self-manufactured blunder to another, the Premier scarcely able to get one foot out of his mouth before jamming the other one in even deeper. There is no real vision behind this government, regardless of how many jargon-filled powerpoints about ‘The Way Forward’ its comms apparatus produces. Ball’s ‘way forward’ is nothing but the inertia of petrochemical cruise control, fueled by federal largesse funneled from a national Liberal government to its loyal provincial cousin, beholden to the entrenched, moneyed interests that have kept every governing party in provincial history flush with heaps of cash. Joe Smallwood the man is dead now nearly 30 years, but his ghost still haunts the machine.

That the Premier is driving a broken-down clown car of an administration would be a problem for the Liberals if the alternatives on offer weren’t, somehow, even more disorganized. Ches Crosbie may be the current heir of Newfoundland’s uncrowned royal family, but he is stuck holding the bag for a party that sanctioned Muskrat Falls because none of his colleagues or predecessors could be arsed to read their cabinet memos. The Tories need to decide whether they’ll be sheepish or bullish about the dam they championed, but that requires a political courage fundamentally alien to the party. They also need to figure out how closely to hew to their federal cousins, who are presently being lobotomized by a pack of yellow-vested goons on Facebook. Godspeed to Mr. Crosbie as he tries to keep his head.

Godspeed also to the NL NDP, who don’t seem to be faring much better. Widespread disaffection with the two governing parties should be a social democratic shoe-in, but five years on and the party still seems to be reeling from its self-inflicted head wound in 2013. Gerry Rogers is an earnest and competent social justice warrior, but she is still finding her footing within a disorganized party content to paint by numbers from the opposition benches forever. It doesn’t help that they are attached at the hip to a national party reluctant to marshal the growing dissatisfaction with late capitalism in Canada. Federal fortunes may pick up when leader Jagmeet Singh wins a seat in the House of Commons, but it is harder to envision a sudden game-changer for your friendly neighbourhood Dippers—no matter how much young blood they get fired up online.

Then again: it is also hard to envision that the provincial NDP could be any more dysfunctional than any of our other provincial governments, past or present. It might even be refreshing to get a completely new kind of political trainwreck. At least we might get a sane minimum wage.

If you find this state of affairs dispiriting, you are not alone. “Undecided” and “none of the above” could form a solid coalition if an election were called tomorrow, and I’m sure a shoulder shrug would be elected MHA in Topsail-Paradise if it appeared on the byelection ballots. No one really loves what any of the major parties have on offer, to the point that quite a few people are wondering why we even need partiesor a Cabinetat all. Even if the NL Alliance turns out to be nothing but a travelling circus, every town hall that Graydon Pelley hosts cracks the lid on Pandora’s box another fraction further. What will erupt out of it when the top is finally torn clean off?

It’s a gongshow out there, folksand it carries real consequences. Maybe you don’t take an interest in politics; suit yourself. But politics will always, inevitably, take an interest in you. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Like I said: these are historic times. And if journalism is meant to be the first draft of history, then the Independent’s job is to translate our cacophony of crashing gongs into a proper piece of sheet music. As James Baldwin writes near the climax of Another Country: we have to be truthful about the life we have in order to reach the life we want. (And we need to separate what we really want from what we think we want, and what we think we should want.)

This is a tall order for anybody, least of all a digital journalism non-profit at the edge of civilization. It won’t be easy, because we’re small and cut against the grain of 180 years of Newfoundland history. But we’re putting down deep roots, and a hundred thousand flowers will soon burst forth in bloom.

Anyway, that’s all for now. There is always more to say, but we’ll save that for the future. In the meantime, your editor continues to watch the skies as the sun rises red in the morning of the year. See you at the Indy’s christening real soon.

Oh. One more thing: we will never, ever treat “winning the lottery” as news. Consider it a personal promise.

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