NL Election 2021: Free, Prior, and Informed Consent

Voters do not have the ability to give properly informed consent so far in the 2021 election. That’s a major problem.

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Newfoundland and Labrador is halfway through its 2021 winter election, and things are finally starting to shape up a little bit. We’re getting a clearer sense of the stakes and the stances. We might even see full party platforms emerge this coming week. What a time to be alive.

In broad strokes, this week once again opened with more foolishness around candidacies. The sanctimony from the Liberal camp about “cyberbullying” was embarrassing and actively trivialized the very real issue of harassment, demeaning commentary, and actually dangerous digital rhetoric. Liberal Lisa Dempster suggesting that her PC opponent Joshua Nolan was potentially ‘saving lives’ by (briefly!) dropping out of the race remains noteworthy as both breathtakingly cynical and fully out to lunch. But the incident in Deer Lake this week—where a man in a truck full of knives was arrested while on a mission to “stop the election” and “execute politicians”—seems to have sobered everybody up. There are genuine threats to democracy stemming out of poisonous online discourse, and more-or-less rude dismissals of parachute candidates don’t quite rank up there with, say, Trumpian conspiracies about stolen elections or Q-adjacent fantasies about politicians eating babies. Either way, it couldn’t hurt for everyone online to simmer down.

Here’s hoping we are mostly through the “clown car” portion of the 2021 election and we can get down to some real brass tacks.

Beyond the distraction-drama, this was the week where the real stakes in this election finally started coming to the fore. It’s important to be frank about this. Newfoundland and Labrador is in an extremely dire situation. The province is being buried beneath the cost of servicing its debts, which are largely bound up in the costs of financing the disastrous Muskrat Falls project. And the shell game underpinning this gambit—world-historic high oil prices—has also effectively gone bust for at least the near and intermediate term (if not even longer).

(Incidentally, Des Sullivan over at Uncle Gnarly notes that eight transmission towers along the Labrador-Island Link were recently damaged in a winter storm. He further notes that “Nalcor does not acknowledge that all it takes is one damaged tower to bring down the whole system [so] damages to eight towers constitutes a catastrophe,” and reminds us that “Nalcor’s proposed transmission line design criteria was inadequate and did not comply with industry standards and practices.” Beyond mortgaging the province’s future to build hydropower infrastructure that won’t hold up to bog-standard bad weather, Sullivan also highlights that “the Furey Administration continues to offer no leadership to Nalcor and seems incapable of even keeping the Crown Corporation honest.” I’d like to follow his lead and suggest this is a situation our political leaders should be talking about!)

Anyways, to make a long story short: as Russell Williams describes it, the province is functionally in receivership. It is a serious and unprecedented situation, and it will require some serious and unprecedented action.

Until this week, acknowledging our reality on the campaign trail had been verboten. The parties have been play-acting like this is a normal election where voters are making real choices between competing sets of policies. This is obviously not the case, and—if nothing else—we can thank Ches Crosbie for placing Chekhov’s proverbial gun on the table by broaching the subject of provincial “bankruptcy.” There is now room for a real discussion about the province’s future to occur.

So: what is the 2021 election really about? Lately I find myself returning to Megan Gail Coles’ powerful argument from the 2019 election, “Your Vote is Your Consent.” This election is about granting consent. And only now can we begin to understand what that consent is for.

This election was launched with an explicit request from the Premier for a majority government. Specifically, the Liberals want a ‘mandate’ to ‘transform’ Newfoundland and Labrador. What this transformation actually entails is unclear, but there are some ‘context clues’ to help piece it together. 

Consider Andrew Furey’s huffy insistence on day one that Moya Greene’s economic recovery taskforce is only going to be making ‘recommendations’ to be debated by the House of Assembly. Presumably this is what is going to count for ‘public input’. But the catch here is the demand for a majority government. This would ultimately enable the governing party to do as they please without having to seriously address concerns or criticism from opposition parties in the legislature. The PERT may only be providing recommendations, but the Liberals are seeking unilateral power over how to dispose of them. (The same thing applies to whatever backroom discussions they will be holding with the federal government over how to approach the province’s “structural adjustments,” which may actually be a much more significant—and secretive—process than whatever the PERT comes back with.)

Let’s use a medical metaphor. The Liberals are asking the body politic to consent to potentially invasive treatment for a degenerative disorder. They are doing so without really explaining the diagnosis, the prognosis, the procedure, the risks, the aftercare, or the possible side-effects. Nobody doubts the technical competence of the professionals involved. But this is not properly informed consent. And that is a major problem.

By overtly putting bankruptcy on the table, Ches Crosbie is at least naming what ails us—and offering a crash course in his own brand of “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately it’s a quack cure. Threatening to go bankrupt in order to bring Ottawa to the table is not really a strong negotiating position—it’s like trying to rob a bank by taking yourself hostage. Worse, he is opening up the nuclear option in order to secure further federal subsidies for offshore oil and gas. Even in the Tories’ wildest Newf-nationalist power fantasies, the idea is to threaten Ottawa with destroying Confederation in order to give Cenovus more money. Absolutely; let’s go Super Saiyan for Chevron. I can appreciate that Crosbie is forcing everyone to confront the elephant in the room, but he is mainly just reinforcing the Liberals’ argument that they’re the only adults at the table.

Of course, Andrew Furey’s immediate response to Crosbie’s atom bomb is the typical ‘toxic positivity’ we’ve come to expect from the last twenty years of governing parties in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Liberals would prefer you avert your eyes from the gravity of the situation by affirming that they can only see the province as bursting with potential for a bright future. They are insulted that anyone might imply otherwise. 

I want to stress that I actually do agree with Furey on this point; Newfoundland and Labrador is full of potential. I would not be living here as a young person with aspirations to start a family (and build an independent digital media outlet!) if I did not see a thousand threads of hope for this place and its people to carve out a safe harbour amid the turmoil of 21st century life. But to simply assert this without acknowledging the immense gulf between our present difficulties and our rosy future(s) is grossly irresponsible. Negligent, even, towards the people who will be shortly asked to bear a great deal of pain. The electorate is not composed of foolish children who need to be actively deceived or manipulated. We are all reasonable and responsible adults who need to plan for the future. We deserve an honest discussion about our collective problems and any proposed potential solutions.

But the people who are running the show seem determined to treat voters like children, so this is where we are. So be it.

Compared to the Tories, the NDP seem to have a modestly better handle on the ‘consent’ question at the heart of this election. Having forsaken the pretense of winning government, Alison Coffin’s argument is that voters should return another minority parliament. This would make the Liberals’ promise of ‘public input’ on the Greene report recommendations marginally more meaningful. The governing party would at least be required to make their plans palatable enough to garner opposition support. Clearly, the NDP would like to keep their position as kingmakers in the House of Assembly.

Functionally, rump parliaments full of small parties and independent members are the closest our current system gets us to something resembling democratic oversight. A minority government is a kind of qualified consent for whoever makes it over the finish line first. But it’s also a low bar—all those all-party committees dissolved at the election call without much accomplished—and introduces the potential for obstructionism. Some voters may see this as a benefit, but others may not be especially interested in this with only a few minutes left before midnight.

It also relies on an active and engaged electorate that ranks democratic accountability at or above the level of decisive action. This does not appear to be the current mood of this campaign. Our winter pandemic election mostly finds exhausted, anxious, and dispirited voters. Many people are not paying attention to this campaign and none of the parties are offering much that might change that. All the better for the Liberals, who are steamrolling ahead according to the latest Mainstreet Research poll. As far as the consent question goes, most of us seem content to either shrug it off or scroll down and accept the Terms & Conditions without reading the fine print. Which is understandable—provincial politics is pretty far down the priority list even in the best of times, and after an extraordinarily traumatic pandemic year most people would probably just prefer to “set it and forget it.” Plus, doctors are very popular in a public health emergency.

Barring any upsets in the next two weeks—totally possible; lacklustre central campaigns mean a lot of this going to come down to district-level dogfights—the Liberals seem likely to secure their ‘mandate’ for whatever is coming down the pipe. But for their own sake, if not for ours, they need to give voters a clear idea of what we’re signing up for. They do themselves no favours by hoodwinking the electorate with promises of sunny days if the forecast is calling for a blizzard.

Newfoundland and Labrador faces a real reckoning in its imminent future, for good or for ill. Residents should not be set up to feel blindsided. We know Chekhov’s gun has to go off before the final curtain call. It needs to be handled carefully to avoid a misfire.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.

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