NL Election 2021: No Majorities No Masters

This is a referendum on negotiating debt relief with the federal government. Your only choice is how much leeway to give the provincial Liberals.

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We’re down to the final days of the 2021 Newfoundland and Labrador election. By the time the next newsletter goes out, we’ll be sorting through the results. Many people have already voted either with mail-in ballots or in Saturday’s advance polls. (More than 33,000 people voted in advance polls on February 6, 2021; there were just over 21,000 advance votes in 2019.) Every team has been playing defense since this game started, so the final quarter will likely be pretty quiet.

Last week we saw several leaders’ forums, plus the televised debate—which was effectively voters’ only sustained unscripted encounter with Premier Andrew Furey. It was an interesting and fairly dynamic format as far as debates go, though it’s hard to say we learned much new or compelling information. (That said, the Premier did mention on Wednesday night that the province only has to pay back half of the $840 million deferral on Muskrat Falls announced in December 2020. This is definitely a new revelation. I wonder if anything else was omitted from the flurry of pre-election announcements?)

We also saw all the parties release their platforms this past week. These, too, did not contain much new information. They are mostly amalgamations of previous piecemeal announcements, and none of them go into any great detail about the major questions voters have been clamouring after. As Rob Antle notes for CBC, the Liberals’ tactic of ‘saying nothing’ is likely an overcompensation for the problems from the 2015 election where they made a bunch of (false) promises that later came back to haunt them. He’s basically right, and I want to underscore his suggestion that ‘saying nothing’ in an election campaign premised on the need for a strong mandate to undertake sweeping social changes presents its own post-election dangers for the Liberals. People living through hard times generally don’t like unpleasant surprises from the government. But hey, that’s none of my business; I just have to live here.

Anyways: we are at the tail end of the campaign. Do we know what this election is about yet?

I wrote a bit about this last week. Nothing has really changed dramatically despite the debates or the platforms, so I apologize for the broken record routine. But the situation deserves one final recap before we wrap this up.

The 2021 election is functionally a referendum on negotiating debt relief with the federal government. At this point, your only choice is how much leeway to give the provincial Liberals.

This has never been an explicit issue on the campaign trail. Ches Crosbie broached it by bringing up bankruptcy and noting that Ottawa has a vested interest in keeping the wheels greased enough to avoid outright financial catastrophe. But that’s as close as we’re getting. Everything else is a sideshow to our fundamental financial impasse and has been presented as such. In the final analysis, even the PERT takes a backseat to the ‘fiscal federalism’ question. We have no real idea what will appear in Moya Greene’s report, but it clearly seems to be a mechanism for designing the conditions of the province’s imminent “structural adjustment” at arm’s length from electoral accountability.

The party platforms are phoned in, and everybody knows it—and everybody knows that everybody knows it. This is a pantomime election. Public trust in the party system is at an all-time low. The parties don’t seem to respect voters and the feeling appears to be mutual. VOCM polls definitely aren’t scientific but 97% of respondents saying they “don’t believe political promises made in election campaigns” is an extremely unhealthy signal. We are formally going through the rituals of democracy in order to ratify the Liberals’ request for a majority government, which they will use to do very important things that they don’t want to tell us about.

They are not telling us about it because they wager (probably correctly) that it doesn’t matter. Decision-making power in Newfoundland and Labrador effectively resides outside the House of Assembly and has for some time. We are voting on whether to transition into a full technocracy.

This has been the trajectory of provincial politics for at least a decade, if not longer. (This is Nalcor’s province; we just pay the rent.) Elections are reduced to selecting one of two indistinguishable partisan clans to manage a degenerating corporate welfare state increasingly prone to crisis. Andrew Furey’s rhetorical emphasis on “hope” is just fulfilling Neil Young in “Rocking in the Free World”: “Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive/Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.” (“Roads to drive” is arguably the heart and horizon of our social imagination.)

The Liberals should be denied the majority government they are seeking. They have done nothing to earn it. We can’t entrust them with that power if they won’t tell us what they’re doing. The Premier is campaigning as if democracy—the idea that people should have meaningful input into how and why they are governed—is an annoying inconvenience. That approach to governance has brought this province to the brink.

If accountability matters to you then the best outcome for the 2021 election is another minority government. Bracket out all party labels and forget about the leaders. Fill the House with reasonable, responsive, capable and earnest people. We need MHAs who take their roles as legislators seriously—whether they wind up inside the governing caucus or not. Another minority legislature is the public’s only hope for real input and oversight into whatever is coming after this election.

But if democracy is not your main concern—if you are more interested in ill-defined action to ‘fix’ our ill-defined problems regardless of who does what, how, or why—then this is an easy decision. Those wheels are already in motion. There is no reason to rock the boat and the alternatives are worse. This is, after all, a global public health emergency. There are more important things to worry about than provincial partisan bickering. Besides: nothing ever really changes, so none of this actually matters—right?

Nihilism masquerades as a kind of enlightened pragmatism here in the “unprecedented times” of the post-Covid world. But it’s a lie that you are better off accepting politics as something that happens to you instead of something you make happen. Beware all those who would tell you otherwise—however qualified or well-meaning.

The polls close at 8 p.m. on February 13. Choose wisely.

Photo by Alex Spracklin.

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