The cocktail circuit and democracy in N.L.

Independent MHA Paul Lane speaks out on the ways consensus is formed and decisions are made in N.L. politics, disrupting the illusion of representative democracy in the province.

Paul Lane is an independent Member of the House of Assembly representing the district of Mount Pearl-Southlands in the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government. Lane was a member of the governing provincial Liberal party, but left government to sit as an independent over its 2016 budget. The 2016 budget incited significant protests and unrest throughout the province, and ultimately the government was obliged to reverse a number of unpopular cuts to services and fee increases.

Lane is remarkable in that he had previously left another governing party, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, two years prior and joined the Liberals, who were then the official opposition. In this interview, conducted in September, Lane offers a candid appraisal of the state of democracy and the degree to which political donations and economic influence corrupts the democratic politics of the province. The prompt for the interview was a statement Lane made saying that in some significant ways politics in NL “has nothing to do with Red or Blue, it’s all about the cocktail circuit.”

I have edited the interview into a recording, presented as the YouTube video you see here. Below, I have extracted and compiled what I think are some of the most significant insights and quotations from the interview under specific headings. The full transcript is available online at this link.

On the cocktail circuit:

“The two main political parties—being the PCs and the Liberals—rely quite heavily, obviously, on donations, and corporate donations. And there’s obviously influence that goes along with that. I think it’s pretty clear, you can see that even when one party [is] fading out of power and losing favour with the public, you will see that it’ll be harder for them to raise all those corporate donations, but they won’t be cut off. You notice that the big businesses, if you look at it, they will contribute to both parties, but depending on who’s in power or who’s felt is going to be in power, that’s who will get the lion’s share … There are a lot of influential people, people in authority, who, as far as I’m concerned, regardless if it goes Red or Blue, they’re always gonna have that influence.”

“That’s why I say the cocktail circuit because you gotta remember that regardless if there’s PCs or Liberals in government or whatever, I really believe you have this elite group that are in on everything. They own multiple businesses. They have business interest all over the place and they’re in the know and they have connections in all parties because they make sure that they have connections on all sides. It’s not just necessarily about winning a contract. [It’s about whether] you have the inside scoop of things that are going to be happening in the future? Where you can acquire land or property or whatever, knowing in advance that this is planned two years or three years down the road, and all of a sudden it’s gonna be a huge impact on your investment … It seems like all of the major things that are happening always seem to come back to the same players, doesn’t it?”

“By the same token I believe that [such influence] exists with big business and the corporate sector, I also believe likewise that there are concerns here as it relates to the NDP as well and their close affiliation to unions. I’m not saying that they have the same influence because obviously they don’t and they’ve never been in power. But if we’re going to make reforms around raising money and contributions and how much contributions any given party or candidate can receive, then if it’s going to apply to corporations, it should also apply to unions equally.”

On the state of democracy in N.L.:

“Quite frankly, I don’t believe we do have a well-functioning democracy. I believe that democracy ends, in our system, after you place your vote in the ballot box. And then for the next four years we, quite frankly, have a dictatorship … Tom [Marshall] put it so eloquently when he said, ‘Oppositions have their say, government has their way,’ and that is so true. Once a government is elected, they hold total power to do whatever they want. … This idea of absolute power to do whatever you want for four years – no recall legislation, no way of getting rid of the government if they’re doing—or an individual member—if they’re not performing properly. So yeah, I mean there are all kinds of flaws to our system, and I think we need major reforms.”

On budget documents and Budget 2016:

“I was part of the government side. I saw the budget two hours before it was read on the floor of the House of Assembly. You go into what’s known as a Budget Lock-up situation—the same as the media does—where a couple of hours beforehand you go into the room, there’s someone waiting for you at the door; they say, ‘Do you have a cell phone with you, Paul?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Hand over your cell phone,’ and they take your cell phone so you can’t leak anything. And if you need to go to the washroom you basically have to raise your hand like you would in school.”

“[Regular MHAs] had zero input into the budget. The Cabinet crafted the budget. Members were not even consulted. This time around it was even a little different again than I was used to, in the sense that in addition to handing in the budget document, everyone was handed an envelope with your district name on it, and when you open the envelope it was a list of the things they were shutting down in your district … And that was the first time that member knew anything about it or was consulted on it, was two hours before it was read in the House as a done deal.”

On the revolving door between politics and business in N.L.:

“We also have this concept somehow—and we’ve seen it—that we need to keep electing these saviors, these so-called business leaders and all these people, that somehow they’re the only ones that can run the province … at the end of the day, what we need are people with good common sense, people who can listen to the public, and people who have a clear understanding of the day-to-day life and the issues facing the citizens. That’s what we need. And that may or may not come in the form of a business person or a business leader, but for some reason we’ve convinced ourselves that the only people capable and qualified to run our government is somebody who’s some big business exec or whatever, and they’re the only ones who are capable of doing it. And I think history has shown us that that’s not necessarily the case.”

On the possibility of democratic reform:

“You’ll hear opposition parties in particular will cry foul some of these things when they’re in opposition, and once they form government it all changes because now they have the power … And when they formed government, the response you got is, ‘Well, you were no better when you were there. You didn’t do it for us, so shag you, we’re not going to do it for you. Because now we’re in power! Now is our turn to be in charge, you see?’ It all comes down to, ‘Now it’s our turn.’”

“So I don’t see it happening unless there is a major movement, a public movement. Whether that should come in the form of some kind of public campaign outside of the party system, or whether it should come by way of a new party coming on the scene that that would be their platform, for example, to make these changes and to force that issue and make it an issue. Unless something like that happens, I don’t see the other parties that we have in place doing it, or pushing for it.”

On liberation and refusal to toe the line:

“I guess at some point you wake up and you sort of come out of the little bubble, because when you’re there you are in a bubble, you know, in government and you have this whole groupthink mentality going on. But once I sort of realized, I guess, what was going on and the decisions that were being made and the role that I was playing in it … I said, shag this. I’ve had enough of this. I’m not gonna be a puppet anymore. And I liberated myself … When I made that decision to leave the PC Party, at that point in time I vowed to myself that I would never, ever, ever again be anybody’s puppet. I cut those puppet strings for good. And I vowed that I would never go back again.”

“So of course, the two years I was with the Liberals, you’re in opposition, you weren’t constrained per se in opposition. It’s just like keep the issues going and whatever. It was a different dynamic. But of course once we got in and we formed government, then we saw the same thing happen as happened before. You had that small group in the Cabinet; they were calling all the shots. You weren’t informed about anything. You weren’t included in anything. And then of course we saw this horrible budget that I was expected to support. And I knew from day one that I wasn’t gonna support it … I liberated myself when I left Dunderdale after two years and, really, I’ve been liberated, if you will, ever since. And I said, never again will I be a yes-man, and I won’t.”

On the possibility of reform and political movements:

“I don’t see [democratic reform] happening unless there is a major movement, a public movement. Whether that should come in the form of some kind of public campaign outside of the party system, or whether it should come by way of a new party coming on the scene that that would be their platform, for example, to make these changes and to force that issue and make it an issue. Unless something like that happens, I don’t see the other parties that we have in place doing it, or pushing for it.”

“It has to be united, it has to be coordinated, it has to be professional, it has to stay out of the gutter, so that you give the people, in their mind, an alternative … I’ve spoken to people of all walks of life—if I could put it that way—of different interests, and there is a strong desire for change in the system. I really believe that if there was a significant alternative available to what we currently have, I think at this stage of the game there would be an awful lot of people that would be willing to embrace that.”

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. Catch up with him on Twitter @jwpnfld

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