It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Amidst mounting tension on Confederation Hill and throughout the province, the Dunderdale administration is seeing the backlash to its own austerity program. Current efforts to manage dissent are being met with growing resistance. In whose hands does the future of Newfoundland and Labrador reside?

When Cassondra Parsons created a Facebook group to express her dissatisfaction with Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s “mismanagement of budget money” following the provincial Conservatives’ 2013 austerity budget, the 23-year-old from Botwood had no idea that in less than two weeks the group would attract almost 2,000 members and be at the centre of one of the House of Assembly’s most tense moments in recent memory.

On Tuesday justice minister Darin King reprimanded Gerry Rogers, NDP member for St. John’s Centre, for her membership in the Facebook group “Kathy Dunderdale must GO!”, in which one of the approximately 1,700 members posted a comment serious enough that the RNC are now investigating the matter. “‘I can’t believe nobody has not JFK’d her already and sniped her out,’” King read to the assembly from a sheet containing the Facebook comments, “‘cause the whole province has gone to shit because of that woman.’”

Rogers said she was involuntarily added to the group by another Facebook user, a common occurrence on the world’s most popular social media website. House Speaker Ross Wiseman logged on to Facebook during a recess and determined Rogers was in contempt against the House. “I ask that the member apologize for any disrepute that she may have brought upon this House of Assembly by participating in a social media site which clearly targets a Member of the House of Assembly,” he said.

When Rogers, maintaining the whole time she hadn’t done anything wrong, refused the Speaker’s repeated request that she express regret, Wiseman had the Sergeant at Arms escort her out of the legislature. The alarming controversy was headline news Tuesday evening, but by and large had the opposite effect the Tories might have expected. Hundreds of new members joined “Kathy Dunderdale must GO!” and prompted others to start a new Facebook group in support of Rogers. In both groups a significant number of people are coming together to talk politics: yesterday’s incident, the budget cuts, Muskrat Falls, Bill 29 and other shared grievances resulting from the government’s austerity program.

“While I do not condone any threat(s) to anyone, no matter who he or she may be, I do however feel that for the Minister of justice to accuse Gerry Rogers of condoning the ‘threats’ because someone added her to a group is simply foolishness in it highest form,” one commenter wrote. “Even more disturbing is the Speaker of the House to expected her to apologize for someone else’s comments…”

Rogers stood firm in her refusal to issue an apology and condemned King for the way he handled the situation. “For the minister of justice to bring this to the House and urge condemnation of somebody without being heard – I was not heard, I was not given the opportunity to see what kind of evidence they had, I was not given the opportunity to defend myself or to speak on my behalf – is totally, absolutely a violation of any principle of justice,” Rogers told The Independent Tuesday evening. “Is this what the future of our justice (system) looks like? I mean, the House of Assembly is the seat of the protection of our whole justice system. It’s absolutely disgraceful.”

Meanwhile, watching the ordeal unfold from her home in Botwood, Parsons became overwhelmed with guilt and eventually changed the group’s status from “Open” to “Private” and removed herself as an administrator. She had merely been trying to start a conversation with people in and outside her own town about the cuts to, and coming privatization of, adult basic education (ABE) programs province-wide – not because the cuts will affect her directly but because she feels “strongly for the ones who are affected,” she said.

“I just felt really terrible for Gerry Rogers,” she explained Tuesday evening when asked why she felt responsible for another person’s comments. “I don’t want her losing her job over some stupid group she didn’t even know she was added in.”

A dangerous precedent?

Facebook rules and functions change frequently, but at present ‘Private’ groups require administrators to approve new members and posts, a degree of censorship frowned upon by many social media users who join groups as a way to engage in open public dialogue.

“All ‘posts’ require admin approval,” explained Gordon Little, who temporarily designated himself administrator and added others to the role in Parsons’ absence. “Comments on approved posts are not moderated but would be deleted if needed. I don’t approve of moderating comments. We’re all adults and are capable of self policing,” he continued. “I think this entire thing is ridiculous. But that’s the Internet for you. Twitter is even worse. The group was 1,600 people. I read some stuff but how do you keep up with 1,600 people posting stuff to a group?”

“Kathy Dunderdale must GO!” Facebook group.

Premier Dunderdale told the press Tuesday however that MHAs are responsible for monitoring all comments made by others in the Facebook groups they are members of.

Christine Kirby is the person listed on Facebook as having “added” Rogers to the group. “To be honest I cannot remember if I added anyone to the group other than myself,” she said Tuesday evening, explaining if she did in fact add Rogers it was an accident. “It has happened to me a few times now,” she said.

One Facebook commenter remarked that King’s accusation of guilt “by association” was a sign of “desperation” as the Tories’ popularity continues to plummet. Another said the move constituted an act of McCarthyism “on a level that Senator McCarthy himself never reached.

“I’m not an NDP supporter, but I hate bullying, character assassination and political games,” the commenter wrote. “The Minister of Justice under the protection of the legislature’s immunity rules has defamed an honest and peaceful person by association with comments made by another person within a group that allows others to add you to a group of any kind without your prior approval. It assumes that any comment made by a member of a group on any subject, can be attributed to any person associated to the group. (Even if it is not the stated goal of the group.) That is wrong … I contend, that [if] he is making such charges, yet [not] asking police to investigate these threats first, then he is insincere and likely in violation of his duty.”

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane Tweeted on Tuesday that Rogers was “in contempt for (a) comment she didn’t make,” and that the “consequences of Wiseman’s rulings are staggering.” He finished: “This is a remarkable precedent to set in 2013.”

Politics of fear

Rogers points to a broader trend unfolding as the Tories’ popular support continues to wane while they push a rigid neoliberal agenda on an increasingly disconcerted population.

“This was not the first time the premier and her cabinet have tried to intimidate me and tried to silence me. There have been other instances where they have threatened groups to not invite me to events that are in my own district,” she said. “People are afraid and we see it.

“There is a politics of fear right across the whole province. People from different community groups and NGOs are afraid to speak out, they’re afraid for their funding, they have been threatened. Public servants have told me that they have been threatened, that they will lose their jobs if they even press ‘Like’ on Facebook groups that (carry) a message criticizing the government or its policies. That’s what we’re dealing with, and we’re dealing with the same government that brought us Bill 29. This is perhaps the lowest point in the history of our legislature.”

Last year, when minister King held the fisheries portfolio, the member for Grand Bank halted funding to the Food, Fish and Allied Workers union because union president Earle McCurdy was too critical of the government. This wasn’t a first, however. Prior to his official foray into provincial politics, as Eastern School District director in 2006, King dealt with two teachers who publicly complained of work stress by handing them a suspension.

Following the government’s budget announcement last month, King defended massive cuts to his own Department of Justice, albeit inconsistently. But he and the Dunderdale administration now appear so deeply entrenched in their austerity program to liberalize the province’s economy – evidenced by major cuts to public services and public sector jobs, a move to privatize those services, like the ABE programs, greater investment in major energy and resource developments, and an eager attitude toward foreign investment – they are continually finding themselves on the defensive, mired by a never-ending need to strategize and deflect criticism, not only from opposition parties but now a greater share of the population who are feeling the squeeze of austerity’s tentacles.

A result of fear itself?

On March 28 King used his Facebook account to express his enthusiasm over a commitment from Brazilian mining giant Vale to develop an underground mine at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador.

“More jobs; more opportunities; possible power agreement – another excellent day for Newfoundland and Labrador!” King said in the Facebook post, just two days after the provincial Conservatives unveiled their budget, which will effect anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 job cuts province-wide, possibly more.

When Jodie Riggs of Marystown commented on the post – saying “It’s not much of a consolation to the upwards of two thousand public and government employees, Shool [sic] Board and EAS employees who are not trades people, especially the single parents who are restricted to their rural communities…” – King was quick to fire back.

“That number is totally inaccurate, Jodie. (Finance) Minister (Jerome) Kennedy spoke to that yesterday in the Legislature,” he retorted. “It’s unfortunate that people are circulating the wrong information as we go through this process.”

Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy and Justice Minister Darin King on budget 2013. Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy and Justice Minister Darin King on budget day 2013. Photo by Graham Kennedy.

Riggs – an employment counselor at a Marystown Employment Assistance Services (EAS) office who, with hapless irony, as of June 1 will no longer be able to help others on the Burin Peninsula find work since she will be out of a job herself – then asked King to clarify the numbers if he had information she did not. Other commenters joined the conversation, most of them critical of the budget, particularly the EAS cuts, or of the Dunderdale administration all together.

Irked by King’s comment, which she took as a suggestion she was “either lying or spreading rumors,” Riggs shared some research of her own.

In addition to the approximately 485 core public service employees who will be laid off and the 450 people employed outside the core public service who will be affected by “further job adjustments,” as Kennedy announced in the House of Assembly on budget day, Riggs also factored in the 246 vacant jobs which have been eliminated and the 190 employees who are being offered early retirement. Add to that number the approximately 226 Employment Assistance Services job cuts resulting from the government’s recent decision to reallocate $14 million of federal funding and the expected 160 lost teachers’ jobs as a consequence of the province’s English school board merger, and Riggs puts the “confirmed” job cut total at 1,757.

She continued by addressing the government’s recent onslaught of austerity measures King referred to as a “process” in his comment:

This process will be detrimental to countless hardworking Newfoundlanders, the majority who are NOT trades people. These are mid level positions and include a large number of those who have families and earn far less than the trades workers or politicians. These include men and women who for the vast majority are NOT trained in the trades, who may not want to be trained in the trades, who may not be suitable to the trades, who are not able to participate in a mobile workforce or who CANNOT due to familial or other reasons, such as child care issues.

Darin, this PROCESS will eliminate my job as an Employment Counsellor, where I help numerous clients proceed through the job loss cycle, determine and overcome barriers to employment, assess eligibility for interventions, guide career exploration suitability and decision making, research the labour market information and counsel clients who are seeking employment. This PROCESS affects my clients and me, and as a single parent and the main bread winner, I will now be competing with countless others for the limited job opportunities that are in our area, many of those affected by this so-called PROCESS. I am currently NOT eligible for retraining, and even if I did, my child’s father already leaves for employment at sea, and therefore I CANNOT avail of any of the opportunities outside of my area in the trades. This PROCESS as you so loosely coined it are people’s LIVELIHOODS.

The focus of our provincial government is on the HAVES of the provinces, the under taxed business owners, wealthy oil and gas conglomerates, definitely not the reality, which is the Have-Nots; the elderly, those on fixed incomes, single parents, rural communities, our fragile animal kingdom and environment and hardworking Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans.

This all happened on March 28. The following day Riggs logged into Facebook only to find King’s post and the entire thread of comments had been deleted from the minister’s page. What’s more, she was now blocked from further commenting.

The media did not seem to pick up on the incident but Occupy Newfoundland posted the conversation on its website.

The Independent made several attempts to speak with King about the incident and forwarded the following questions to the minister through his constituency assistant, Corey Parsons: Why was the March 28 post deleted from Mr. King’s Facebook page? And could Mr. King please respond to Jodie Riggs’ formula and calculations regarding the overall job losses as a result of the budget cuts?

Neither the minister nor his assistant responded to the questions.

When the numbers don’t add up

“The government is not counting job cuts in their numbers, only layoffs,” said Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Lana Payne, explaining the discrepancy. “Of course there is more devil in the details … [S]pending cuts to groups, non-profits and other government agencies will result in more job losses. The teachers’ union says there will be 160 fewer teachers in the schools in September.

“In addition, just before the budget, but considered part of the austerity measures, the government eliminated $14 million in funding to the Employment Assistance Services, resulting in loss of 225 jobs, and last fall Eastern Health announced the elimination of 450 jobs,” she continued. “So this is why the numbers being circulated are in the 2,000+ range.”

On the province’s austerity “process”, as King put it, Payne said Newfoundlanders and Labradorians need only look to the billions of dollars worth of resources being taken out of the province each year and ask: “Prosperity for whom?”

“We must start demanding that we receive a fair share of our resources and for that fair share to be used to build a good society that benefits all citizens,” she said.

“The world over austerity has proven to be a failed response and yet governments continue to implement austerity measures, including our own. And while governments do this, corporations continue to pad their profit margins with our resources,” Payne continued.

“I also believe fundamentally that the cuts to public sector jobs and services, the cuts to spending will have another negative impact, and that’s in the confidence of people in our economy. When government preaches and practices austerity it sends a very dangerous message to citizens. In turn – and we have seen this many, many times – citizens close their pocketbooks.”

Meanwhile, back at the Confederation Building

Rogers said she will return to the House on Wednesday and “take my seat as the representative of the people of St. John’s Centre.

This image circulated on Facebook Tuesday after Rogers was kicked out of the House of Assembly. Facebook.
This image circulated on Facebook Tuesday after Rogers was kicked out of the House of Assembly. Facebook photo.

“I will not be silenced, I will not be intimidated by Kathy Dunderdale and her cabinet,” she said adamantly.

According to a Facebook event page called Make Kathy hear us / Dunderdale must go, a protest against the premier and her administration will happen Friday at 10 a.m. on the steps of the Confederation Building. The event doesn’t appear to be organized by any single group.

Rogers is hosting a town hall on April 24 a 7 p.m. at St. Teresa’s Parish Hall on Mundy Pond Road in St. John’s. She is bringing along economist Allison Coffin and will be focusing on discussing and mitigating the effects of the provincial budget, but said the whole point of town hall meetings is to engage in “two-way dialogue”.

“I can listen, I can ask questions, they can criticize me or they can give me their ideas,” she explained. “I do not need a third party intermediary. My obligation is to be accessible to the people who have elected me.”

Rogers likened Facebook groups like the one Parsons started and other online forums to the town hall events. “I feel it’s my moral obligation and duty to listen to the people of the province, to listen to the people of St. John’s Centre, and that is what these Facebook forums are about – to listen to what people have to say. That is my political obligation.”

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