The politics of mediocrity

Our government is watching. And waiting. And not doing a whole lot else…

I knew I shoudn’t have gone to see Spiderman 3.

I went reluctantly; a friend of mine was a Spiderman fanatic, and she insisted all her friends accompany her to the premiere. Which we dutifully did.

To be honest, I actually don’t remember much about the movie. What I remembered – because it is seared into my brain with all the concentrated inanity of a three-hour lecture on sheep-shearing – was the torturous, boring pain of watching the film.

It wasn’t the poor acting, or the flat plotline, or the stilted dialogue, or the circuitous script development.

It was more the fact that all the above went on and on and on for more than three fracking hours.

Not even the bizarre musical interlude in the middle of the film – which would under normal circumstances have been weird enough to be mildly interesting – was enough to raise my eyebrows or loosen up the painful grimace that was permanently etching itself into my face.

At the end I actually cried: not from the drama of the film, but out of joy that it was over and I could go do something more interesting like dusting my kitchen cupboards.

Last week, I was reminded of this painful moment while watching an equal painful metaphorical train wreck on the CBC website. Although it was, mercifully, only six minutes long (and did not contain a musical number in the middle), it was equally painful and torturous to watch.

It was a media scrum with Justice Minister Felix Collins.

Minister be monitoring…

I highly encourage you to watch it (but avoid Spiderman 3). But for those of you who don’t, here’s the gist. The minister is being quizzed on the fact the provincial government appears to be moving no closer to implementing the whistleblower legislation it committed to during the most recent election; the NDP have been hammering them on the point. Like a proverbial broken record, he invents a half dozen creative ways of saying the same thing: in essence his department is monitoring other jurisdictions, has decided that none of the existing whistleblower laws are perfect, and until they discover a jurisdiction with a perfect whistleblower law, they see no point in bringing one forward.

The pros and cons of whistleblower legislation aside, this excuse simply doesn’t cut it – no matter what the subject might be.

The provincial government is not a glorified research team. They HAVE researchers, yes – but research is merely one component of governing. Research informs the context in which ideas are created and decisions made. We’ve clearly got the research; what we lack are the ideas and the decisions.

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the minister’s language:

“We continue to monitor and look at other jurisdictions…”

“There are problems with whistleblower legislation in nearly every jurisdiction…it’s not always what it turned out to be…”

“What we’ve seen so far, from what we’ve observed in the other jurisdictions…”

“We see nothing in the whistleblower legislation of other provinces to date that can displace any better than we have…”

What’s problematic about this is that a government is not elected to “monitor and look at other jurisdictions”. They’re elected to make decisions and take action for this one.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our research: of course we need to know what those other jurisdictions are doing. But then we take that knowledge and we develop the plans that will work best for this one.

CBC Reporter David Cochrane, of course, had little time for this elaborate dance. He cuts to the chase:

“So did you make an election promise without doing your homework and now you’re stuck with a promise you’re never going to fulfill?”

In his defense, the minister replies that other jurisdictions are equally guilty of inaction and lack of initiative.

“There are six other jurisdictions in this country that do not have whistleblower legislation and they’re in the same boat as we are. They’re looking at all the other jurisdictions, they’re waiting and seeing the other jurisdictions work out the trouble points in the legislation and if we can put together a piece of legislation at the end of the day that meets the goals of being better than what we have, then we’re certainly going to do that.”

What exactly does the minister expect? That somebody is going to suddenly stumble upon a magical piece of legislation, etched upon golden tablets perhaps…?

What exactly does the minister expect? That somebody is going to suddenly stumble upon a magical piece of legislation, etched upon golden tablets perhaps, that is so perfect that it will not face any criticism and will result only in good outcomes and will allow everybody to live happily ever after? Cochrane zeroes in to ask precisely that, albeit with a bit more tact.

“You’ve been studying this and reviewing this now for about a half a decade,” says Cochrane. “Here we are – year after year you keep saying ‘we’re studying it’, ‘we’re assessing it’. People who were expecting you to live up to the promise of delivering whistleblower legislation, what should they expect? Should they expect this is not ever going to happen because you can’t find a perfect piece to model it after?”

Collins takes a deep breath, and reboots back to track 1:

“They should expect us to continue to monitor what’s happening…”

Quest for the perfect couch

Another reporter pipes up in the background:

“If you can’t find a better piece of legislation, is whistleblower legislation dead?”

“We continue to look,” repeats Collins. “We continue to look.”

“How many jurisdictions are there like yours that you can study?” demands an impatient Cochrane. “I mean, it’s been five years…it’s not like you’re looking for the perfect rug or the perfect couch. It’s a legislative framework, so either you’re going to do it or you’re not.”

“There’s whistleblower legislation in four jurisdictions in this country,” replies Collins. “So that’s six or seven provinces that are in the same boat as we are. That are looking at the others, and monitoring it, and seeing how it’s working…you must remember, that whistleblower legislation is relatively new…they haven’t had time yet to work through it, to work the trouble points out of it. It’ll take some time to see how they’re doing before we can adopt anything that they might have.”

Symptom of a wider problem

In a way, the scrum highlights in vivid detail a far greater, and far deeper, problem with our current provincial government. It is a government lacking in vision, and afraid of innovation.

And it’s not just on whistleblower legislation.

Later in the same scrum, following up on NDP comments in Question Period, the minister is asked why ‘gender identity’ was omitted from a recent revision of provincial human rights legislation; this would have strengthened protections for transgender persons in this province. The minister describes another fail on that front:

“We found that there was eleven, or thirteen, different definitions of gender identity. And we were not able to encapsulate that into one provision. “

A reporter points out the obvious – wouldn’t some additional protection be better than none?

“We’re constantly monitoring and looking at all our legislation over time to see if it can be improved,” replies Collins. “And if we can pin something down specific with regard to gender identity, then we’re certainly prepared to look at it. And we have been looking at it. But so far, we have not been able to identify a single provision that covers all the different scenarios of gender identity. It’s just an impossible task!”

Not so impossible, perhaps, for jurisdictions such as the Northwest Territories, which handily define gender identity in under 20 words: “transgendered persons and those who identify with or live as a gender that is different from their biological sex.”

…mediocrity is not an effective principle of governance.

But the important point here is not about whistleblower legislation, or gender identity protections (although these are both important basic commitments that the government should move on immediately). But the point I am making here is that mediocrity is not an effective principle of governance. The fact that our government is afraid to move on any issue unless some other jurisdiction first does the hard work should trouble us deeply. The fact they are afraid to develop their own legislation to reflect local realities should concern us just as much.

Danny, boy…the summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dyin’…

It made me realize one of the reasons why, I think, Danny Williams garnered such respect, even from among those who disagreed with his government’s policies. It’s because his government was not afraid to create something new. It was not afraid to dare to develop new ideas, and implement them even if they might be untested. After all, you can’t “work out the trouble points” until you’ve first of all put something into practice. The Williams government was not afraid to do that. They weren’t constantly looking over their shoulders at other jurisdictions, paralyzed into inaction until they thought some other jurisdiction’s laws were so perfect as to be completely free of controversy.

They’d look to see what other jurisdictions were doing, of course, but for them that would be the start point – not the end point. Armed with the knowledge of what other jurisdictions are doing, you then move forward and develop a plan for your own jurisdiction.

That is the step this government seems incapable of taking.

Why has the provincial government wallowed in inaction on the gutting of search and rescue facilities?

And it explains a lot. Why has the provincial government wallowed in inaction on the gutting of search and rescue facilities? The premier tried a phone call to the prime minister, that didn’t work, and now they seem incapable of figuring out another plan.

Williams’ tactics like lowering the Canadian flags got him praised and got him denounced. But the one thing nobody could accuse him of, was inaction.

Governments will make right choices and they will make wrong choices. But the government that is afraid to even make a choice, is the one that places its people in the gravest danger.

I thought we had regained our pride? What happened to all that?

The most glaring question is this – why are our leaders afraid to lead?

Why do they seem to feel that Newfoundland and Labrador has to hide out near the middle, or somewhere at the end, of the pack? Why do they want us to creep along in others’ footsteps, bringing forward policies and legislation only after everybody else already has?

Why can’t we, for once, have the courage to lead? Why should we always follow? Why can’t we be the model the rest of Canada looks up to?

In some areas, they do. In post-secondary education – we have the most accessible system in the country and the second-lowest fees after Quebec. And our politicians did it in spite of the fact other provinces were raising fees. And now we’re proud of it, and acknowledged leaders in the field of post-secondary education.

When we do dare, and are not afraid to lead, we are looked up to by the country, and the world.

Why should we always follow? Why can’t we be the model the rest of Canada looks up to?

There are a few other examples of this – the Office to Advance Women Apprentices is an innovative and dramatically successful program that’s working to break decades of gender bias and get women jobs in the professional trades. We had one of the first province-wide poverty reduction strategies in the country. There are examples of areas where we had the courage to lead – but they are few and far between. And they were mostly the product of the Danny Williams era.

I shudder to think what Newfoundland and Labrador would be like if the voices that dominate now had also dominated back then. How long would our Minister of Monitoring Other Jurisdictions have had to “wait” and “watch” and “monitor other jurisdictions” before deciding that it just made sense to ensure that seniors living on the poverty line have access to a low-income prescription drug program?

As long as our government pursues a policy of mediocrity, they do a disservice to those they represent.

We deserve better than a government that watches and monitors and waits for the perfect legislation to appear somewhere in the world.

We deserve to be the ones crafting that legislation.

We deserve, for once, to lead and not follow.

And we deserve a government that is not afraid to show the world our true potential.

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