When little means a lot

Tom Marshall’s first and last speech from the throne is as remarkable for what it does not say as for what it does

If throne speeches provide a road-map for the legislative session, then we are not going anywhere soon. Whistle-blower protection for the civil service, first promised back in 2007, will finally be enacted. It has already had first reading. Described as the government’s “most significant legislation”, it is in fact the only piece of new legislation promised in the speech. We might “soon” see a new Child Care Act, but when that happens is anyone’s guess.

Soon, we will have a budget; and preparing us for another round of austerity is one way of reading the speech. After all, “perseverance” and “sacrifice” are the leading principals guiding the new Premier, Tom Marshall.

And indeed, there are grounds to be worried. When speaking of the tuition freeze, for example, the speech strongly suggests the government is thinking of bringing in differential fees for non-residents. It also commits the Marshall government to maintaining the Williams policy of tax cuts for corporations and high income earners, at a cost of more than $300 million in lost revenues this year alone, and the resultant Dunderdale policy of continuous cuts to government services.

There is, however, another and for me more disturbing way of reading the speech. In the absence of any democratic debate over legislation, we are offered a managerial mode of governance. Government initiatives, pilot projects, consultations, unveiling of plans, and launching of strategies are all there in abundance and they all have a clear aim: “to grow business opportunities.”

This re-branding of the provincial Tories as reliable mangers working to create a business-friendly environment aims at distancing the Marshall government from the now discredited Dunderdale interlude. It resurrects select discursive elements from Williams populist nationalism, most notably on social justice, and marries them to an image of the interim Premier as a man who knows what he is doing.

In this patriarchal world where father knows best, there is nothing we really have to debate. Worried about Muskrat Falls cost over-runs, or the reliability of our existing power grid? Not to worry, we support the Public Utilities Board inquiry so much we are commissioning one of our own and it will know to ask the right questions. Disturbed by the secrecy of Bill 29? Not to worry, we will hand pick three reliable people who will report to us on what best practices look like. Think we need better access to information? We’ve beat you to it. With our Open Government Initiative we will provide meaningful opportunities for individual Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to engage in the decision-making process.

Throne speeches are the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy: the Crown informs the House what its government would like the House to do, and then our elected representatives debate the issues and pass the necessary legislation in the interest of the common good.

We remain the only province without any permanent legislative committees to monitor what it is the government is doing on our behalf. All we have is that boys’ locker room that passes for a question period. With this most recent speech from the throne, the debasing of our democracy in the interests of political expediency and a neo-liberal agenda continues unchecked.

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