While Newfoundlanders and Labradorians wait for yet another Progressive Conservative to become the next unelected premier, maybe we can use the time to reflect on the health of the province’s democracy.
The prognosis seems poor. Voters feel irrelevant and the provincial government is largely to blame, since it is systematically undermining their franchise by limiting access to essential knowledge. The current government, despite claiming that it’s open and accountable, acts almost entirely on its own, blocks public scrutiny of its decisions and resists telling anyone how much money it’s spending on hugely expensive corporate contracts. That might have worked under Premier Danny Williams, but considering the party is undergoing its second change of leadership since his hand-picked successor resigned in disarray, the PCs might want to change their approach. However, they continue to act as if they still hold a mandate from the voters, seemingly unaware they lost it completely when their misguided energy policies lead to rolling blackouts across the cold, wintery island.
Now the PCs have come up with a new leader who’s virtually unknown to anyone outside of a few chambers of commerce. Frank Coleman is to become the most powerful politician in the province simply because he wants the job and no one will tell him he can’t have it. Moreover, he can remain premier for a whole year before he must seek a mandate. In that time, he can do almost anything he wants, even if he does not call and win a byelection. Naturally, everyone is anxious to find out just what he plans to do with his unfettered power, but he’s not telling.
This is not how the system should work. A healthy democracy needs an informed citizenry, so it’s a terrible sign that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know so little about Coleman beyond that he’s a socially conservative businessman who seems to have left a few unpaid bills lying around. If the Progressive Conservatives had made sure to hold a real leadership convention before foisting another self-selected boss onto the province, the eventual winner of the contest would have been forced to state his positions and defend them in public debate. In failing to make this happen, the PCs failed to fulfil their responsibilities to protect and nurture the province’s democratic system.
Unfortunately, this might not be a problem as far as the Tories are concerned, but it is offensive to anyone who values the spirit and not just the form of democracy. Clearly, if the PCs had the electorate’s best interests in mind they would have sought to renew their mandate months ago, promptly choosing a new leader and calling a general election within a few weeks, instead of a year and a half. Perhaps they feared certain defeat and wanted to cling onto their unwarranted power for as long as possible. A cynical view, yes, but one supported by appearances.
Oddly, some PCs still seem optimistic, even as the party undercuts its own future. Coleman isn’t even officially the premier yet, but the government is already being forced to control damage he’s causing. For instance, the allegations that one of Coleman’s companies hasn’t paid deep debts in southern Labrador is no doubt hurting the party’s prospects in this part of the province, despite one Tory MHA’s attempts to claim full credit for the construction and paving of the Trans-Labrador Highway — Labradorians know the real credit goes to themselves, not to any political party.
But maybe the government doesn’t care if Coleman’s year of unbridled power ends with an electoral bloodbath. By then the disbursement of Newfoundland and Labrador’s public finances to private corporations will be well underway, with no one to stop it, since the current Liberal Opposition leader has already assured the business community that he intends to keep paying the rapidly escalating costs of building unnecessary dams in central Labrador. With that in mind, one might wonder what the PCs need of another full year in power. Why wait? They should call an election right away and accept their loss gracefully. After all, that would free them to follow Williams to one or another of the high-paying positions waiting for them in the private sector.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador