Monday, March 9, 2009

The Long View

Since I've spent a few posts looking at the (humourous) short-term, I thought it would be useful to pause and consider the long-term.

The most frequent argument made in favour of DW is his poll numbers. Day after day, week after week, the polling claim is trotted out to justify just about anything. As one email correspondent put it to me earlier today, DW has poll numbers like Obama's. I tried to point out that this isn't really true, but let's leave the twisted game of poll-goosing and media manipulation to one side for now. Instead, let's place Dangovt in its larger context.

The longue durée of modern liberal democray in NL began in 1949. We can argue about the franchise and all sorts of constitutional minutiae, but the fact remains that the current incarnation of Newfoundland democracy began with Joey Smallwood, and it has developed through four discrete periods:
1) Liberals, 1949-1972
2) Tories, 1972-1989
3) Liberals, 1989-2003
4) Tories, 2003-present

What are the patterns? The most obvious is that power in NL has alternated between the two dominant parties, which, until DW, have held power for extended periods. After the fall of Joey, the Tories and Liberals were in office for 17 and 14 years, respectively.

Part of the explanation for this pattern is the relative weakness of third parties and the cyclical trend towards bandwagon movements that emerge in response to the perceived corruption/atrophy of the ruling regime. The watershed votes in 1972, 1989, and 2003 were not so much about the strength of the opposition as the weakness of the governing regime. The bandwagon trend in NL politics means that during the heyday of each Party's reign (such as the one DW is currently enjoying), the perceived popularity of the ruling government was due in large measure to the inability of the other party to attract strong candidates, generate positive media attention, or raise funds for election campaigns. As a result, the pattern has been for ruling parties to rot from within before they are finally defeated at the polls.

In each case, accusations of tyranny, corruption, and incompetence snowballed into a larger movement which, fueled by a vigorous newspaper press, formed a coalition of interests that demanded change at all costs. Despite claims that Newfoundland nationalism is a new, DW-inspired phenomenon, nationalism (which is different from separatism, despite the popular conflation) has played a role in NL politics since 1949.

After Joey's fall, a series of premiers placed themselves at the centre of national/provincial struggles that dominated their tenure: Peckford (Offshore oil war), Wells (Meech Lake war), Tobin (Turbot war), Grimes (aborted Terms of Union war), and Williams (Equalization war). Despite DW's claims that 2003 is Year One, it is a phase in a much longer history of political conflict that has, invariably, involved battles with Ottawa, nationalist rhetoric, and (in the late stages of each party's reign) intense media focus on scandals.

Nonetheless, Dangovt has brought changes that have broken with NL's political past. No other regime has so effectively manipulated the media and public opinion. This is partly due to changes in local media (one wonders how DW would fare if he, like Peckford, had to face the Sunday Express each week!), and partly due to the unprecedented resources that Dangovt has poured into PR.

No other premier since Joey has had such a weak cabinet. As a result, to an extent not seen since the 1960s, NL is experiencing rule via personal fiat. No other premier, Joey included, has been as reckless as DW. No other premier, Peckford included, has inflated expectations so high or blurred the province's economic and demographic realities so much. No one since Joey has attempted to re-make the political culture so radically or to brand an entire province in his own image. (Grimes's flirtation with nationalist rhetoric was not part of a sustained policy but rather a symptom of his weak position in the aftermath of the Liberal civil war that followed his convention victory.)

By hauling down the Canadian flag, DW signaled a new era in NL political history. By attacking the very symbol of the country, he served notice that his battle was with Canada, not the federal government. There were countless alternative options that DW could have employed during his negotiations with Paul Martin -- there were numerous ways he could have protested against the federal Liberal Party -- but rather than focusing on the Liberal Party or even Martin himself, DW targetted a nonpartisan symbol: the Canadian flag. It is hard to imagine a greater hypocrisy than taking down your country's flag and then calling your critics traitors.

DW has been very lucky. He had the luck to inherit not only Voisey's Bay and Hibernia but, more importantly, a coincidental rise in oil prices. He had the luck to inherit an opposition party in total disarray. He had the luck to face Harper, a highly polarizing prime minister. And he had the luck to face a media tamed by cutbacks and the decline of the traditional newspapers industry.

So the prediction? The end of Dangovt is not yet in sight. DW's luck has been slipping lately in the face of a series of problems: the debacle at MUN; the severe health care crisis; the lack of a Churchill Falls deal; the crisis in the pulp & paper industry, et cetera. DW faces a fiscal crisis of his own making and an absolutely dysfunctional relationship with Ottawa. But he faces no fatal threat to his rule in the short- or even medium-term.

However, although it remains a relatively minor problem for DW right now, at some point in the future the failures of democratic governance will come back to haunt him: the political witch-hunts, the vendettas, the smear campaigns against "traitors," blocking freedom of information requests, blocking opposition party funding, the absence of ministerial accountability, the lack of respect for the House of Assembly. At some point the miasma will begin to lift. You could feel some of the air seep out of the governing balloon at the beginning of last week, as public anger grew over the fact that Wiseman remained in office, despite the Cameron Report. The eruption of Baker's Curious Circus provided a highly convenient diversion but, before too long, questions of democratic governance will return.

Like his predecessors, DW's fall will not be sudden. Nor will it occur as a result of federal-provincial battles. As I have said before, the ABC games and their successors serve the interests of DW, not NL, and one of the principal interests they serve is to keep Newfoundlanders distracted from the shortcomings of Dangovt. Nonetheless, Peter Whittle got one thing right when he wrote, "You can only kick a dog around so much before it bites you!" He just seems to be unaware of who is actually kicking whom:

The demise of Dangovt will happen when the Liberals finally manage to re-group. It will happen when they build a larger movement to rally around grievances concerning education, the fishery, health care, and fiscal mismanagement, et cetera. It will happen when the public gets exhausted of the endless wars and crises, the bombast and the bullying.

But in the final analysis, the end of Dangovt will come only when the truth is told. DW is not endowed with superhero powers. He does not represent the hearts and souls of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. And his interests are not necessarily our interests, despite his claims to the contrary:

It will happen when people start to say 2+2=4.

Supplemental Reading Update:
In addition to Bond Papers, Geoff Meeker, and other online sources that have taken a critical look at polling, there have been studies of using polls to manufacture consent:

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