People aren't showing up to make themselves heard

James McLeod
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Political science prof says there's a better way to gauge public opinion

The Telegram

What would happen if you held a public meeting and nobody showed up? It's not a hypothetical question; it happens all the time and it makes it awfully difficult for the government to craft public policy based on public opinions.

Memorial University political science professor Chris Dunn said this is something he's mulled over a fair bit.

He said it's difficult, because when the government is looking for public input, it tends to spring up out of the blue, in a different way and by different people for every issue.

Dunn said the government would benefit from a "democratic audit" to really look at how the public is invited into the process.

It's pretty clear that right now, things aren't working.

When Judge Jackie Brazil scheduled a public meeting to get opinions on how much politicians should get paid, she optimistically scheduled it to last two and a half hours.

But instead of running from 7 p.m. to 9:30, when nearly nobody showed up at the Holiday Inn in St. John's Monday, the whole thing wrapped up in well under 30 minutes.

Two people from the St. John's Board of Trade were there, but board chairman Steve Power explicitly said he didn't have any opinion on how much MHAs should get paid. He wanted to talk about how public sector pension plans are unsustainable, and he loosely tied it back to MHA compensation by saying that elected officials should "lead by example" and drastically restructure their pension scheme.

Apart from the gaggle of reporters that showed up and the Board of Trade folks, only one other person attended, and he sat at the back quietly and didn't voice an opinion.

It was a similar turnout on the west coast when Brazil held a public meeting in Corner Brook Thursday night. And in Goose Bay, only one person turned up.

It's not just how much MHAs get paid. When the government did consultations across the province on access to information and legislation, a grand total of 10 people turned out.

That round of largely apathetic consultation directly led to Bill 29 which greatly increased government secrecy and made large swaths of government documents off limits to public disclosure.

Despite a four-day filibuster and broad opposition to Bill 29, Justice Minister Felix Collins used the lack of public input as justification for making the changes.

"Isn't it possible that may mean people felt access to information legislation was working well in the province?" Collins said in the House of Assembly.

"If only 10 people showed up in eight hearings, obviously people could not have been too worried, too unhappy, or too concerned. In my view, that indicates satisfaction, not dissatisfaction."

Dunn said active standing committees of the House of Assembly - something the province does not have right now - would be a better way to get public opinions on the issues of the day.

"Manitoba has an all-purpose public involvement committee called the Legislative Amendments Committee which reviews most new legislation and gives a platform for public involvement," he said. "It's been relatively successful because the public realizes that this is a stage at which it can get involved."

But Dunn said it's abundantly clear that the lack of turnout at public meetings is not a simple matter of apathy. For proof of that, he said, all you have to do is tune into any of the province's open-line radio shows.

The Telegram requested an interview with Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy for this story, but he was unavailable to speak to The Telegram, but he provided an emailed statement.

"In the last several years, our government has increased its focus on engaging with the public on matters of importance to residents. In this fiscal year alone, we have conducted multiple consultations, on matters including forest management, a 10-year child care strategy, violence prevention and minimum wage," he said. "We will continue to look at ways in which participation can be encouraged. We value all contributions and encourage all who are interested to avail of the opportunities to provide feedback. In addition, residents do not need to wait for consultations to do so. They always have the avenue of contacting their local MHAs, Ministers, and government departments."

Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons said the problem may be about explaining to people why public consultations should be taken seriously.

"Maybe in some cases, it's because they don't think it's being taken seriously, or they don't think it's going to have any effect," he said. "We need to do a better job of explaining why this is important, why you should show up, what this could mean."

Parsons suggested that the government might want to look at Internet or social media to guage the people's sentiments when it comes to important issues.

But when the Labour Relations Agency tried an Internet poll to gauge feelings on whether to raise the minimum wage, it drew fire from New Democrat MHA Dale Kirby.

Kirby said that since it was anonymous and could be filled out as many times as a person wanted, it rendered the data effectively meaningless. He said using the Internet for consultations may be possible, but it would have to be done right.

But more broadly, Kirby blamed a lack of public interest on the government, and an overriding message that they don't respond to what people think.

"We have a premier who says, 'I don't care about public opinion polls,'" he said. "There's a real culture of dismissiveness in our government right now, and the good people of Newfoundland and Labrador are smart enough to recognize that." Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: St. John's Board of Trade, Holiday Inn, Legislative Amendments Committee Government House Labour Relations Agency

Geographic location: St. John's, Brazil, Corner Brook Goose Bay Manitoba Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • JIM
    October 01, 2012 - 08:54

    if i wanted to see clowns i would buy a ticket to the circus, besides you can go to a kindergarten class and get an straight/honest, and i repeat HONEST answer quicker then you could get from a politicain.

  • Steve
    October 01, 2012 - 08:01

    A couple of times, such as budget consultations and when they were developing their policy on aging (a farce anyway), I spent considerable time putting my thoughts together and sent them in. I never received so much as an e-mail acknowledging receipt. If you want people to participate, you have to give them some confidence that what they have sent in will actually be read and considered. Currently, in my experience, that is not the case. I won't be wasting my time in the future. Furthermore, if they want people to show up, say with Bill 29, they should do a second consultation with the draft bill. If they had the guts to do that, to get feedback on their actual plans rather than totally open ended, then you'd see real engagement. But we'll never see that.

  • fred
    October 01, 2012 - 07:04

    peolple have dismissed all things government...the idea of holding these public meetings is absurd...the only way this ever works is for chris dunne and the political science dept at mun to hold public meetings which by the way , are always well attended...the idea of politicians or government holding public meetings full of political people is a joke... five more years and the bulk of this city will retire...then people will vote with their feet!!..beware people....

  • Graham
    September 30, 2012 - 18:57

    No body is showing up because its all viewed a waist of time. They are going to do whatever they want anyway no matter what the pyblic says. Bill 29 KILLED DEWMOCRACY in this province so get use to it. Your stuck with this bunch until the next election so enjoy the Dunderdal dictatorship.

  • B Morgan
    September 30, 2012 - 18:03

    Maybe the reason people don't show up is because they realize it doesn't make a difference. When it comes down to it, the government will do what it wants to do, public opinion be damn!

  • Dwayne Cull
    September 30, 2012 - 12:54

    I guess people have finally smartened up to the charade government puts on that they WANT your opinion. NO they don't want your opinion, they only want to be able to say that they ASKED and what they decided was what the public told them. That's just BS...they do what they want and blame the public. i might be overly cynical but I've seen a lot of it over the years.

  • taxpayer
    September 30, 2012 - 12:42

    why would people show up? listen to a bunch of BS from politicians. corruption is corruption no matter how you look at it. i have better things to do then listen to a bunch of overpayed useless politicians go YAP YAP YAP.

  • Dwayne Cull
    September 30, 2012 - 12:28

    I guess people have finally smartened up to the charade government puts on that they WANT your opinion. NO they don't want your opinion, they only want to be able to say that they ASKED and what they decided was what the public told them. That's just BS...they do what they want and blame the public. i might be overly cynical but I've seen a lot of it over the years.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    September 30, 2012 - 11:35

    All too often there is not consultation in the truest sense of the term. Oftentimes what passes as consultation is a little more than a process whereby citizens are 'informed' rather than consulted. They are informed of what government has already decided to do. Muskrat Falls is a case in point. Having attended several of the Nalcor information/consultation sessions, I made the point that Nalcor/government should have first provided citizens with reasonably objective, comprehensive analyses of of all of the major options/issues surrounding the island's energy needs, with the advantages/disdavantages of each, possible recommended options, asked for public discussion/analysis/input, and then having inputted such public viewpoint/opinion into the process, only then have offered up one or more possible/likely options for PUB consideration. Such a template should be used for many such issues where real/meaningful public input/engagement could influence/improve the outcome.

  • Gerry
    September 30, 2012 - 11:23

    Of course we don't take our MHA's or MOP's seriously. Why the hell would we? We get individuals elected into office on certain promises, they get in & then do whatever the hell they want or vote whatever their party leader example, I'm originally from east of town. My father, uncles & other relatives were campaigning, erecting signs etc for an individual during the last federal election on the promise he would vote AGAINST the long gun registry. What did the individual do after getting elected? He voted FOR the long gun registry because that what the party leader told him to do. A lot of folks in my hometown said they'll tell said individaul to go to hell next election. But of course, the individual will probably have at least a grand total of SIX YEARS for a full pension; so why the hell would he-she care?....One federal politician got elected on the promise to squash the GST & the helicoptor replacement contract for 30+year old navy sea king choppers behing held together by spit, tape & scavaging. After getting elected, he renigged on getting rid of the GST but got rid of the helicopter replacementnt contract costing us, the taxpayer, $500,000,000.. I personally blame this politician for any deaths & injuries after the contract cancellation because of the aging sea king helicopter; ...his right hand man got the country out of debt due to him & his party''s 'fiscal management & responsibility'. This after said party quietly 'expropiated' about 30 BILLON dollars from the military, RCMP pension fund ...there are talk of town councils on the Avalon RAISING their tax rate by 40, 50 % and MORE...sweetgermanjesus, if your'e making 6 figure salares you could probaly afford this with some grumbling. But I hear of folks whose family have been on the same piece of ground for a century or more who are contemplating about selling because they can no longer afford to 'own' land. Something is wrong with our politician system & so-called 'leaders'... Take our MHA's-politicians seriously?... We, the majority, the middle & lower class have better things to do with our time; like trying to keep our children fed & our head above water. Politicians, judges, etc, wake up.

  • DON II
    September 30, 2012 - 11:17

    I agree that there is a culture of dismissiveness inside the Government of Newfoundland. It appears that there is a culture of information distortion and suppression at work inside the Government. These Clowns won't even reply to e-mails, letters, telephone call messages or even acknowledge that they received your letter. Their research is substandard and their conclusions are usually incorrect. Are they lazy or just don't care what the facts are or what anybody else thinks? The arrogance and a know it all mentality pervades the Government of Newfoundland from top to bottom. It appears that these so called experts are incompetent beyond belief and they don't want to prove it by putting pen to paper that somebody might obtain and challenge them about! These are the same rocket scientists who jumped when Danny said EXPROPRIATE and they did so without knowing what they were doing and without any due diligence being done. They expropriated the environmentally contaminated Abitibi Mill without any reason to do so and now have a multi-Million dollar liability to clean up the environmental mess they expropriated. They expropriated private property in Cupids because somebody thought it was the site of the famous Cuper's Cove Plantation. It turned out that historic documents and maps show that Cupids is NOT the site of Cuper's Cove at all. What did the Government do to try to cover its backside? They designated the site in Cupids as the "Cupids Cove Provincial Historic Site" and are actively promoting it to bus loads of school kids and come from away tourists as a real historic site. It turned out that there is NO mention of any place called the Cupids Cove Plantation in the entire historical record of NEWFOUNDLAND! The Government created an historic site to commemorate a place that is NEVER mentioned in Newfoundland history! What a joke! A Government MHA apparently stated that aboriginal concerns about the possible destruction of spiritual sites and ancient burial grounds which may exist at the Muskrat Falls project site was "Mumbo Jumbo"! It appears that the Government is violating the requirements of the Historic Resources Act by constructing roads and power line easements at Muskrat Falls without prior extensive archaeological investigation of the site! It appears that the Government of Newfoundland is secretive, unethical, opaque, arrogant, dissembling and corrupt because it has a lot to cover up and keep hidden from the people. Serious changes to the way Government operates in Newfoundland and Labrador is long overdue. To date, the media and opposition parties have not been doing a good job of exposing the rot inside the Government and informing the people that they are being seriously misled. It appears that some members of the media are on board with the Government to keep people in the dark. Why would they do that? It appears that there is a burning desire among some of the local media that they may go from being an over worked and underpaid reporter to being a well looked after Communications Director at the Ministry of Misinformation inside the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Some think that is great work if you can get it. It appears that all you need to do is report, without research or investigation, whatever the Government wants the people to hear and you are on the short list for those Communications Director jobs!