Political science prof says there's a better way to gauge public opinion
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."
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