Accountable, to a point

Russell Wangersky
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So here’s a question, and I don’t mean for it to be confrontational. When a politician talks about being “accountable,” what exactly are they talking about?

The dictionary definition, courtesy of Merriam-Webster, is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”

That seems simple enough. And we’ve just come from a provincial election where every politician seemed to be promising to be accountable.

The provincial Tories put it this way: “We will continue to demonstrate that our commitment to accountability is unwavering.”

They were far from the only ones making the promise.

Problem is, the wavering started the moment the election ended.

Take the provincial Liberals: they can’t even seem to find it within themselves to be accountable for their own electoral performance.

Listen to the radio and you’ll hear the endless bleating that their poor results were the fault of polling numbers reported by the media. Voters dropped Liberal candidates, the story goes, because polling numbers showed the Liberals in a weak third place.

What a slap in the face of voters that little canard is. Why? Because the message inherent in that logic is that voters don’t vote for candidates or policies, they only care about voting for whoever’s going to be on the winning side.

Accountable as a government? The Liberals can’t even manage accountability for their own electoral failings. Underfinanced, ill-prepared and stumbling — but pollsters and the media are the ones to blame. (I know — kicking the Liberals right now is as sporting as drowning puppies, but honestly, can’t they ever even begin to learn anything from their mistakes?)

Then there are the other parties.

The NDP? As yet in control of nothing, it’s hard to conceive of them being accountable for anything either. It’s like nudists arguing about the sartorial quality of their wardrobe selections.

Then there’s the Tories, committed accountabilists all the way. But maybe I’m looking at their commitment the wrong way.

Let’s parse their statement again — “We will continue to demonstrate that our commitment to accountability is unwavering” —  because perhaps I read it wrong.

It could be read to mean that the Tories have an unwavering commitment to the need for accountability.

At the same time, read literally,

it might mean that the Tories will continue to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to whatever level of accountability they think suits them. In other words, an unwavering commitment to whatever level of accountability they already have. Or don’t have.

Most likely, that’s the interpretation they’re using. The election was barely on the books before Premier Kathy Dunderdale announced that there wouldn’t be a fall session of the legislature, and that the new opposition won’t start asking questions in the House of Assembly until sometime next spring. (Nice work if you can get it.) Her argument? The legislature needs legislation, and there isn’t any drawn up yet. Guess our last round of legislators really did take the whole summer off.

Well, maybe the opposition could ask some questions in the House, so that the new, continued government of Kathy Dunderdale could be accountable for its decisions.

Not so fast. The premier doesn’t like the House.

“I don’t find it a place for a very healthy, open, constructive debate to start with,” Premier Dunderdale told the CBC.

“Most of my issues are around the quality of debate and the research and the fact that you can pretty well get up in the House of Assembly and say whatever it is you like. You don’t have to be concerned with truth.”

Keep the House closed, and you don’t even have to be concerned about questions. Or be accountable for answers.

And that was only the night of the election.

What about the day after?

Well, then Dunderdale told the CBC that there would be a debate in the House of Assembly about whether the Muskrat Falls project should proceed — but that, despite the debate, she didn’t see any need for having a vote on the project in the House.

What possible reason is there not to have a vote?

Presumably, with a healthy majority, any legislative vote would be a cakewalk: the opposition would bluster and find real or imagined fault and then vote against the project, so that the final vote would be 37-11 in favour.

The only reason you can possibly imagine for not holding a vote is so that no individual MHA has to answer to their constituents for how they voted. In other words, to defend their vote and — wait for it — be accountable.

One of the biggest projects in this province’s history, and Dunderdale doesn’t want to have anyone’s name attached to it.

Unwavering commitment, indeed.

But that’s just the silly old dictionary definition of what it is to be accountable.

It’s quite clear we’re dealing with something else again. Should be an interesting four years.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: CBC

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Recent comments

  • Scott Free
    October 17, 2011 - 11:41

    A total lack of accountability is a hallmark of that secret society known as the PC Party of NL; Premier Stunderdale learned well from her mentor, King Dan; he didn't want to be questioned about anything and threw a hissy fit if anyone had the audacity to question him. Same can be said for their Federal cousins, the Tories, or are they the Con Party now; or the Alliance, or, Reforms?

  • Cyril Rogers
    October 16, 2011 - 13:21

    Mr. are correct in that all of the parties have egg on their faces when it comes to accountability but the PC's are THE governing party and need to be held accountable for their inepitude and their obvious fear of reopening the House of Assembly. That act, in and of itself, should spark an unrelenting media response but I am very disappointed in the overall attitude of the St. John's media. I am not saying they are in bed with the Tories but they certainly have some way to go before they actually stand up to this government. From the early days of Danny's ascendancy to the throne, it has been obvious that the media have mostly tiptoed around the issues. Those who did either lost their voice or got shut down! Coincidence? Hardly! Did they fear the negative consequences of opposing the anointed one? Why now? Who do they fear at this point? The media have not been totally negligent in criticising the PC's but have been far more willing to attack the Opposition Parties, not without merit, but certainly not with the same vigor, when it comes to the Tories. Simply look at the actual numbers, in terms of votes cast, the actual level of support for the Tories, the number of people who did not even vote, and you have a crisis in our democracy. Ask yourselves why? Do you blame the opposition for that? They share some of the blame, to be sure, but the party in power has thrown up enormous roadblocks to democracy and they don't need a tentative media cheering them on. Next time you criticize the government, give the oppsoition a little reprieve, and focus on the party with the sheer numbers in the House and who, therefore, can actually do something about it!

  • Fintip
    October 15, 2011 - 13:59

    I believe that Dunderdale and her party were easily the best of the alternatives on offer. But I did not vote Tory. It is no reflection on the Tory candidate who, to the surprise of many, was not elected. My motivation was straightforward. Firstly I believe in the dictum that good opposition makes good government. Indeed there is something disturbing about the modern day view of opposition parties as the losers. Secondly I have long believed that the arrogance of governments is directly proportional to the size of their majorities. Modest majorities and especially minorities not only keep them humble but focused. It is not that I see Dunderdale as arrogant – quite the contrary - but only time will tell how she and her government handle their new found power. In particular, I am waiting to see how she deals with the Muskrat file. My hope is that she will see her new political security as an opportunity to revisit the basic assumptions, alternatives and potential pitfalls of the project. My fear is that she may see in the vote something that was not there - widespread public support for the largest public expenditure in our history. The latter interpretation would signal that the seeds of arrogance have already been sowed. Elsewhere in her government are more ominous signs of that arrogance. I am referring to the ungracious, ill-tempered post-election comments attributed to two Tory ministers intent, it seems, on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In true Smallwoodian fashion, it was in the nature of a warning if not threat to anyone who found guilty of having aided or abetted their political foes (in fairness Smallwood's threats usually came during - not after the election). Never mind that this real or imagined support for the enemy might have come from individuals who themselves were elected to some office or other (and who might therefore have been representing the interests of their own constituents), the two ministers obviously believe it is their royal prerogative to decide who shall be heard on matters of public interest and who shall not. I had thought that on sober reflection (and a kick up the keister rom their leader) they might have apologized by now. It seems not. Can the slippery slope be far off?

  • Shannon Reardon
    October 15, 2011 - 13:44

    Ultimate act of accountability? Opening the people's legislature. They are not doing this, so they fail. Big time.

  • A Plebisite should be held on Muskrat Falls
    October 15, 2011 - 12:45

    Premier Dunderdale should be put in her place and told that a vote on the Muskrat Falls Project has to be held, not only in the House of Assembly but in the whole province. The electorate of Newfoundland and Labrador should be given the right to vote on the Muskrat Falls Project, a Project, it seems, that is going to bring many years of economic hardships to our province before it will turn into a welcomed Project. In the meantime Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will see the benefits, not only from the development of the Project, but immediately from the energy that is produced. Premier Dunderdale should be making sure through a Plebisite that the people of our province want this deal . She could have done that through the general election that was just held, but, of course, that was too risky for her. Our province should receive economic benefits not only from the development of the project, but immediately at the point of sale of the hydroelectric energy to Nova Scotia and whichever other entity will be the customer. Do what is right Premier Dunderdale and put a vote to the entire population of our province. IT IS THE DEMOCRATIC THING TO DO. What we are being offered with the Premier's suggestion of a Debate in the House with No vote to the MHAs or the electorate is DICTATORIAL. It is the doings of a Dictator, our resource developments down through the years have been overseen by Dictators and not nice and humane politicians, who had their province and their subjects in mind to receive the good economics that were produced for the other areas. Sorry for my thoughts but they are the truth, the Carbon Footprints of our resource development is still as evident as the nose on our face.