Life under the admiral’s rule

Russell Wangersky
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An advanced democracy we are not. Randy Simms delicately treads on this subject one page ago, suggesting that it’s time for a polite overhaul of our provincial House of Assembly.

Polite’s not good enough.

It’s time that, politically, we found some way to advance beyond the governance of the fishing admirals.

Before settlement was allowed in Newfoundland, the area had a fascinating system of governance: the first fishing captain to arrive for the summer fishing system was named the fishing admiral and was charged with mediating disputes and dishing out punishment for minor crimes.

It helped if it was a big ship with a large crew; might brought a fair bit of right, and justice was a uniquely personal decision for the admiral in power.

Now, we have a fishing admiral premier who rules for being first past the post in the latest provincial election season, after which he (or now she) rules the ship of state pretty much as they see fit.

It still helps to have a large crew, keeping the opposition small and on the run for the duration — but the crew of modern politicians, much like the crew of past fishermen, hold their jobs basically at the pleasure of the admiral.

In other words, they toe the line. They report not to their constituents, but first and foremost to their admiral.

And the admiral reports to no one, at least, not until the next election/fishing season.

As governments go, that really only suits one group of people: the admiral and crew.

It allows them to make their own decisions behind closed doors and without public review. It is nice work if you can get it, but in terms of running a modern, growing province with diverse needs and goals, it’s both antiquated and dangerous.

Why? Because it wastes the skills and talents of people who could be improving the province’s legislation, its dealings with business and its ability to avoid tragic unseen pitfalls.

It locks out good ideas, and pushes the consideration of legislation into a rush job laid out to meet the needs of those who govern, rather than those who are being governed.

This isn’t just about the fact that the current provincial government has simply decreed that there’s no need for the House of Assembly to sit — it’s also because the House of Assembly, as it works now, is little more than a unconsidering rubber-stamp for the government’s agenda.

The House, we’re told, would have nothing to do if it was brought back for  a fall session.

Admiral Kathy Dunderdale has said there’s no legislation to consider.

But why is the House only involved in the legislative end-game?

The provincial government has already talked about the need for fisheries restructuring; presumably, once the government decides how it wants to proceed, it will bring some sort of legislation to the House and the MHAs will debate it during a limited time-frame and then the process will conclude with a vote.

Why not start a little earlier and bring a motion before the House to discuss the concerns surrounding the impending fisheries rationalization? MHAs could raise the concerns from their particular parts of the province and all that information could be grist for the legislative mill.

It’s extremely hard to make one-size-fits-all changes to an industry as large and diverse as this province’s fishery — so far, the model seems to be to talk to the people involved, ask them for input, throw out their input and go your own way. Any legislation that comes out of the process will be complicated and dealt with in mere days by the House. If it’s dealt with in regulations, the provincial cabinet will make all the changes without the benefit of any second thought at all.

Why stop with the fishery?

Premier Dunderdale, with her own version of negative-option billing, has said she has yet to hear any reason not to move ahead with the Muskrat Falls project. To whom, exactly, is she listening?

She’s already said she’s willing to have Muskrat Falls debated (albeit without a vote on sanctioning the project, a piece of parliamentary sleight-of-hand that, frankly, seems impossible under current parliamentary rules. Perhaps admirals make their own parliamentary rules), so why not start that debate now, before the next piece of the contract is signed, sealed and delivered?

Why not give things the best consideration we can, rather than view opposition politicians and critics as enemies to be shouted down?

Presumably, everyone wants a better province and there clearly isn’t a monopoly on good ideas. Heck, the New Energy party of Admiral Dunderdale doesn’t have enough in the way of good ideas (or energy) to start on anything before next spring.

In Nova Scotia, a provincial natural resources committee is reviewing Emera’s involvement in the Muskrat Falls project. In this province? No committee. No review. Simply the admiral’s view of the lay of the land, however telescopic, microscopic or just plain myopic that view might be.

Other provinces have all-party committees that discuss all manner of public issues, ask for public input, call witnesses under oath and address issues of concern. They fine-tune legislation and deal with mistakes before they happen. They look at deals, ask questions and get answers.

Good luck to that happening here.


Because some day, a fishing admiral would have to willingly give up some of his or her own tight-

fisted control to ensure that the people of this province get the best governance possible. It hasn’t happened yet. What a concept: personal sacrifice for a greater good.

Here’s something to think about: one of the biggest problems with fishing admirals was that, first and foremost, they were concerned with delivering fish to their vessel owners — governing well was an afterthought.

Not that much has changed.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: House of Assembly.Polite, New Energy

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • William Daniels
    October 30, 2011 - 13:40

    Well said.

    October 29, 2011 - 23:36

    Mr. Wangersky wrote "It locks out good ideas, and pushes the consideration of legislation into a rush job laid out to meet the needs of those who govern, rather than those who are being governed". Mr. Wangersky you have written a great article here and please rest assured this is what is happening with the Muskrat Falls Project, again those who have ruled us over the past 15 years have their eyes on a legacy and millions of dollars of contracts in the development of that Project. I am sick of my province beng shafted ot of being the primary beneficiary of its natural resources over the past 62 years That type of skulduggery has to stop and we, the electorate, have to make damn sure that it is stopped right here at this juncture. The MUSKRAT FALLS PROJECT has to be stopped and redone under the watchful eyes of the people of the province.

  • Cyril Rogers
    October 29, 2011 - 17:55

    Well, Mr. Wangersky, I guess we could call this parliamentary debacle the "curse of the Fishing Admirals". It feels like we have regressed in terms of our democracy and our ability to participate in a meaningful way. Yes, it is true we can all vote but the message coming from high up on Confederayion Hill is that we don't really count and they always know what is best for us. Just like in the days of the fishing admirals!