There’s a metaphor about change that often springs to mind.
Take a frog and put it in a pot of boiling water. It will immediately leap out. Put it in a pot of lukewarm water and it will stay. Gradually increase the heat, and it will adapt. By the time it realizes the water is too hot, the frog is too sluggish to hop to safety.
I think a lot of us have become sluggish. Some unsettling changes have taken place in the past 10 years, yet we continue to adapt, or shrug them off as minor aberrations.
Here’s an example.
John Furlong, filling in Monday as host of CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show, spoke to novice MHAs about next week’s opening of the legislature.
He began with a question to Tory MHA Paul Lane (Mount Pearl South).
“Will you be relieved … that you can put behind you this pressure to respond to critics who say the House should have been open sooner than this?”
Lane begged the question.
“I think that the government made the decision not to open the House, and that was certainly their decision to make.”
Furlong pushed further, and Lane continued to deflect.
“People are always going to criticize the government. … I think most of it has been coming from the opposition parties, but, you know, that’s fine; they have their right to criticize — that’s their role.”
Then, this zinger: “But we have the government of the province. I think we’ve been doing a good job of it so far.”
Now, Lane has no monopoly on avoiding questions or missing the point. But his responses raise disturbing issues, not the least of them being that neither Lane, nor other Tory members, seems to think the House of Assembly is a necessary accoutrement of our democracy.
A parliamentary system, in other words, without a parliament.
The evolution of this mindset has been gradual. Former premier Danny Williams began trimming sessions many years ago. The trend was reported and commented on, but rarely gained much public traction. Besides, session lengths have historically varied widely.
The implied message, however, has slowly seeped in: the House has become irrelevant. And it hasn’t helped that debate is increasingly mired in childish hectoring.
Furthermore, blurring the line between the ruling party and the government is not unique to this province. Just as the Harper Conservative brand has crept into core federal documents, this provincial administration has been rife with “Williams government,” “Dunderdale government” and similar partisan language.
In truth, this is not the Dunderdale government. It is the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. The majority party may hold executive power, but the House of Assembly belongs to the people, and all MHAs have the right and the duty to debate and discuss the government’s business within its walls.
The House last adjourned on Sept. 19, 2011. It opens again with a throne speech on Monday. That means it will have been closed for almost six months. The sole chamber representing the voice of the people — shuttered for half the year.
Not that long ago, this would be unthinkable. But the slow simmer has become a rolling boil. And that’s where we find ourselves today.
It calls for nothing less than legislation to set minimum fall and spring sessions. And if Premier Dunderdale is too blinded by her own hubris to see the absurdity of an empty legislature, then it’s up to another leader to make it an election issue.
Else, I fear, we frogs are perilously close to being fricasseed.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.