Leaving the bad behaviour behind

Russell Wangersky
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Perhaps trying to take advantage of the slow news period between Christmas and New Year’s, the provincial government began trundling out its “look-how-good-we-were” in 2012 news releases.

There were enough of them already by Thursday that you had to imagine that there was some sort

of structured program of release: there was “Residents Benefit from Improved and Expanded Government Services,” and “Significant Justice Priorities Addressed in 2012,” “Child, Youth and Family Services Achieves Key Milestones in 2012,” and “Newfoundland and Labrador Makes Significant Reductions in Wait Times.”

While I was writing this, in rolled “Provincial Mining Industry Continues to be Multibillion Economic Powerhouse in Newfoundland and Labrador,” “Social and Economic Well-Being of Aboriginal Peoples Remains a Priority in 2012,”  “Provincial Social Housing Plan Advanced, Homes Created in 2012” and “Service NL Continues to Enhance Consumer Protection.”

A bit of partisan horn-blowing, for sure, but fair enough — at least, in amongst its other successes, the provincial Justice Department didn’t try to claim once again that Bill 29, which restricts access to information in this province, has in some way “improved” the act.

No doubt, the news releases will continue — the self-proclaimed success stories will make up the bulk of information provided by an otherwise restful holidaying government.

But if the tactical release of information shows anything, it’s that Kathy Dunderdale’s government is at least capable of managing a cross-departmental strategy — that it can, if it wants to, make a cohesive plan and push it through across several branches of government.

That’s heartening, because it suggests the government can at least conceive of a plan whereby all government departments pull in the same direction — and if it can be done for government departments, well, maybe it can be done for caucuses as well.

As we head towards the new year, here’s an interesting thought: maybe the government could take a break from its united look backward and spend a few minutes planning a united move forward. 

And what the heck: maybe the opposition caucuses could do the same.

We’ve just come out of a House of Assembly filibuster where members  from all parties showed just how childish and small-minded they can be. There were accusations and innuendo tossed across the House that would have ended up in fistfights or libel actions if they had been repeated outside the House. There was clear sexism and bullying, and snide behaviour that would be justification for firings or at least discipline in any other workplace in the province.

Sure, they were tired. Sure, everybody was battling with cheap shots — but, boy, did that “debate” show the tenor of what our elected MHAs were willing to stoop to.And none of it will make things better.

When you spend every question period denouncing your political opponents as idiots and fools, you’re unlikely to stop and consider that some of their suggestions for improvement might have merit.

You’re not going to take advice from someone who’s been catcalling you for weeks, someone whose cheap shots are hidden from the public ear because Hansard, the record of the House of Assembly, hides the bullying and naked abuse that’s now typical of our assembly.

Why would you want to send a complex piece of legislation to a legislative committee, if that committee is made up of people you’ve come to despise?

What seems to have been forgotten is that, in one important way, everyone in the House is the same: each member was elected by the voters in their district because those voters thought a particular candidate had the most to offer.

It’s time to start offering it.

And it’s time our legislators let go of personal grudges and started focusing on the ball — making the best possible legislation and decisions for the province and letting everyone play the role they were elected to play.

This may sound like I’m coming down more heavily on the Dunderdale government than I am on the opposition.

I am.

That’s because the government holds most of the power, and if the premier were to make a concerted effort to rein in her own caucus — to the point of removing abusive MHAs like Keith Russell from the caucus — she’d start the House of Assembly down a road that the opposition could not refuse to follow.

It would mean turning the other cheek a few times — but the opposition, if it continued the cheap-shot parade, would only end up looking foolish.

It’s funny: the moment you start suggesting changes like this, what you hear first is “That’s the way governments have always acted in this province,” or “It’s always been this nasty.”

Well, that’s a bad argument.

It’s a little like saying we don’t have to do anything because “Concussions and brain damage have always been a part of hockey and football,” or “Bullying has gone on in high schools for years.”

Doing something badly for years is not a good argument for continuing with the same mistakes.

Always playing the abusive partisan card may be simpler — but it should also make MHAs stop occasionally, look inside themselves and ask if delivering schoolyard putdowns is really what they got into politics for.

For all MHAs, it should come down to answer a simple question: who do you work for first?

Your party, or your province and the people who elected you?

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Improved and Expanded Government Services, Youth and Family Services Achieves Key Milestones, Justice Department

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    January 06, 2013 - 09:11

    G.K. Chesterton remarked that a major flaw in our system of "representative government" is that the plan for it was drawn up by men of leisure, who had as much time for politics as politicians do, while the truth about the more ordinary citizen is that he needs "eight hours work and eight hours play" and is not inclined to "impeach politicians as a substitute for sleep."

  • wavy
    December 29, 2012 - 09:58

    Russell, you touched on something there near the end of your article that I found fascinating when you asked if delivering schoolyard putdowns is really what MHAs got into politics for. I wonder if any of them have ever been asked the question why, exactly, did you choose to get involved in politics in the first place? What, specifically, motivated you to seek public office and what, specifically, did you hope to achieve once elected? Perhaps a new spin on the "20 Questions" concept; one question asked of 20 MHAs. I'd be interested to hear (some of) their responses. I think it would be an interesting and revealing conversation, to say the least. That is, if you could actually get an honest, thoughtful answer and not just some lazy, knee-jerk, rehearsed, politically correct spew of verbal diarrhea and lies about wanting to "serve the people" or "make a difference". I've said it before and I'll say it again: politicians will continue to act the way they do until we, the people who put them in power, collectively start demanding better from them and holding them accountable. Like children, they will not modify their behaviour until we give them motivation, either positive or negative, to do so.

  • Ken Collis
    December 29, 2012 - 09:46

    Sorry Russell, but the government only works for big business with a few paltary laws passed to actually help the population. These laws only get passed because they have no benefit to business so they allow it to go ahead.

    • Willy
      December 29, 2012 - 17:41

      Russell knows that but chooses not to put these types of stories in The Telegram because he is part of the same hypocrisy..

  • shirley
    December 29, 2012 - 08:32

    I won't hold my breath for politicians (municipal, provincial and federal) to listen to those they are supposed to be working for, those that elected them. In an article a week ago the head of the NL Municipalities clique, Churance Rogers, summed up what it is municipal politicians in the province are doing. He basically said that municipal politicians are dreaming of giving taxpayers what they deserve. He didnt go into detail but he tried to throw water on the fire that is brewing becsuse of the tax grab that most muncipalaties have been manufacturing over the last 2 or 3 years. In some case the tax hike over the last 3 years has been as high as 60%.. One case of exorbitant unnecessary spending.... Portugal Cove St Phillips town council are planning to build a community center at a cost of Twenty Five Million Dollars! The town population is just under 7400 so that puts the cost at about $3400 per household. No wonder property taxes have increased by about 30% in just 2 years. Council will tell you that the province is chipping in as well but then, where does the province get its $ from? Taxpayers of course. My point? Municipal, provincial and federal politicians fight with each other about who should tax whom but in the end all 3 of them dig deeper and deeper into our wallets! When will it stop? NEVER of course!