What if you had a party and nobody came? That’s the problem for the Members Compensation Review Committee, which was supposed to have a two-and-a-half-hour public meeting where citizens could discuss the possibility of changes to the pay, benefits and pensions of members of the House of Assembly.
Instead, the meeting in St. John’s lasted only 10 minutes, and the sole committee member, Judge Jaqueline Brazil, closed out the evening without hearing from even one member of the public — because only representatives of the St. John’s Board of Trade showed up to comment.
And it’s not only members’ compensation where the public is showing a decided disinterest. Two years ago, public hearings into changes in the province’s freedom of information legislation were overwhelmingly dominated not by the public, but by provincial civil servants requesting that the act be tightened up. The public was pretty much a no-show.
“I was disappointed in the lack of response to the public hearing sessions. In total, I heard from approximately 10 members of the general public,” review commissioner John Cummings wrote in his report recommending broad-based tightening-up of access.
What can you take from the lack of attendance?
The best thing you can hope for is that the message didn’t get out — that, despite news stories and advertising, the public just wasn’t aware that they had an opportunity to speak and, hopefully, be heard.
Unfortunately, that’s probably not the whole story, which means the public feels disengaged from the process. The first Internet comment posted on our news story about the poor turnout was: “What difference would it make, this government is doing what it wants anyway!!!”
It’s sad that the public is not even bothering to address an issue like compensation for politicians, especially because this regular public review of MHA benefits springs from the cesspool that was the constituency allowance scandal.
Maybe, in some way, it all sounds like good news for the government: if the public can’t even be bothered to offer up its opinions, then who can argue with the government simply going ahead with whatever plan it feels is in the province’s best interests? Nobody cares, so fill your boots.
But that’s only a short-term option — perhaps as little as a one-term freebie.
Public disengagement is not just the fault of the electorate, it’s the fault of a government that either fails to provoke the interest of its citizens, or else has, by its own actions, conditioned the electorate to believe their voices don’t matter or will not be heard.
Eventually, a different politician or party will engage and involve the public.
And when that happens, there’s a very real chance the electoral decks will be swept clean.
If you have a party and no one shows up, it usually isn’t because everybody likes you a lot.