Political myth-busting

MUN profs discuss widely accepted ‘facts’

Dave Bartlett talkingtelevision@gmail.com
Published on February 19, 2011
Politicians celebrate the signing of a new Atlantic Accord in January 2005: (from left) provincial finance minister Loyola Sullivan, premier Danny Williams, prime minister Paul Martin and federal Natural Resources minister John Efford. — File photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

Part two in a two-part series

They don’t feature dragons or minotaurs, but the province certainly has its share of political myths.

In last Saturday’s Telegram, Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby talked about how Memorial University’s political science program has gone through a renewal in recent years and about some of the research the department has undertaken.

They’re two of a cadre of new professors hired in the last five years or so.

Marland and Kerby also discussed some of the accepted — but not necessarily factual — beliefs in this province’s political culture, which they’ve discovered through their research and by observing local politics.

“What bothers me about Newfoundland politics is, the more I research … the more I realize that things (are) repeated, and it’s not necessarily always for good reasons,” said Marland.

“For me, the biggest concern is the amount of trust and faith Newfoundlanders and Labradorians put in their political leaders, and I don’t think it’s warranted.”

Marland said it would be better if people were better informed.

“It’s a lot easier to put all your faith into one charismatic politician and say that person’s going to fight and represent my interests rather than me have to scrutinize all these things,” he said.

Marland said that’s not uncommon outside this province, either.

But he points to the House of Assembly spending scandal a few years ago as an example of what happens when people don’t hold their elected officials more account­able.

The province’s fervent sense of nationalism is another reason why some political myths exits, Marland said.

“Nationalists will keep saying things that advocate their points of view and they will conveniently ignore things that don’t. And so what happens is you start hearing it enough times and then people start believing it,” he said.

Marland gives three examples of that.

One, that the pro­vince would be better off if it didn’t join Canada in 1949. Two, the reason for the collapse of the fishery, and three, that it’s not the pro­vince’s fault it was ripped off by the Upper Churchill agreement.

Alhough the province has plenty of natural resources, the first myth ignores the fact that Newfoundland was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time of Confederation.

On both the fishery and the Upper Churchill, Marland said people like to lay the blame on Ottawa, Quebec or foreigners — what Kerby calls the “convenient other.”

“You have to question the feds, you have to push, I agree with that,” said Marland.

“But you also have to accept responsibility. As (John) Crosbie said, ‘I didn’t take the fish out of the God damned water.’”

Marland said politicians know these things, but they also know how people will react to them.

So, these issues are often used for political advantage.

“And so what politians do is, they say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s big bad Ottawa, it’s Big Oil.’ It’s always somebody else,” he said.

Speaking out about these and other sensitive issues can get people — including opposition politicians — branded as traitors.

“You can’t say anything potentially objective if it potentially harms the interests of the local polity, including in the media,” said Marland.

That’s a problem, because it limits political discussion.

Kerby added that it’s tough to challenge some of the biggest political myths in the province because people can get quite upset.

“If you start challenging those core myths that people believe in … the hairs on the back of their neck really start to rise,” he said.

It’s often said that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are some of the most politically aware people in the country.

“It’s easy to be aware of politics in a small polity,” said Kerby.

“The entire population of this province is the size of the neighbourhood I grew up in in Montreal.”

But both agree awareness and understanding aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Kerby said the importance of the fishery is inflated in many countries, as far as its contribution to gross domestic product goes, and this province is no exception.

He said while the fishery contributes, it’s also heavily subsidized.

“On their own, fisheries have a very difficult time surviving as private entities,” said Kerby.

It’s the same for the seal hunt, he adds.

But Kerby acknowledged the hunt has become about something bigger — the province’s sense of nationalism.

An attack on the hunt has become an attack on the province’s culture.

Marland lists two of what he views are the biggest myths in this province.

“This idea that an independent Newfoundland would be very successful. I mean, it’s rubbish,” he said. “I don’t have any evidence to suggest to me that this is a plausible scenario. And there’s a small number of people who somehow think that.”

He tells his students the province might have been independently successful if it didn’t have Newfoundland politicians.

“Newfoundland politicians … haven’t shown that they’re able to do a good enough job to be able to manage things when they’re part of something else. Why should we think that they’ll be able to do things exceptionally well when all of a sudden there’s a level of independence?” he asked.

The other myth that bothers Marland is that the government can save rural Newfoundland.

“The reason for settlement has vanished. The reason for people living in all these small communities no longer exists,” he said.

Marland realizes it would be political suicide for a politician to say such a thing.

But that myth also relates to another, he said: that the government exists to solve all the people’s problems.

 

dbartlett@thetelegram.com

Part 1 of this series ran Feb. 12.