By Robert Sweeny
In December 2015, at the summit on climate change in Paris known as COP 21, Newfoundland and Labrador joined with the other provinces and the federal government in committing to “domestic mitigation measures” in order to limit global warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
By Oct. 5, 2016, with a historic vote in the Canadian House of Commons, sufficient countries had ratified the agreement for it to come into force 30 days later. This ambitious goal will require a sustained and government-wide effort for decades.
Our existing democratic customs and practices of regular elections, ministerial responsibility and question period when the House is in session are not well suited to monitoring this type of long-range, sweeping commitment. Nor would the oft-mooted idea of having sitting committees of the House, an admittedly excellent suggestion, be well suited to monitor government actions across a wide range of departments.
What is not open to question is that we failed to meet our target and, with the lowest minimum wage in the country, that is unlikely to change.
Over the past decade, we have experimented with a multi-departmental provincial strategy to reduce poverty, and its limited success suggests we would be better served by a more structured and independent approach.
Successive provincial governments have understandably committed themselves to reducing poverty, as Newfoundland for almost 60 years was the poorest province in Canada. In 2005, the government set a goal to achieve the lowest provincial poverty rates by 2015. A poverty-reduction strategy was developed to co-ordinate actions across differing departments.
Since then, poverty rates have declined. We are, by most measures, now in the middle of the pack. How much this limited improvement is the result of the extraordinary economic boom of 2005–12, which saw median incomes rise by 43 per cent, and how much is due to the provincial strategy, remains an open question.
What is not open to question is that we failed to meet our target and, with the lowest minimum wage in the country, that is unlikely to change. Furthermore, the most recent provincial economic indicators suggest that even this relative improvement might be temporary at best. The current government is planning for unemployment to skyrocket to one in five members of a significantly reduced active workforce by 2019.
In 2002, our neighbours in Quebec adopted a “Law to struggle against poverty and social exclusion,” which established an “observatory” to monitor government actions and a special consultative committee of the National Assembly. This was a first in North America, and it came about as result of an exceptional mobilization of civil society led largely by feminist and faith communities. This law has solved neither poverty nor social exclusion in Quebec. Government policies, however, are routinely scrutinized for their impact on these important problems. The result has been a much more informed and sustained public debate.
Quebec’s law draws on democratic traditions and customs, most notably the extra-parliamentary consultative processes known as les États généraux, which do not exist in English Canada. We do, however, have a respected and well-functioning institution that could serve as a model in monitoring our commitments to the environment and to equity.
Twice a year, the provincial and federal auditors general make headlines. Their reports are produced by officers of Parliament, rather than creatures of particular departments. Auditors general have historically limited their work to what might be described as cost/benefit analysis. Is the government spending our money efficiently? Sometimes, auditors general have even ventured to ask if governments are spending it wisely. These reports do not by themselves change government policy, for that is not their purpose. They do, however, draw our attention to problems that would otherwise go unacknowledged. In so doing, they enrich our democracy.
Why not create similar officers of the House of Assembly with specific mandates to report annually on our progress in meeting our environmental and equity commitments? The experience in Quebec shows that simply establishing good baseline data is difficult and yet so vital for healthy discussions of our progress in addressing ongoing problems — all the more so when we are dealing with an issue as complex as climate change. In order to ensure that these reports do not become a form of public relations, an arm’s-length relationship to government would clearly be desirable. Hence, the importance of them being officers of the House rather than serving at the whim of the premier.
Over time, as we become more familiar with the nature of these complex problems, we, as a democratic society, will be better able to refine these officers’ mandates. Keeping track of what our government is doing will not in itself resolve these issues. That will require, as it always has, political action. But surely action based on shared knowledge is better than acting out of ignorance.
About the Author
Robert Sweeny (History, Memorial University of Newfoundland) has taught at Memorial University since 1989, where he works on the history of capitalism. He has published extensively both in Canada and abroad. In 2016 he won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for the most significant contribution to understanding our past from the Canadian Historical Association and the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research.