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Democracy Cookbook: Defensive expansionism in Newfoundland and Labrador

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook

By Stephen Tomblin

 

Border defence guided by populist rhetoric, more a product of executive capacity and autonomy than of good policy practice, has become a salient issue with Brexit and recent calls for building walls in North America, but it can also be connected to the Muskrat Falls “boondoggle.”

 

Stephen Tomblin
Stephen Tomblin

 

In Canada, building energy walls has a long history and is closely connected to province-building. Yet, as discussed recently by Matt Wilder and Michael Howlett, despite earlier scholarly enthusiasm for understanding the pros and cons of province-building border defensive actions, such initiatives have, for the most part, fallen off the radar.

 

It is time to refocus on the concept of province-building in Newfoundland and Labrador in light of the Muskrat Falls controversy. It matters that the executive branch was able to push such a controversial, risky project while constraining public debate.

Province-building, with the decision to build hydro energy infrastructure for purposes of defending/promoting the territorial-jurisdictional interests of premiers despite high costs and policy risks, remains a common practice, even a core value in Canadian federalism. Yet, it has not received sufficient attention in the Newfoundland and Labrador energy discourse. The primary objective here is to focus more on the challenges of executive power and how this has undermined effective energy governance and public policy. It seems Premier Danny Williams, and multiple premiers who inherited the Muskrat Falls hydro project, were more concerned with territorial-jurisdictional battles than developing the most efficient, cost-effective form of energy production.

At first, Muskrat Falls proved popular under the leadership of Premier Danny Williams. But popularity did not make for good policy.

The combination of a cabinet-parliamentary and federal system, where provincial governments own energy as well as natural resources and enjoy much autonomy and capacity, has reinforced a pattern of decision-making that is, by design, outside the reach of the public. Goals of territorial boundary defence have remained key priorities as opposed to facilitating policy discussions focused on the functional needs of citizens. The territorial brand of pluralism that exists in Canada (inherited by Danny Williams) is designed to manufacture well-crafted products (whether societies, patterns of communication or physical infrastructure) critical to the survival of province-building. The literature is full of examples of provincial governments working in isolation and constraining knowledge with the clear goal of defending and promoting their territorial-jurisdictional interests first and foremost. Citizens in such a system are, by design, merely spectators.

Problems created for democracy, governance and public policy are connected to the autonomy and capacity enjoyed by the executive branch. In this light, the Muskrat Falls debacle can be viewed as a product of executive domination. Lack of policy debate and oversight is common since the executive controls information flow, the role of the legislature and oversight agencies, such as public utility boards. At first, Muskrat Falls proved popular under the leadership of Premier Danny Williams. But popularity did not make for good policy.

There has been a history of these kinds of concerted efforts to control information flow when it comes to building physical infrastructure and promoting the territorial-jurisdictional goals of provincial community building. What are the solutions?

To a great extent these are well known, but the strength and control of the executive branch make reform difficult. Even faced with policy failure and political crisis, it has been difficult to reform powerful executive-dominated systems designed to sidestep goals of democracy, governance and evidence-informed public policy.

What can be done? First, Newfoundland and Labrador needs to find ways to be better plugged in south of the border. Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and other jurisdictions have invested in infrastructure (for example, office space) in key U.S. locations. Knowledge is power, and our province has been too isolated when it comes to identifying and filling critical knowledge gaps on U.S. market conditions and policy regulatory traditions. As a result, there was and is little understanding of the shale gas revolution, infrastructural challenges and U.S. policy trends.

Second, executive decision-makers need to question the merits of risky sabre-rattling behaviour that compromises democracy, national unity, governance and evidence-informed policy choices that the public pays for. The building of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project based on territorial-jurisdictional objectives was not a wise policy choice, but it was popular within a competitive province-centred federal system. In response, more attention should be placed on adopting a more citizen-centred approach to improving federal governance and working together more collaboratively across systems.

We also need to embrace recent efforts of the prime minister to strengthen pan-Canadian intrastate mechanisms and processes.

Finally, within the province, new forms of communication and evidence-gathering are required. Ending the executive domination and manipulation of knowledge construction requires opening up democracy, strengthening the role of the House of Assembly and its committees, and increasing oversight of the public utilities and other agencies. Finding ways to reconnect with communities and to engage community knowledge should also be more of a priority.

Finally, as in Europe, there must be a focus on facilitating dialogue across systems, so, for example, regional communities in our province could share information and create a dialogue with other regional communities in other provinces and states.

 

About the Author

Stephen Tomblin (Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland) has published widely in various areas of public policy and governance. This includes research on regionalization dealing with economic development, continentalism and other cross-border issues, and research about health restructuring developments, including efforts to devolve power on a regional basis.

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