The argument for a free vote legislative system

Published on August 3, 2013

By John Ryall The contemporary political situation in Newfoundland and Labrador is simultaneously frustrating and hopeful. Our current provincial PC government has plummeted in popularity, pertinent to the arrogant, condescending and non-transparent way they have governed since the last provincial election. This PC government maligned Liberal MHA Jim Bennett for leaving a message on Minister Joan Shea’s office phone that a cancer patient in her district was being ignored and Jim Bennett was being ignored for raising her plight. The PC government distorted Bennett’s remarks as being threatening because he sounded frustrated and claimed he might have no choice but to raise the issue on open line shows. The PC government deliberately withheld the issue until International Women’s day 2012, which was clearly a manipulative attempt to convey that a female minister felt threatened in order to circumvent that this PC government was being apathetic to a cancer patient and inhospitable to any constructive criticism. This PC government also refuted calls for a public inquiry pertinent to the slow search and rescue response in the tragic death of young Burton Winters, which also seems to reflect a lack of moral government accountability. Shortly before the legislative presentation of the Muskrat Falls proposed development this PC government implemented Bill 29. This bill has been berated by the opposition, legal experts and the overwhelming majority of the general public. Bill 29 permits Ministerial briefings to be kept secret, and permits the government to refute requests for information if they are biased against the requestor, or what is being requested. Liberal MHA Dwight Ball has insightfully pledged to abolish Bill 29 if he leads an elected Liberal government and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael orchestrated a brave legislative filibuster against Bill 29 last year. Recently our PC Premier Kathy Dunderdale travelled to China in an attempt to extrapolate investment in our oil industry. As Dunderdale represented our province in one of the worst human rights abusing nations in history she made no public mention of China’s morally reprehensible human rights record and illegal occupation of Tibet. However, Dunderdale does not have a monopoly upon this apathy because in 1999 our then-premier Brian Tobin welcomed then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongzi, and ignored China’s reprehensible human rights record. The contemporary PC government also does not have a monopoly for disrespecting democracy. In 2005, the Danny Williams administration expelled PC MHA Fabian Manning from caucus because he publically criticized the way his government mismanaged the crab fishery. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the then provincial Liberal governments pressured party members who criticized the welcome of Zhu Rongzi that they could not promote social activist causes if they conflicted with party policy. At the 2002 provincial Liberal AGM Liberal delegates proposing a free-vote legislative system were denied the right to a rebuttal after Liberal ministers opposed the resolution because Liberal ministers claimed that they could not recall any time when members of the opposition had voted in favour of government legislation. Incidentally, in 1988 when the Brian Peckford administration ratified the Meech Lake Accord, Liberal MHA Leo Barry dissented with his caucus opposition to the accord and voted with the government. In 2002, when the Roger Grimes Liberal administration ratified the Voisey Bay Agreement, then PC Opposition MHA Fabian Manning dissented with his caucus opposition to the accord and voted with the government. Ironically, in 2005 when Manning dissented with his governing party he was expelled, however his dissent within the same party had been tolerated when they had been in opposition. Immediately after Manning had been expelled from the PC governing caucus many Liberal opposition MHA’s berated the PC government for being intolerant of dissent. However only two and a half years earlier, when the Liberals still controlled the government, their ministers fervently refuted a free vote party member’s resolution that would have extrapolated the power from a government to expell dissenting members from its caucus. It is frequently governments that are more dictatorial than opposition caucuses and it is more imperative for any respective government to promote more democracy. The role of government is to be more inclusive rather than exclusive and Bill 29, which constrains public access to information needs to be replaced with legislation that amplifies public access to information. The current Liberal leadership and NDP caucus should utilize the opportunity of opposing such a dictatorial, and non-transparent government to advocate a free vote provincial legislative system. There are those who claim that a free vote legislative system would never pass because politicians fervently endeavour to retain power they have acquired. However many decades ago the establishment of a televised legislature and fixed election dates were refuted and eventually attained. There are those who claim that political parties must require their members to conform to party policy in order to survive even though history has taught us that when governing parties don’t listen to the people they lose power shortly thereafter. It is not coincidental that the current PC provincial government has declined 33 per cent in the polls over approximately 18 months since it maligned its critics, refused to publically investigate a human tragedy and constrained the public’s access to information. A free vote legislative system would permit government members to have dissented on Bill 29 and demand an inquiry for Burton Winters and maybe enough dissenting government members would have defeated Bill 29 and established an inquiry for Burton Winters. John Ryall writes from Mount Pearl