Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deceit or Incompetence?

Deceit or Incompetence?

By: Ryan Young

Last week I listened closely to Finance Minister, Tom Osborne, during a call with Paddy Daly on the VOCM Open Line show. Mr. Osborne spoke at length about how his government was ready to play hardball with Nalcor, and extricate answers about the project's finances from the board and/or CEO Stan Marshall. At certain points during the conversation, the new minister sounded quite a bit like the old minister, and the tough talk that she had for Nalcor on Budget day 2016. We have heard plenty of tough talk since the Liberals took office in late 2015, but what do we really have to show for it, and what has changed?

More and more people are waking up to the monumental mismanagement and possible corruption afoot within the Muskrat Falls project. Our government, on the other hand, seems to be working as hard as ever to misdirect the public and ensure that the project is finished without the taxpayers ever knowing what really happened to all of that money. The Liberal’s are happy to keep themselves hitched to the “previous administration” bandwagon, feigning ignorance and blaming the old government for everything wrong with the project. Unfortunately, nobody on team red seems to realize that by playing dumb, they are leading the public to believe that they are really as incompetent as the opposition says they are.

The most telling part of Minister Osborne’s VOCM conversation was when he told Mr. Daly that he was in the presence of the premier when he learned about the massive cost of embedded contractors being used by Nalcor. He claimed the premier was upset about the lack of transparency regarding the use of these contractors, and told us that Ball is committed to a public inquiry on Muskrat Falls. The question he didn’t answer, however, was did the CEO, the Minister of Natural Resources, and/or the Premier know about the extent of the use of these contractors before James McLeod broke the story in The Telegram?

The Liberals have been in power for nearly 2 years. They have brought in a new CEO and Board of Directors for Nalcor, they have claimed to have beefed up government oversight of the project, and they have paid millions of dollars to Ernst and Young to study and report on the finances of Muskrat Falls. They publicly claim that the administration knew nothing about the project management team being made up of 90% contractors or that they had billed Nalcor for $4.6 million hours of work. By telling us that the government was in the dark on this issue proves one of two things. Either our government is directly lying to us about Muskrat Falls or they are so completely incompetent, that in 2 years they have not even managed to identify this glaring issue on their own.

While most people could easily latch-on to the incompetence theory, it is quite unlikely that nobody in the decision-making process was aware of the billing free-for-all that was going on right under their noses. Despite what Ball might be spinning to the public, the issue of embedded contractors seemed to be passing the small test just fine until someone in the media remembered how to do some investigative journalism.

So where does that leave us? Mere hours after the backlash from The Telegram story began to bombard government, Ball announced that a Muskrat Falls inquiry would happen, and that he had reached out to the various departments for help in drafting the terms of reference. While that is great news on the surface, as Uncle Gnarley and others have pointed out, ordering an inquiry before a complete forensic audit of the project is completed is rather like putting the cart before the horse. The other concern many have about a possible inquiry, is that if the leadership group was telling the truth about their lack of knowledge and understanding of the project finances, then how can we trust them to draft terms of reference that will actually reveal the truth about Muskrat Falls?

I’d really like to believe the premier when he says that he and his government are committed to getting to the bottom of the Muskrat money pit, but words are just that, words, and actions speak so much louder. Take for instance the Ball’s concern over the standoff at the Muskrat camp and  the three hunger strikers from Labrador that forced the government's hand last fall. After a marathon meeting with indigenous leaders, a deal was reached in which further mitigation measures were promised. In a letter from the Nunatsiavut government that was released yesterday, President Johannes Lampe made it very clear that after several meetings with government and Nalcor, those promises of additional mitigation measures will not be honored.

Ball stood in front of reporters after the meeting last fall and told the province that the meeting was about one thing, the health of Labradoreans. He also said that going forward, their decisions would be based on science and research and that his government was committed to working with aboriginal leaders and that he was “confident” that they could achieve the goals that were outlined in the agreement.

While a big to-do was made about a chair being appointed and terms of reference drafted for the promised independent expert advisory council (IEAC), it was made very clear from Lampe’s letter that there was never any intention of lowering water levels so that additional mitigation measures could proceed. Indigenous leaders were told during a meeting with the premier and other provincial officials on September 6th that water levels in the reservoir would be raised to 25m this fall, and once they reached that point they would not be lowered again.

Dwight Ball already has a huge credibility problem. He has failed to be honest with the people of this province at every opportunity. Despite their best efforts of getting out in the media and telling people they are going to do something positive, they can’t hide from their record, and the revelations brought forth by Johannes Lampe just further prove that this premier will say anything to ensure that Muskrat Falls goes ahead.

Deceit or pure incompetence? Either way, Ball and his government seem to be willing to throw away every shred of their credibility in order to deliberately mislead the people of this province about Muskrat Falls. The real question is: How long will we, the people, continue to stand for it?

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Politics as Usual

Politics as Usual

By: Ryan Young

When I decided to take a summer hiatus from all things politics, I made the decision because I found I was becoming a very angry person. Every time I checked the news or my social media feed there seemed to be another story revolving around arrogant MHA’s and/or incompetent ministers.  Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am very far from a naturally angry person, so I decided to take a break to try to find some balance in my life.

The break did wonders for my spirit, but no matter how much I tried to avoid reading, writing, or talking about politics, it was damn near impossible to keep a blind eye to everything that has been happening in our provincial political whirlwind. Oh, to be a sheep…

A lot happened over the summer. So many stories to read and mull over. The biggest story of the summer may have been the cabinet shuffle that was triggered when Cathy Bennett decided that being finance minister was not what she thought it would be. Other than replacing her with former Speaker of the House, Tom Osborne, the shuffle didn’t really do much to encourage the public that things would improve much in her absence. After all, it is still all of the same monkey’s running the same circus.

Tom Osborne may be the only bright spot in the shuffle, promising a tax review and some possible relief to come from the more than 300 additional taxes and fees that his government brought in with their 2016 budget. Many applauded Osborne’s new position within cabinet, but he certainly has his work cut out for him in cleaning up the mess Bennett and Ball have left him.

Gerry Byrne was sworn in as the new fisheries minister and quickly took a hard line in front of the TV cameras, but the fishery is still very much in turmoil, and other than his TV tough talk, Byrne has not delivered anything concrete to convince fish harvesters and processors in this province that there is a future for them in this government’s plans. People want real answers and all Byrne has had to offer is platitudes. He certainly does not seem like the kind of minister that would be willing to go toe-to-toe with his former federal colleague in Ottawa, which unfortunately is exactly what our fishery needs. I wouldn’t expect any major action on the fisheries file unless Uncle Ottawa says so, and that is about as likely as Gerry Byrne speaking up when there are no TV cameras in the room.

Eddie Joyce has managed to allow a complete fiasco to unfold in the town of Witless Bay, where a former councillor was forced to resign from his position on council over fraudulent residency claims, and just a few weeks later was allowed to run again and be acclaimed to the new town council. Joyce assured residents that the issue would be resolved by the fall elections, and has yet to comment on the acclimation of the Witless Bay Town Council and allegations of election fraud being put forth by residents of the community. The town has not had a functioning council in months and one can only assume that the current goings-on will not be beneficial to the town, moving forward.

Dale Kirby has continued to prove that he has no trouble at all in abandoning the oath he swore when he became an MHA and a minister in cabinet. New childcare regulations have sparked the ire of the industry and an ongoing battle of words with school board trustees and concerned parents about the fate of Mobile Central High has put the minister back in the hot seat. Most recently, a post circulated on Facebook that showed a conversation between Kirby and a constituent who was asking legitimate questions about education for hearing impaired students. Kirby’s response was to block her. It really makes you wonder about the quality of our government when the premier offers “total confidence” in a man who would act this way in his position. Kirby has done nothing but create barriers and destroy professional relationships and yet he is still allowed to be in charge of decisions that directly affect our most valuable resource of all, our children. It really makes you scratch your head…

Oh, and then there is ole Dwight himself. The man, the legend. The premier who will probably be remembered as the worst of a very bad lot of grinning shyster’s who managed to play our eternal saviour complex just well enough to land himself in the premier’s chair. Since The Telegram revealed that 4.6 million hours have been billed by embedded contractors working for Nalcor, Ball has hinted for the first time that a Muskrat Falls inquiry could be in the works. The premier says he has reached out for advice on the terms of reference, but very few people that I have spoken with have confidence that the inquiry will have any teeth. The terms of reference need to very broad in scope and the inquiry needs to be run by someone with integrity and who has no connection to the current or previous administration. Likely the only way that will happen is if someone is brought in from outside the province, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that either.

I could use many more examples, but what is the point? The media either ignores or can’t be bothered to do any real investigative journalism anymore, and we lap it up like fresh kibble after a week-long fast. The only truth that most people ever get to see is the filtered tidbits that they are fed daily, with no real insight into what is actually happening in our province. If the people ever want to see things change, they need to be the catalyst that start that change. Sadly, there seems to be little will outside of a handful of “known critics” and “nay-sayers” to actually drive any sort of meaningful change for our future. It often makes me wonder what it will take before people finally wake up and wonder how we let this happen. My prediction is that it will come for many right around the same time their electricity bills double to pay for Muskrat Falls. In the meantime, It’s all just politics as usual in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Auditing the Truth

Auditing the Truth

By: Ryan Young

It has been a crazy couple of weeks in the world of #nlpoli. This good rogue took to the wilderness for a few days, sans cell phone or internet, and when I returned to civilization I could hardly believe how much I had missed in just a few short days. There has been a lot of information to digest and to ponder, but one thing that seems quite clear is that nobody appears to have any interest in taking any accountability for the problems with Nalcor and Muskrat Falls.

It’s hard to know where to start. We had a new report released on Muskrat Falls that outlines even more cost overruns, now putting the price tag at $12.7 Billion. We also had the premier saying that he will commit to an audit or inquiry of some sort, but not really. Then there was a release of an old SNC Lavelin report from 2013 outlining probable cost overruns that the premier claims the former CEO of Nalcor ignored and that Ed Martin claims he never saw. And finally, we have Danny Williams firing both barrels at the Liberal Government and Nalcor, calling the current CEO, Stan Marshall, a “boondoggle buffoon,” and calling allegations around the SNC report “bullshit.” Through it all we, the taxpayers, are left scratching our heads and wondering just what the hell is going on in this province.

A poll released on June 20th by CRA showed that for the first time, the majority of NL residents were against the Muskrat Falls project. Surprisingly though, 40% of respondents still supported the project but that number will likely drop when hydro rate increases kick in next week. It will dwindle even more when the full impacts of the project begin to hit people in their wallets when/if Muskrat Falls ever comes online. While protests in Labrador continue to grow in size and intensity, there seems to be a new groundswell of dissent happening on the island now as well. People are already wondering how they will make ends meet when their bills double and more than ever we are seeing a push-back from the public at large against the project as a whole.

While there have been no shortage of experts speaking out against the project, it was especially painful to hear former premier Brian Peckford express his dismay that once again, Labrador power would be enjoyed by another province at much lower rates than the people of NL. Emera customers in Nova Scotia will enjoy much lower rates than NL customers for the same power from a project funded entirely from our tax dollars. It is certainly an epic fail of smallwoodian proportions, and Peckford, who spent his entire political career fighting against resource giveaways, can only lament the direction our subsequent premiers have taken us, and wonder how different things might have been if he had been given the same financial resources to work with.

With all of the political pressure and negative press, even the usually slow to catch on Liberals are able to see that the public is no longer willing to buy the platitudes about cheap power and projected revenues from the sale of spot power on the US market. Instead, they have changed their tune and are now talking about things like rate mitigation, while always continuing to point the red finger of blame at those dastardly Tories who got us into this mess. It might even work too if ole Dwight was willing to open things up to a full forensic audit to expose the inner dealings of the sanctioning of the province to satisfy the nagging questions many people have about whether the endless delays and cost overruns are the result of corruption or just pure incompetence. For some reason, the premier seems to see no value in getting to the bottom of things, despite his constant finger wagging. By playing the blame game without utilizing the options available to him to try to make things right, Ball is planting seeds of doubt in the public, leaving them to wonder what the premier might be hiding or who he might be protecting.

I’m not suggesting that the premier is doing anything wrong, but when you fail to be transparent and accountable to the electorate, there tends to be an element of distrust that hangs around like a bad odour. All the premier needs to do to get rid of that Muskrat sized cloud that is hanging over him and his government is to be open and transparent. There is absolutely no good reason not to immediately order a complete forensic audit and Ball’s reasons for dithering are absurd to the point of bordering on pathetic. An audit would in no way compromise the continuation of construction at the site and it would not have any bearing on any future costs or delays. All the premier is trying to do is say enough words to make it look like he intends to do something, without actually saying anything at all that would commit him to taking any sort of real action. With so many questions and allegations hanging over the project the only responsible thing left to do is to order the audit and let the truth speak for itself.

The main narrative that Ball and Siobhan Coady will continue to push is that they will review the project after the fact. The main problems with that are that a) it does nothing to help restore the confidence of the public in the project, and b) it is a very strong possibility that Dwight Ball and his government will no longer be in power by the time the project is completed and therefore will never have the opportunity to order an audit or review. The ideal time for a forensic audit would have been in early 2016, right after the election. Openness and transparency surrounding Muskrat Falls was a major part of the Liberal platform after all. Of course, that didn’t happen, but there is still time for Ball and company to do the right thing and open the project up to the full scrutiny of an independent body. The time has come. C’mon premier Ball, let’s make it happen…

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Federal NDP Leadership Race Comes to St. John’s

The Federal NDP Leadership Race Comes to St. John’s

By: Ryan Young

I decided to take in the federal NDP leadership debate in St. John’s on Sunday in order to see how the competition to decide who will take on Justin Trudeau in 2019 was shaping up. I was expecting a fiery and spirited debate and I was not disappointed.

After the NDP’s historic collapse in 2015, many were left to ponder the future of the federal New Democrats. After winning official opposition status with 103 seats in 2011, Tom Mulcair was unable to capitalize on that momentum and a disappointing campaign saw only 44 NDP MP’s elected to the House of Commons. As a result, Mulcair narrowly lost a leadership review last April, which began the search for a new leader to unite the party, and the electorate.

There are five candidates currently in the running for the leadership and they all took in the capital city this weekend, meeting with people to hear about the concerns of NL voters and to talk about policy. After being shutout in Atlantic Canada in the last election, the NDP are keen to rebuild support “down-east,” and winning back the seats the lost here in this province is a big priority.

There are no real frontrunners in the race at this point but the candidates are beginning to reveal their policy ideas and the debate on Sunday was the most divisive so far among the hopefuls. While they may appear very similar when it comes to policy, there are some distinct differences that will separate them leading up to the vote in September.

Jagmeet Singh, the newcomer to the race, faced some attacks from his fellow candidates as he was questioned on his commitment to the federal party and his failure to commit to a policy on pipelines until he had a chance to consult with voters in Alberta and BC. The Ontario MPP and former lawyer stepped down from his role as Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP to join the federal leadership race, and he hopes to lead the charge against poverty and inequality. Singh is very popular, and he has the potential to unite the half million Sikh voters in the country, which would be a big boost to NDP fortunes if they wish to form a government. Some have described him as a “Progressive Justin Trudeau.” He is very selfie friendly and talks like a very skilled politician, but he failed to offer much in the way of solid policy ideas. In fairness, he is new to the race and is promising to release his policy platform soon.

Peter Julian also took some heat during the debate about the credibility of his policy ideas. The point was made that Justin Trudeau had many aspirations during the last election, but has failed to deliver on many of his promises. As such, NDP policy should produce promises that are well thought-out and costed. Julian spent most of his time talking about climate change and clean energy jobs and defending his ideas about affordable housing and free post-secondary education. The long-time BC MP has been involved with the party for four decades and is a popular organizer and activist. While Julian certainly has some good ideas, he was not able to demonstrate how he would implement his policies and I don’t think he was able to convince the audience that he really understands the issues that matter to the people of NL.

Niki Ashton is a fierce debater in the House of Commons and she wasted no time in going on the offense on Sunday. She was tough on Singh for his lack of commitment on pipeline policy and criticized Caron’s basic income policy as “not being an NDP idea.” Hailing from Manitoba, Ashton has been one of the most consistent voices in Ottawa when it comes to indigenous issues and precarious work. At 34, she is the youngest candidate, but by the time the next election rolls around she will have already spent a decade as an MP so she certainly can’t be called inexperienced. She seemed to be on the attack for most of the debate on Sunday and made a strong appeal to millennials in the audience to support her vision of a stronger Canada for our youth.

Charlie Angus was the most jovial of all of the candidates at the debate. His casual but direct style is probably the most leader-like of anyone in the group, but at times it seemed like the debate got away from him under tough questions from the other candidates. The long-time Timmins, Ontario MP is an advocate for indigenous rights and is very vocal on the fact that the NDP needs a clear and concise platform to build the support of Canadians leading up to 2019. While cracking a few jokes, Angus asked his colleagues tough questions about how they intend to implement their policy ideas and closed off by telling us that he has our backs.

Guy Caron was probably the most impressive candidate in the debate. The MP from Rimouski, Quebec is an economist, and is running his campaign on a platform of basic income, electoral reform, and tax reform. Caron probably faced the toughest questions of the day, (an indicator that his opponents see him as a threat) but I felt that he held his own very well and was clear in explaining exactly how his policies would work. So far, he is the only candidate to offer a breakdown of what his policies will cost and how he plans to implement them. I was also impressed with the fact that he was the only candidate to talk about what the NDP might demand if they were to hold the balance of power in a possible minority government situation. This earned him criticism as it was suggested that he didn’t think the party could win, but Caron is very much a realist and despite his desire to become Prime Minister, he understands that the NDP may have a different role to play, depending on where the cards fall in 2019.

All in all it was a spirited debate and New Democrats should feel good in knowing that no matter who wins the leadership in September, the party will be represented by a team of leaders who are bringing some exciting policy discussions to the forefront. While there was no clear winner or loser, I felt that Caron made the best remarks about policy, while Angus really drove home the direction the party needs to take if it wants to have success. With three months left to go before the vote, it will be interesting to see what kind of policy ideas come to the table and if the candidates can remain united and respectful or if the race will get uglier as it moves towards its conclusion.

No matter who wins this leadership race, they will have their work cut out for them when it comes to rebuilding party support. During the federal Conservative leadership race, the tories were able to triple their membership and the NDP will need to do the same if they wish to be a real threat to Trudeau's re-election hopes. It will be very interesting to see who party members choose, and the direction they take New Democrats in the lead up to 2019. It's an exciting time for the party and this race will be worth watching in the months to come.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

By: Ryan Young

Like many people across Newfoundland and Labrador, I have been following Beatrice Hunter’s story very closely over the last two weeks. For those who may not be aware, Beatrice Hunter is an Inuk grandmother and Land Protector who is presently being held in custody at the penitentiary in St. John’s for refusing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.

On May 29th, during a court hearing for Protectors who broke an injunction to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site during Victoria Day Weekend, Judge George Murphy asked Hunter if she would promise to stay away from the protest site. Hunter told the judge she could not make that promise and as a result she was remanded into custody.

The story took another turn on June 2nd when it was learned that Hunter had been transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. Since then, there has been a large public outcry at Hunter’s incarceration, including protests at Nalcor headquarters and outside of HMP. In Labrador, fellow Protectors have held vigils and rallied for Beatrice’s release, and there is a large rally planned for Thursday at Colonial Building in St. John’s.

For the government, this has become another case of very bad optics. While most people seem to agree that they should not interfere with the judicial system, the fact that the injunction itself came from Nalcor makes the government responsible for Beatrice Hunter’s incarceration. They had they option of telling Nalcor to back off from the charges against the Protectors but chose not to do so. Now, with Hunter’s defiance, they have painted themselves into a corner that can have no positive political outcome.

I don’t think that Hunter intentionally tried to make a martyr of herself, but in many ways, she has become one. Many people across the province were upset with the treatment of the Land Protectors who were charged for standing up against Nalcor, and when Hunter was transferred to HMP, the cries of colonialism out of Labrador began to grow in volume and urgency. When our justice system takes an indigenous grandmother away from her family and her home for exercising her rights to protest, it leaves many wondering just what our priorities are.

Despite the many socio-political issues at play, we can’t ignore the fact that Beatrice did break the law. No matter how much we may not like the law sometimes, we can’t blame those whose job it is to enforce it. She left the judge little choice when she refused to stay away from the site, and under the law he felt compelled to do something. What that something was, however, is the issue at hand.The discussion should not be whether or not Beatrice should be punished under the law, it should be whether or not the punishment fits the crime. Hunter is a law-abiding citizen who has never been in trouble with the courts before and her only crime was protesting what she believed to be an injustice against her people. It does not seem unreasonable to think that there could have been another solution that could have been explored instead of sending this grandmother to the pen.

The whole situation is very, very sticky. In addition to Beatrice’s direct story, it also touches on issues of overcrowding in our prisons and the differential treatment of protesters on the island vs those in Labrador. I understand the importance of not having the government interfere with the justice system, but at this point it seems inevitable that they will have to act in some capacity. Hunter is due back in court on Friday and if she continues to be held at HMP, the disgruntled murmur from the public will soon turn into an angry roar. There are options, and Andrew Parson’s should be exploring every possibility of how to get Beatrice home. Considering all the talk about truth and reconciliation in this country, we need our leaders to take a stand and ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the rights of aboriginal women.

In a video released by CBC on June 6th from inside HMP, Hunter expressed the major frustration that she and many other Land Protectors have with Nalcor. A lack of answers to their questions. This highlights the larger issue of the lack of openness and accountability when it comes to the Muskrat Falls project. Despite promising to open the project up to public scrutiny, the Liberal’s have become even more secretive than the previous administration was and are refusing to release any reports from the oversight committee. The message being sent by government via Nalcor to the people of Labrador is don’t ask questions and don’t try to get in our way or you will end up in jail. I don’t think they were betting on the defiance of someone like Beatrice Hunter to turn public opinion against them.

No matter how this story turns out,  irreparable damage has already been done to an already strained relationship between the government and the people of Labrador. The Smallwoodian “develop or perish” attitude seems to be alive and well with the current incarnation of Liberal leaders, and the steamrolling of the Muskrat Falls project without the support of the people living in Labrador will not soon be forgotten. The intimidation of Nalcor will always be seen as the strong arm of government against the people living downstream of mighty Muskrat and the dam will continue to enforce the idea of colonialism that is spreading through the big land like wildfire. There is no political value in having Beatrice Hunter locked up, and the first thing this government needs to do to start repairing the rift is to send her home. The second thing they need to do is start listening to people like Beatrice and start giving them the answers they have been demanding. That doesn't seem like too much to ask for...

Monday, 5 June 2017

When Money Talks, Democracy Has No Voice

When Money Talks, Democracy Has No Voice

By: Ryan Young

There was quite a bit of talk about political finance reform going around the province last week. Both NDP leader, Earle McCurdy and former Premier, Tom Marshall spoke out publicly in favor of getting rid of large corporate and union donations to political parties. This comes in the wake of a Telegram article that reported Corner Brook Pulp and Paper as being the Liberal’s largest corporate donor, at the same time that the provincial government was making a deal with the company to shore up their pension plan.

Now I am certainly not suggesting that the two have anything to do with each other. In fact, the recent pension deal seems to be a good one for both the province and the company. If there was any issue with the deal at all, it would have to be from the original deal signed under the previous administration. The problem is that in politics, optics are everything and when you see the government making deals with large political donors, it can’t help but breed cynicism and contempt. It is exactly why a large portion of our population think that all politicians are crooks.

An old adage says that when money talks, democracy has no voice. The truth of that statement might be debatable among political circles, but the electorate take it to heart. As far as the average voter in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned, we are still living under a merchant class system. How could we ever convince them that we are not? Maybe I am naïve in thinking that corruption in politics is the exception rather than the rule, but it is not hard to understand why many people feel differently. As long as the government is doing big money deals with big time political donors, the idea that politicians are crooks will be a hard one to break.

One of the things that really breeds contempt for the system is the way that donors change their allegiances (and their donations) depending on which party is in power or is expected to take power soon. From a voter’s perspective, the only reasonable assumption is that these donations are not made based on political views but on the hope of being in the good books of the governing party when it comes time to divvy out government contracts. Democracy Watch has called our political finance system nothing more than “legalized bribery,” and by all accounts it seems like the majority of our elected officials are quite fine with that label and the status quo.

On an even more disturbing note, it was also reported in the Telegram last week that the St. John’s Board of Trade will be hosting a cash-for-access fundraiser that will give anyone willing to shell out $500 for the opportunity to mingle with the premier and a handful of ministers and federal MP’s. The premier’s office says that it will be a valuable opportunity to meet with business leaders and that they consider all requests seeking the premier’s participation in fundraising activities. MP Nick Whalen has compared it to a “charity fundraiser.” According to James Mcleod, Whalen said: “When people talk about cash-for-access, they mean cash for the politicians for access to the politicians. They don’t mean a charity fundraiser.” I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Whalen on that point since the members who pay the fee get direct access to key decision makers in government. That sounds like cash-for-access to me and the whole thing does not seem to be sitting well with the public at large.

Fixing this problem is so easy that it is ridiculous that it has not been done already Either remove, or place a sensible cap on all donations to political parties. That way there can be no preferential treatment for the biggest donors because no individual, corporation or union would be able to donate any more than any other. Our democracy should not be dependent on who can raise the most campaign dollars or spend the most money on lobbying for favorable contracts or legislation. Confidence in our political system is at an all time low, as evidenced by the record low voter turnout in the last election and the dismal approval ratings of all three parties. It’s time to take the first and easiest step in renewing confidence in our democracy and take the money out of politics once and for all.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Trolls, Clowns, & Parliamentary Language

Trolls, Clowns, & Parliamentary Language

By: Ryan Young

Earlier this week, opposition MHA Steve Kent was ejected from the House of Assembly for refusing to withdraw a statement where he referred to Finance Minister, Cathy Bennett, as being unethical, dishonest, and deceptive for giving misleading numbers during estimates committee. Kent was also called out for his use of social media which was called a “back-door” way of saying things that he would not be allowed to say in the legislature. This led to a very public Twitter debate with Gerry Byrne and a complete unhinging of Government House Leader, Andrew Parsons, who was quick to rise on the point of order that eventually got Kent ejected.

Now I know that many of my readers may not be big fans of Steve Kent, but the fact of the matter is that Kent was right. He asked the minister a very direct question and she offered an answer that did not include the whole truth. The whole issue was over the severance pay of an employee let go from Government House. When Kent asked about the amount of the severance, Bennett told him that it was $111 000. When Kent pressed for more details, Bennett revealed that the total number was $378 000. This led to the Member from Mount Peal North using the “unparliamentary language” that ultimately led to his ejection from the house. Bennett could have easily given the full amount when prompted, she had the information right in front of her, but instead she decided to be cagey and try to mislead the facts about the real amount. In this bloggers humble opinion, Kent was right to stand his ground, even if it meant that he was given a timeout from the sandbox.

So, what is unparliamentary language anyway? According to Wikipedia, Parliaments and legislative bodies around the world impose certain rules and standards during debates. Tradition has evolved that there are words or phrases that are deemed inappropriate for use in the legislature whilst it is in session. In a Westminster system, this is called unparliamentary language and there are similar rules in other kinds of legislative systems. This includes, but is not limited to the suggestion of dishonesty or the use of profanity. The most prohibited case is any suggestion that another member is dishonourable. So, for example, suggesting that another member is lying is forbidden under of legislative rules.

A curious thing about the rules regarding unparliamentary language is that there is no provision against actually being dishonest in the House of Assembly. You can’t call another member a liar, but it is perfectly acceptable to lie. Sure, the rules say that a member must remain honorable at all times, but as stated above, there have been several instances where members have been caught out on a less than truthful statement, but there is no punishment for that kind of behaviour. This just highlights how outdated our system of governance really is.

Speaking of unparliamentary language, Neil King, MHA for Bonavista also rose in the House of Assembly this week to offer some very important insights to the people of NL. He told us that despite his great job of spreading the government's message in a recent media article about CNA, the internet trolls were out in full force against him. King took a few minutes to tell the province how he felt he was being treated unfairly and unjustly by the keyboard warriors trying to tarnish his good name and finished the segment by referring to constituents who have expressed legitimate concerns to him as “clowns.” Very parliamentary language to be sure and a wonderful use of the time allocated for important debate in our legislature.

After some expected criticism on social media, King lashed out at a local Facebook group known as FreeNL, accusing them of mocking his physical appearance and his facial disability. The post garnered quite a bit of sympathy for King among his friends, but as is the common practice for government MHA’s, anyone with opposing views are blocked so nobody was able to offer the truth about King’s comments. I personally scoured the posts and comments regarding King on the FreeNL page. The group has over 4000 members and not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of negative criticism of King’s words. Curiously though, there was not one mention of his appearance or any type of disability or impairment. It is unfortunate that an MHA would stoop to such behaviour as to mislead people into believing that he is being cyber-bullied by “internet trolls,” when in reality they were just reacting to his calling them trolls and clowns for expressing their views on the very important issues in our province. Maybe if Mr. King wants to put such allegations out there, he should have some credible evidence to back it up.

In another curious twist, Education Minister, Dale Kirby, chimed in on King’s post, taking personal shots at one of FreeNL’s leaders, Mark Croft. Kirby wrote:

“Croft spends his time blaming the government for his perpetual state of unemployment. He fails to realize that social media is the first place most employers look when screening job applications. One look at his despicable online bullying behaviour is enough to deter any employer.”

Not only does Kirby continue to perpetuate the myth that Mark Croft or FreeNL are personally bullying MHA’s, he also gives false statements about Croft’s employment. Croft is currently employed full-time and uses his spare time for activism. While there is certainly some heated debate on FreeNL and other groups, Croft has been one of the leaders in trying to discourage negative and personal comments about individuals and has been steady in his attempt to keep the discussion about the issues. Instead of trying to paint anyone who protests their governance as unemployed, uneducated, social justice warriors that can’t even get a job, perhaps if Kirby and the rest of the Liberal caucus should take the time to come to one of the people’s protest and learn that these events are being organized and attended by hardworking Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that care enough about the mess this government s creating to stand up and try to have their voices heard.

There are many more examples example of the lengths that our government will go to deceive the people and distract them from the truth. The House of Assembly Management Commission voted to accept the committee’s recommendations regarding pension reform instead of the Liberal proposal. Kirby and other members tweeted that the PC’s and NDP voted against pension plan that would save the province money. They conveniently neglected to mention that their plan was voted down because it would have grandfathered in all of the current one-term MHA’s and made them eligible for a pension after just two years of service. Kirby also accused both opposition parties of voting against pay supplement increases for Early Childhood Educators. The truth is that while both parties did vote against the budget itself, there was no specific vote regarding the ELCC supplement and opposition members had expressed during debate that they were happy to see the wage increases even if they could not vote for the budget as a whole.

The irony is not lost on this blogger that Steve Kent was punished  for calling out Bennett on not offering the correct numbers and for using his Twitter account as an outlet to let people know what was happening in the House of Assembly, while government backbenchers and ministers alike are taking to social media to insult their constituents and spread false information about people and groups that they disagree with. Despite their promises to be open and transparent, the Liberals have not fared very well when it comes to being forthcoming with information to the public. Getting even the simplest piece of information can often be a monumental task and the premier and his cabinet have been caught up on more than one occasion being less than entirely truthful in their answers in the House of Assembly and to the media.

This whole unfortunate situation is symptomatic of many of the problems we are experiencing with government these days. Lack of openness and communication and a total disregard for what voters are saying have made this one of the most unpopular governments in our history. Calling people trolls and clowns in the House of Assembly and making false statements on social media about those who oppose you are not the best ways to endear voters to give you another chance next time around. People expect better from their elected officials and it is very disappointing to see this kind of behaviour from our MHA’s. With so many important matters that need to be addressed to get this province back on track, I am glad that they find the time to ridicule the people that they were elected to represent. If this is the best that we can expect from the people we elect to represent our best interests, then 2019 can’t come soon enough.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Venetian Blind Trusts

Venetian Blind Trusts

By: Ryan Young

It was revealed during estimates in the House of Assembly on Tuesday that the establishment of the premier’s blind trust left the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador on the hook for $42 900. This little tidbit came up when opposition members were questioning the government on expenses within the premier’s office, in particular, the amount that was listed under professional services.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was quick to point out that this is a long-established practice and provided a few details on the process. Any minister of the crown that has dealings that may be in a conflict of interest with the government must put their business holdings in a blind trust. The minister's work with the Chief Electoral Officer to establish the correct parameters regarding the blind trust and they approve any expenses that are deemed satisfactory. The minister pays for the expenses but is later reimbursed by the government and the cost is absorbed through their respective departments as “professional services.”

In this time of belt tightening it was surprising to hear that we pay for the establishment of these business trusts. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that blind trusts in this province have come under scrutiny. I’m sure that most of you are already thinking about the controversy surrounding the blind trust of former premier Danny Williams. While Williams was running the province, his blind trust (managed by his son-in-law) acquired 550 acres of land from the NL Housing Corporation at rock bottom prices. While no wrongdoing was ever proved, the situation did raise the issue of blind trusts in the public eye.  It is also worth noting that Williams took well over a year to put all his holdings in trust.

More recently, Dwight Ball was questioned on why it took him so long to establish his blind trust. Questions of conflict of interest first arose in April 2016 surrounding Ball’s stake in the senior’s residence, Sundara. By July, the trust had been established, but Ball had some curious comments for reporters who asked him for details:

“It’s called a blind trust for that reason.” Said Ball “And so the advice that I’ve been given, that the blind trust people that actually manage that — there’s a reason why it’s called a blind trust. For me to actually remove myself from my business interest, and put two people there that I would then publicly announce, would, I guess, the advice that I was given was, I guess, it wouldn’t be blind anymore, would it?”

It might have been nice if Ball had actually taken the time to look up the definition of a blind trust:

“A financial arrangement in which a person in public office gives the administration of private business interests to an independent trust in order to prevent conflict of interest. Under the trust, the owner does not know how the assets are managed.

Being a “blind” trust has absolutely nothing to do with who knows who is managing the business interests and the fact that the premier didn’t know this is alarming. During the election campaign in 2015 Ball committed to being open and transparent when asked about blind trusts and promised to do whatever was necessary to strengthen legislation regarding conflicts of interest. Ball holds interests in at least 16 companies, several of which have involvement with government, which is why it is essential that he adheres to the guidelines outlined in legislation. Some people agree with the practice of using blind trusts, while others firmly believe that all government members should have to divest themselves of any business interests that put them in a conflict of interest before sitting in the legislature.

It is very hard to believe that a husband or a cousin or a son in law would be able to properly keep business dealings hidden and that no conversations will occur at family dinners or get togethers.
While most people would agree that blind trusts are necessary to keep business dealings at arm's length from ministerial duties, many people feel they are little more than see-through “venetian blind trusts,” that sound good, but are not very effective at accomplishing their main goal or instilling confidence in the public that no back-door deals are being done to benefit business interests.

Back to the main point at hand, while it is great that Ball and his ministers have been able to get their holdings into their respective blind trusts, the fact that the taxpayer must foot the bill for the establishment of these trusts should be an outrage to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m sure that if Premier Ball wants to retain his business holdings, that the expenses related to establishing and administering his trust should be his responsibility. Nobody should begrudge the premier or any other minister for any success they have had in their personal careers, but when they made the choice to run for public life they should have accepted the costs of establishing their respective trusts as the cost of doing business.

After nearly a year and a half of hearing Dwight Ball talk about our dire financial situation, learning that we paid $42 900 to establish his blind trust is beyond bad optics. Ball spent over $200 000 out of his own pocket during the Liberal leadership campaign in 2013 but the overburdened taxpayer is expected to pick up the tab for his blind trust? It doesn’t sit well with this blogger and I’m willing to bet that it is not going to sit well with very many voters when the information gets out to the public.

While this may have been acceptable behaviour in the past, this government has made it very clear that times are tough and things need to change. Maybe before they close any libraries or raise any more fees they should look at how much money is being spent on absurd entitlements like this on the taxpayer’s dime. If Dwight Ball really wanted to be a leader, he would lead by example and pay back the $42 900. Anything less is an insult to all of the people who are being burdened with over 300 new taxes and fees and being told that we all need to do our part.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

By: Ryan Young

I had the pleasure of speaking at a public forum on electoral reform last week that was hosted by Democracy Alert, a local group committed to restoring participatory democracy through education, engagement, & electoral reform. I had been meeting with this small dedicated group of individuals for the past year, anxiously awaiting the federal plan, and thinking about how to bring reform to Newfoundland & Labrador. Last weeks’ forum was the first of many events that Democracy Alert is planning to engage people and educate them on the value of changing our electoral system.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke his promise on electoral reform in February, it was a blow to the many people across the country who had dedicated their time and effort into reforming our electoral system. Trudeau had campaigned heavily on making 2015 the last election that would be held under the current first past the post system. In fact, Trudeau was so committed to electoral reform that he repeated his promise to deliver it more than 1800 times. Unfortunately, when the Prime Minister realized that his party was the beneficiary of a false majority that gave them 100% of power in parliament with just 39.5% of the vote, he decided to change his mind. When you consider that Trudeau’s reasoning for changing first past the post in the first place was because Stephen Harper‘s majority with 39.6% of the vote was unfair to Canadians, it makes the Prime Minister’s inaction on reform an even harder pill to swallow.

Many provinces were waiting to see what Ottawa would do on electoral reform before committing to any changes to their own systems. In the absence of any leadership from the feds, much of that discussion has stalled. NL, however, is a different story. We have a government and a premier with very low approval ratings and people are ready for a real change. In lieu of any actual productive debate in our House of Assembly, the two major parties have decided to play a 4-year long game of pass the buck. The blame game has gone on so long that it has become rather absurd, and many people have been wondering aloud if the problem is not actually the current crop of politicians, but rather the system that allows for such behaviour to become the norm.

This has encouraged the beginning of a conversation about changing the way we vote in this province, but there are still many questions to be answered and many challenges to overcome. The most important thing is making sure that the discussion is on the table and that people have an opportunity to express their views. There are many options on the table, but Newfoundland and Labrador is a unique place and will likely require a unique solution.

What System Do We Change to?

There are many reasons to change from first past the post, but the hardest part of enabling that change has always been deciding which type of system to change to. There are many different systems out there and many of them may seem complex to someone looking at them for the first time. Currently, over 85% of OCED nations use some form of proportional representation to elect their governments. Under a proportional system, seats in the legislature are awarded based on the number of votes that a party gets. In this way, every vote counts and our elected bodies are more representative of the wishes of the electorate.

Countries that use proportional representation often have coalition governments that force political parties to work together in the best interests of the people they represent. This is most evident when you look at the social and environmental legislation in PR countries. Things like pharma care, child care and well maintained transportation networks are commonplace under PR systems. Governments also tend to be more stable and voter turnouts are generally much higher.

There are many types of PR systems. Mixed-Member, Single Transferable Vote, Dual Member, and Proportional FPTP (a made in NL system) are all systems that work on the principle of proportionality. Unfortunately, it is the discussion of which mechanics to use that often derails the real merits of switching to PR. That is why Democracy Alert has proposed a bold new solution to this problem. They want to hold a referendum with a simple question attached to the next general election ballot. Keep first past the post or switch to proportional representation? The rationale is that by keeping the question simple and to the point, we can accurately find out if the majority of the people really do want to change from the current FPTP system. If FTPT wins, we keep the status quo, and if PR wins then we give that mandate to the new governing party to come up with the system that best meets our province. The best way to decide would be to hold a citizen’s assembly to determine which system to use moving forward.

Do We Have Other Options?

Many people have been talking about the idea of running all independent candidates in the next election. This idea is borne from the idea that our party system is broken and that our 2 parties are just a revolving door of the same types of people serving the same interests. While electing a majority of independents would certainly throw a wrench into any governing party trying to pass legislation, they would not actually be able to form a government under the laws of our current system.

Another possible option that is gaining popularity in some circles is a consensus style government such as those used in the northern territories. Under a consensus system, there are no parties. All candidates run as independents and the elected members vote to choose their premier and their cabinet. The remaining members serve as the opposition. There are many merits to this type of a system but some are skeptical that the people would be willing to make such a dramatic change away from the party system.

Starting the Conversation

I firmly believe that the only reason we don’t have more of a movement for electoral reform in this province is a lack of education. For one, most people don’t watch what goes on in the House of Assembly aka “The Sandbox,” and they don’t realize how ineffective our democratic institutions have become. Secondly, most people don’t realize the benefits of moving towards a different system. With the current political climate in this province, electoral reform is not getting enough attention as a solution to many of our problems with how our legislative branch currently functions. And lastly, kids don’t learn nearly enough about politics or democracy in our education system. Many young people are disengaged from politics and they don’t understand how their lack of involvement allows the current system to grossly under represent their needs.

In order to move the conversation about electoral reform forward we need to make a big push towards making the benefits known and engaging people to be active participants in their own destiny. The public is slowly waking up to the fact that standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option and that they will need to be the change that they want to see if they ever want to see a real difference in the way things are done.

Electoral reform is more than just an idea, it is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we “do” democracy in this province. It’s up to the people to decide if they want to continue under a system that allows things to operate as they are currently going or if they are willing to put their voice forward for a new way working together for a real “stronger tomorrow.”  So, let’s start the conversation around the kitchen table and on the wharf. Start it at your church or youth group or during a board meeting. Talk to a friend and ask them what they think or bring it up during your lunch break at work. The most important thing is that we start the conversation so that more people can get interested enough to find out for themselves if there is a real value in changing the way we vote. Our very future might depend on it.

If you are interested in finding out more about electoral reform and what you can do to get involved visit www.democracyalert.ca or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

By: Ryan Young

The ongoing feud between MUN administration and Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour Minister, Gerry Byrne, has continued to escalate over the past few weeks and it has many scratching their heads to why the minister is engaging in such a public battle with the university brass.

While MUN considers raising fees and tuition for students, Byrne has been critical of spending practices and what he calls a “culture of entitlement.” The governments position is that they would like to see the tuition freeze for NL students continue, and that the university can find efficiencies to offset cuts to their operating budget. The university says it has been cut to the bone and that the only way they can maintain the current level of service is to raise revenues. Caught in the middle of this heated debate are the students who are worried about paying more for their education.

At a town hall in St. John’s last week, a panel from the university painted a very bleak picture of the current state of the universities finances. One of the major issues was the state of the crumbling infrastructure on campus. The university is in big need of an upgrade but the money simply isn’t there. it would take $22.5 million a year for the next 15 years just to maintain the current infrastructure rating of 28.5% which is well below the MUN target of 12% which would bring it up to fair condition under the Facilities Condition Index guidelines. To reach the 12% goal would require an annual investment of $45 million for the next 15 years.

When the government cut MUN’s budget last year the university was able to offset the loss thanks to a $4 million provincial grant to preserve the tuition freeze, as well as additional savings through attrition and administrative cuts.  In Budget 2017 the government trimmed an other $3 million from MUN’s operating grant, bringing it down from $318 to $315 million annually. Byrne says he believes that MUN can absorb the cuts without raising tuition or compromising services to students, but the university maintains that it cannot reduce costs any further and will need to find new revenues to maintain the current level of service.

The discussion around revenues has centered around a 16.3% tuition increase for all undergraduate and graduate students as well as a new $450 campus improvement fee and a student services fee of $50 per semester. The university is also considering a differential tuition structure that would see graduate tuition rates vary by program and based on what the market can sustain. Many students believe that these increases will negatively impact their quality of life and education and they are hoping for the government to intervene and demand that the tuition freeze be preserved.

The latest spat between Byrne and MUN has been over discretionary spending. On Twitter this week, Byrne cited a $700 recruitment dinner as evidence of a culture of entitlement and suggested that before demanding more money from taxpayers and students, the university should reduce discretionary spending and disclose expenses. During an interview on the St. John’s Morning Show, host Anthony Germain did the math out to about $80 a head for the $700 dinner and asked Byrne if he had ever had an $80 dinner at the taxpayer’s expense during his 20-year career in politics. Byrne dodged the question, but went on to suggest that it would be acceptable to spend that kind of money on lavish visits to the university by heads of state, but not for the purposes of university business, such as attracting the right people to come and work at MUN.

I don’t disagree with Gerry Byrne that MUN can and needs to do a better job of managing its administrative and discretionary spending, but I do question if having this battle in the public eye is the best way to achieve the changes that are needed. During the interview with Anthony Germain, Byrne framed the situation as nothing more than a debate and suggested that to “ratchet down” the escalating tensions , the university needs to consider reducing expenses before it looks at raising revenues from students and that officials should go on Germain’s show to tell the public what he as minister has done wrong. I would suggest to the minister that a better way to address the issues at MUN would be to sit down with the university and work out a solution instead out berating them on social media and publicly challenging them during a morning talk show.

It is very clear that MUN is facing some significant challenges right now and unfortunately those issues are being undermined by a clash of personalities between the minister and those in charge of running the university. Caught in the crossfire are the students who don’t want to see their fees increased and are looking for some real leadership from the university and the government. Student’s want better facilities and services without having to pay more and they need their leaders to find a way to work together to find solutions that work in the best interests of everyone.

Maybe a more reasonable option would be for the minister to order an independent review of MUN’s finances and administration to get a clear picture of where bloat may exist and where real efficiencies can be found. That way, neither him nor the university would be able to point the finger of blame. It would be written in black an white in a report, with clear recommendations on how MUN should move forward. In this way, we could move past the political banter and create a strong foundation for MUN to not only remain a great university, but for it to improve and expand to become an even better destination for higher learning in the future.

We can no longer afford for such important matters to be dominated by personalities and distractions. Students don’t want to pay more to accommodate $700 recruitment dinners while they struggle to meet their most basic needs. They also don’t want their futures to be caught up in the middle of a spat between the university and the government, when the outcome could have a dramatic impact on their futures. Change is needed at MUN, but it needs to be change based on cooperation and communication and the best interest of students, and not to satisfy the egos of administration or members of government. The real way forward requires real leadership and unfortunately that seems to be in short supply. It’s time to put personalities aside and do what needs to be done in the best interests of our students and our province.

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Resignation of Bern Coffey

The Resignation of Bern Coffey

By: Ryan Young

The resignation of the provinces top bureaucrat sent shockwaves through the local political scene Sunday night. After days of controversy, Bern Coffey has stepped down from his position of Chief of the Executive Council. The move came after a flurry of criticism was aimed at both Coffey and the government when the public learned that Coffey was representing a client who was suing Nalcor through his private law practice.

Allegedly, there was an agreement made when Coffey was appointed last September that would allow him to finish off any existing cases at his practice, but that he would not take on any new ones. In his defense of Coffey, Premier Ball said that the work was being done in Coffey’s personal time and that he was confident that he would continue to work diligently on behalf of the people. It probably would have been a fair arrangement, except for the fact that one of Coffey’s clients is suing Nalcor, and by extension, the government. Despite Coffey’s claims that “Chinese Walls” have been put in place to assure that there is no conflict of interest, the whole situation has been perceived very negatively by the public.

With so many communications blunders already under his belt, you would think that Dwight Ball would have stopped to think about the implications of allowing his top bureaucrat, basically his right-hand man, to continue with a legal case against Nalcor. Even if the Chinese walls were working and there was no conflict of interest, for the sake of optics somebody should have put the brakes on, knowing that this would eventually come out and come back to bite them in the ass. Now that time has come and the province will lose the services of a very capable and hard-working member of the inner circle of government.

It is no secret that Bern Coffey was a Liberal. He ran for the party leadership in 2011 and was a frequent financial contributor to the party throughout the years. His appointment was called cronyism by the opposition due to his close party ties, but nobody argued that he was qualified for the clerks job. As a former member of the 2041 group, many had hoped that Coffey would be a strong voice in discussions surrounding the Muskrat Falls project. By all accounts he took his position as clerk very seriously and it is unfortunate that he is leaving under circumstances that could have been avoided with a little common sense and transparency.

These are the types of decisions that leave many to question Dwight Ball’s leadership ability. The premier has had a tendency to make rash decisions without thinking them through and has spent more time back-peddling than pushing his agenda forward.  A decision like this one though is really hard to fathom. How could Ball or any of his senior team have thought that allowing your top bureaucrat to sue you in his spare time was a good idea? The whole thing is completely absurd. As one colleague put it to me: “They either have to be dumb or they just don’t care.” I used to think it was the former but now I am leaning towards the latter. Maybe the cynics are right and the Liberals know their time at the trough will be short so they are making sure to fill it up as much as they can.

How many more people will need to resign from this government before it becomes clear that the real problems are coming from the very top. Dwight Ball has made a career out of playing “duck and cover politics” without ever actually saying anything at all, and now it is becoming all too clear that he lacks the leadership qualities needed to manage our government. As much as Coffey should have known better than to keep that case, or the one against Western Health that surfaced in a CBC story this morning, Ball and the government should have been clear that any litigation against government is off limits for someone in such a position of power and confidence. It will be interesting to hear what Dwight Ball has to say later today when he meets with the press and even more interesting to see how the premier addresses the issue in question period as the house reopens after Easter break.

No matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on, it is hard not to agree that this was a very bad decision by the premier, and Coffey’s ultimate resignation was the only way that this story could possibly end. There was no way the public could continue to have confidence in Coffey’s role, and one way or another his time needed to come to an end.  It’s an unfortunate end to an unfortunate story and one that showcases the lack of thought that has been given to the most important decisions made by our government. We keep waiting for them to get it right, but somehow, they always seem to get it wrong. It makes me think my colleagues question might be the right one to ask. Are they dumb, or do they just not care?

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fighting for the Fishery

Fighting for the Fishery

By: Ryan Young

No matter how bad things got, you could always fish. That was the way of the world for generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians before the fish went away and the cod fishery closed in 1992. I was just a young boy then, growing up in a thriving fishing town on the Northern Peninsula. Before the moratorium, my hometown had 2 fish plants and seven stores (if you include the 2 gas stations) to service 700 residents. Twenty-five years later that number has dropped to just 428. Only 1 store remains open and both gas stations have closed. Despite being located in one of the provinces best tourist draws, Gros Morne, the town was unable to sustain enough employment to keep people there, and as more people moved away, the jobs became even scarcer as the town began to slide down an endless downward spiral. Sadly, this story is not unique to my hometown. It is the story of many people’s hometowns since the moratorium.

While many people left the fishing boats behind in search of more stable employment away, the ones who stayed behind faced a constant uphill battle to make a go of it without the precious cod to catch. The industry changed and modernized, and the remaining harvesters and plant workers dug in and did whatever they could to stay home and live the lives passed down from their fathers and grandfathers. It wasn’t easy, but those who did stay managed to adapt and find new ways to earn their living from the sea. They invested in new gear and they learned how to fish all sorts of new species. After all, fishing is not just a job, it is a way of life. That may sound like a cliché, but it is true nonetheless and must not be discounted if we are ever going to have a frank and open discussion about the fishery in this province.

Now, we move into an era where the biomass of species such as crab and shrimp that replaced the cod in the holds and tubs aboard so many boats have been decimated, and quotas are being drastically cut, fish harvesters are left to wonder how this can be happening again. Almost overnight, some quotas were slashed in half, jeopardizing many enterprises throughout the province. With more bad news announced last week about the capelin biomass, harvesters are bracing for yet another blow to an already weakened industry. On the heels of that, we learned yesterday that the price for northern shrimp will be cut by 45 cents this season making the reduced quotas even more detrimental to the bottom line of boat owners. It should come as no surprise that harvesters have been protesting and demanding answers and accountability to the issues that are threatening their very way of life.

After a quarter century of being told to be patient and put their trust in DFO, harvesters are still wondering why they are not being consulted when it comes to fish science and setting quotas. This is the heart of why harvesters gathered at DFO and FFAW offices over the past couple of weeks and why Richard Gillett endured an 11-day hunger strike to ask for adequate consultation before finally being taken away in an ambulance when his health began to fail. While many have questioned Gillett’s tactics, the point that many people seem to be missing is that he and many other harvesters have been going through the proper channels for a long time without any satisfaction and they are genuinely worried about their futures.  When people don’t have anywhere else to turn, they lash out in desperation. That is what we have been seeing from harvesters, pure desperation that they may be about to lose their entire way of life and they don’t even get a say in the matter.

Hundreds supported Gillett’s hunger strike in person and thousands more supported him online. For those involved in the fishery, such drastic actions were easily justified if it meant bringing some serious attention to the issues that harvesters in this province feel need to be addressed. Many are wondering where our 7 federal MP’s stand on the fishery and an e-petition is being circulated to call for a federal public inquiry into the NL fishery. While fish management is not technically a provincial government issue, many are also wondering why Dwight Ball and Steve Crocker have not taken a tougher stance with Ottawa on the major issues surrounding our fishery. Independent MHA, Paul Lane is calling on the premier to initiate an all-party committee on the fishery to develop a position paper for the federal government with recommendations on how to best manage the industry as we move toward the future. Both the petition and the all-party committee are good ideas that would open the lines of communication and hopefully facilitate cooperation between both levels of government and harvesters, to ensure that all of our elected officials and managers are acting in the best interest of industry stakeholders.

In light of media attention and public scrutiny, the FFAW has tried to pass the protests off as little more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by FISH-NL.  Blaming the labour dispute is an easy way out for Keith Sullivan, but protestors outside of the union office on Hamilton Road on Monday were all very quick to point out that they are all due-paying members of the FFAW and all they are asking for is a seat at the discussion table. With so much turmoil and uncertainty in the industry right now, it is hard to blame the harvesters for wanting better communication from the union and DFO, or for asking to be part of the science. For years’ harvesters have complained that they are not included enough when decisions are made concerning the fishery. Their knowledge is invaluable to the success of the scientists and to the future success of the industry, and it is time for them to have a real seat at the table.

It doesn’t matter if you live in St. John’s, St. Anthony, or St. Lewis the fishery is a province-wide issue and a strong fishery is good for all of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is obvious that despite their efforts so far, the federal government has not been able to properly manage our fishery in a sustainable fashion. People who depend on the fishery are fed up with the status quo and it is time that both our provincial and federal governments start to work together, and directly with harvesters in this province to develop a fisheries management plan that will address both the short-term and long-term needs and goals of the industry. Gone are the glory days of the fishery, but maybe if we start to work together with openness and transparency, we can find a way forward to ensure that we will still have a viable industry for generations to come.