Last week I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with a class of political science majors at UPEI. The discussion centred around democratic reform, but it also branched off in many interesting and provocative directions. Following an answer I gave on how different voting systems affect the behaviour of elected representatives – with some tending to promote antagonism and hostility, while others promote collaboration and compromise – I was asked what the purpose of the opposition is in a parliament. Surely, the individual insisted, the opposition is there to oppose government and hold them to account?

One of many mysteries that I have had to unravel is what it means to oppose government. I may not be part of the official opposition, but as the third party representative in the House, part of my responsibility is to oppose the government; to critique their agenda and pick apart legislation. I have also made it my business to recognize and applaud a good idea when I hear it (whether that comes from government, the official opposition or outside the rail), and to always consider whatever issue is up for discussion with an open mind. This aspiration requires me to be honest and straightforward about both good and bad policies, as well as calling out political manoeuvring and posturing for what they are.

Last week the government made an announcement about the future of energy on PEI. Contained in the announcement were several different strands – the cancelling of the CT4 diesel generator, the commitment to conservation and to a more diverse generating capacity, and that there would be rate increases of 2.3% for each of the next 3 years. Partly because there are many facets to this announcement, as an opposition MLA, I could have gone several ways with my response. I celebrated the cancellation of CT4; I commended the government for their stated commitment to conservation and a more diverse production model (“the Liberal government is implementing Green party energy policy, and I’m delighted to see that” is actually what I said); and while I lamented the fact that there will be rate increases (amounting to around $2.60 per month for the average household) I pointed out the fact that the longer we delay our transition to renewable green energy, the more vulnerable we will be, as carbon pricing flows through the economy pushing up rates of power derived from fossil fuels, and as expensive public investments (like the shelved CT4 diesel generator would undoubtedly have been) become stranded assets.

Jamie Fox, leader of the official opposition has called for an emergency sitting of the legislature to debate the rate increases.

Putting aside the tangly monster that is energy production, distribution and regulation on PEI, I have to say that I think Mr. Fox is over-reacting. While the rate increase is regrettable, a more thoughtful appraisal of the situation would perhaps have given him time to pause and reserve such drastic notions as an emergency sitting of the legislature for a more worthy crisis.

The solutions to building a resilient, cost-effective and equitable power grid on PEI are enormously complicated, and deserve to be thoroughly debated in the House. We need to talk about the fact that these rate increases will not go toward public spending, but a private company’s (Maritime Electric) operating budget. Maybe it’s time to seriously consider having public ownership of our electricity utility, or even hybrid ownership, as recommended by the PEI Energy Commission report in 2012.

The citizens of PEI also need to ask whether those elected to their House who are tasked with the responsibility of holding government to account are really opposing, or merely posing.

-Peter

 

8 Comments

  1. islandbikers 5 February 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Given the public’s historical “entitlement” for drama, it strikes me that it has become imperative for a politician to be seen as driven by conflict. To a large degree, the public push for drama and conflict encourages politicians to be performers. After-all, if there’s no conflict, there’s no drama, there’s no need for a performer.

    In this, conflict is an addictive drug. At all costs, the performer-politician goes out looking for their conflict fix; without it they don’t know what their performance even looks like. Of course, this causes practical problems.

    Sometimes conflict can’t be found in sufficient quantities. However, and herein lies the rub, it can be manufactured. While manufacturing conflict may be good to keep the public entertained, it does little for the discipline of politics. That is to say, unless one thinks politics is nothing but performance. Not me. You?

    Fortunately, there is a significant audience that still believes politics isn’t just a performance. That audience believes politics is a discipline. It’s a discipline that has the hard job of accurately identifying and securing remedies for critical problems. True problems, boring difficult complicated problems. Problems that, to be solved, requires tedious cooperation much more than entertaining conflict.

    In many disciplines other than politics there’s a useful distinction made between practice and performance. Think medicine, education, mathematics . . . research and all rigorous meaningful inquiry. In these disciplines there is always more practice than performance.

    So, here’s the question: Is it too much to ask of Island politicians to draw from these disciplines; to dismantle manufactured conflict and replace it with what’s necessary to get the real job done? There is an audience that desperately needs to know your answer.

     
    • Bill Kays (@RebootBill) 7 February 2016 at 10:39 am

      I agree entirely with IslandBikers statements. We have no real way to measure the performance of a politician. What is even worse, when we finally realize a politician is corrupt or incompetent, the public has no way to have them immediately removed from office.The 4 year cycle is too long if someone needs to go, as they can and have make quite a mess in the past.

       
  2. Bill Kays 6 February 2016 at 11:01 am

    Mr Bevan Baker is correct that Fox is over reacting. I live on a low low fixed income and even I recognize these increases as ‘acceptable’ poison. I think though that your mention of the RUB should be explained more thoroughly though. The Hegelian dialect principles have been used in politics almost forever. The theory is composed of three parts, thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. Basically, they create a problem, let the people get frantic about it, then they swoop in with the solution to the problem, at the correct time. Much of what government does gets done this way, in my very humble opinion. If you want to talk about disciplines, let’s talk about transparency, accountability and truth in government. Those are the three disciplines I want to see shown by all of our MLAs and Premier. I see Old Wadey Boy as the problem, rather than the solution.

     
    • islandbikers 6 February 2016 at 6:16 pm

      To the degree our current members of the Legislature mindfully employ the principles of dialectical reasoning will remain a mystery, at least to me. I did suggest there are disciplines from which politicians could draw from to guide their practice. However, I meant historically grounded academic disciplines, not so much self-discipline. Although, a tad more of that wouldn’t hurt either.

      In my mini-rant I omitted the word “academic” for a reason; I fear the word is too often dismissed as something outside of “the real world” or somehow magically disengaged from the muddle within which we all live. Which is, I think, somewhat odd. Along with millions of others, don’t we agree that the truth seeking, transparency and accountability we call for are found, to an evolving and sufficient degree, within traditional academic disciplines?

      And so, here’s the rub: Don’t we agree that these same principles ought to exist with, and be delivered by, those who practice politics? The point I’m trying to make is if the features so many want in politics don’t exist in politics, it may be a helpful reminder to politicians that they do exist, measurably, in other places. Places that call themselves science, places of qualitative and quantitative research . . . and yes, even in authentic open-minded discourse. Discourses dedicated to the methodological identification and solution of problems, and truth.

      But of course, if politicians choose to see themselves more as a performers than “disciplined” practitioners, everything I’ve rambled about is moot.

       
    • jmsmacinnis1 6 February 2016 at 6:17 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly!There is so much propaganda, and fear mongering associated with public policy today and little transparency because special interests and corporate lobbyists have a vested interest in swaying public opinion and through campaign contribtions and they exercise too much control over elected officials.

       
  3. Wendy Jones 6 February 2016 at 3:45 pm

    What we need to do is get rid of the phrase “opposition” altogether. Each of our elected personnel are representatives of the people. A system that depends on, that demands opposition rather than cooperation, is necessarily flawed.

    Dissolving the “party” system would make each member of government (on all levels) responsible for their own decisions and make it much more difficult for lobby groups to control them.

    Electoral reform should encompass sweeping changes. Firstly, do away with “First Past the Post” so the majority of the population actually elects their representative.

    Secondly, do away with the party system. It restricts our elected representatives from putting forth and speaking for ideas that they might feel are good – just because their “party” tells them it is their job to do what the party says rather than what they themselves feel is good for the people. The elitist characteristics of today’s dominant parties is unavoidable, after all, everyone in both parties used to be elected from the ruling class alone from people who already had a sense that they were superior over the “people”. They were also founded on the principal that only male property owners were good enough represent the people and to vote. Elected officials should be there to do what is best for the people in their riding, their Province and their country with no preference being given to one segment of society over another. The “party” system works to pit people against each other instead of encouraging us to work together.

    Thirdly, election campaigns should be funded from the public purse with candidates running purely in their own riding. During a mandated transition period, elected officials would remain in their seats giving time for new representatives to let their platforms be known so they could elect a Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers from the floor.

     
    • jmsmacinnis1 6 February 2016 at 6:26 pm

      The opposition, is supposed to be one of the official watchdogs of democracy but in reality their true goal is to work at destroying the sitting government in an attempt to make theselves the viable alternative. Aii parties gain power, not by appealing to reason and common sense but by appealing to specific constituencies and interest groups. This is what makes polititons so untrustworthy!

       
    • Bill Kays (@RebootBill) 7 February 2016 at 10:46 am

      Yes Wendy, the legislature should be one of co-operation rather than opposition. This takes place naturally when many parties make up the legislature. A better representation of the people also occurs with more parties. With only one or two big parties they get to take turns as dictators rather than legislators or governors. We need either many parties or real proportional representation. Direct democracy based on ‘open everything’ architecture is the way to go as representative government always fails at efficiency and doing the will of the people.

       

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