In this issue, we are confronting a single problem that corrupts the politics of the province: our Liberal government’s insidious, systematic refusal to allow the citizens of Nova Scotia to participate in making major government policy decisions.
The issue at stake here, the tension between any government’s power and that government’s responsibilities to its citizens, is not a new one. In the first flowering of democracy in Greece, the Athenians wrestled with this problem. History shows us time and again how easily governments can con their subjects with “bright shiny objects” like promises of golf courses or long-delayed schools, today’s equivalent of the Romans’ bread and circuses.
The problem is how citizens can empower elected representatives to govern responsibly, while simultaneously defending against the abuse of the very power those same citizens have turned over to their representatives. This problem exists regardless of which party happens to be in power.
We all have heard the verdict on democracy often attributed to Winston Churchill, who allegedly said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others.
And if your definition of the glory of democracy is that at least the voters have the power every so often to throw the current raft of rascals out, then you should not be surprised at the level of contempt with which the Liberals have come to treat the people of Nova Scotia.
We have given the Liberals the responsibility to govern democratically. But the Liberals have increasingly used their power to ignore their responsibility to govern democratically, choosing instead to govern through the use of raw power, with democracy and the people be damned. Such behaviour creates a vicious circle of apathy, cynicism, and anger that only further alienate the people from any belief in the redemptive powers of democracy.
When a government chooses to hide its deliberations from the public, nothing good results, as we are seeing right now on the Eastern Shore in the fight to save Owls Head Provincial Park, and in the blow-back against the decision to place a consolidated Eastern Shore District High and Gaetz Brook Junior High in the Eastern Shore Industrial Park in East Chezzetcook.
In the case of Owls Head Provincial Park, Iain Rankin, our new Premier, then Minister of Lands & Forestry, has provided a particularly telling example of how profound the Liberals’ contempt for the voters really is. Rankin and the bureaucrats at Lands &Forestry engaged in at least three years of secret discussions resulting in the offer to sell Owls Head Provincial Park to an American billionaire’s company, Lighthouse Links, without the public’s knowledge. There were no public hearings about the wisdom of selling the park. There was no public information at all.
School Site Selection
We see exactly the same deep contempt for the people of Nova Scotia in the way that MLA Kevin Murphy and Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill have handled the process of picking a new site for Eastern Shore District High School.
In this case, the newly-elected Murphy stunned a community meeting in Musquodoboit Harbour in the summer of 2014 by unveiling a proposal that would effectively rip the heart out of the community by moving Eastern Shore District High, the Birches nursing home, and the skating rink to the desolate Eastern Shore Industrial Park in East Chezzetcook. Murphy’s proposal came completely out of the blue. At the Cooperator, we have never heard from anyone, or seen a single document, to indicate that Murphy had consulted with anyone before dropping his “campus” proposal.
There was no question that the high school was ready for replacement. And there was great excitement when Churchill finally announced that the province would replace ESDH.
But at a public meeting soon afterwards, Churchill did not even try to hide the government’s intent to make its own high-handed decision about the school location, with no input from the public or even from HRM. According to Churchill, the public’s participation in the old site selection process slowed things down too much, so he would be releasing a new process that would explicitly exclude the public from having a say.
It took Mr. Speed-It-Up more than a year to come up with a 5-page condensation of the previous site selection process. And as promised, Churchill eliminated any possibility of public participation in the site selection process itself. The word “public” only occurs once in this document.
Under the new regulations, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal is charged with conducting a “technical assessment” of proposed sites, starting with the existing site. And under Section 14C, “Before making a recommendation to the Minister under Clause 14B(1)(c), DTIR, in consultation with the Department and the regional centre, must provide information to the public on all the following: (a) the site selection process; (b) DTIR’s findings in respect of the proposed school building site.” [ESC’s emphasis]
Needless to say, Churchill ignored even this feeble responsibility to “provide information to the public” before announcing the industrial park site. Instead, he and his department beat a hasty retreat into the high dungeon of complete secrecy. And when aggrieved parties tried to use the province’s toothless Freedom of Information process to find out what was going on, EECD produced a 6 page memo in which all but a single opening sentence was blanked out (See “The Liberals’ Contempt for the People: The Eviscerated FOIPOP” in this issue).
What can we do?
First, just take a look around at some of the inspiring examples right here on the Shore of what can happen when communities get organized and pull together. In Sheet Harbour, there’s a new $10 million Wellness Centre in the works, the result of several years of sustained pressure from a broad-based community coalition. And don’t forget the visioning process in 2006-2007 in Musquodoboit Harbour that laid the basis for creating things like The Old School Community Gathering Place and MusGo Rider.
Then there are the courts. In the case of Owls Head, opponents of Rankin’s decision were successful in applying for a judicial review of the decision in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which is scheduled to take place on April 1, 2021. Thus far, no one has stepped forward to ask for a judicial review of the equally process-challenged school siting decision. Anyone wishing to challenge that decision has to file within 25 working days (March 9) of the announcement of the decision, February 2.
Strengthening the power of the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner (OPIC) would be one way to deal with the structural imbalance of power that allows Nova Scotia governments to routinely abuse the transparency provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. (For McNeil’s broken 2013 campaign promise to strengthen the FOIPOP Act, see “Stephen McNeil and the Toothless FOIPOP Act” in this issue.)
And we should explore the work people have been doing around the world with “citizen juries” and “deliberative democracy” to come up with solutions to problems that have stymied elected bodies. Like civil or criminal trial juries, citizen juries bring people together to deliberate, sometimes for several months, over dealing with some political problem. Unlike trial juries, however, citizen juries are usually empowered to call expert witnesses to educate and inform them. In some countries, the legislature authorizes the creation of citizen juries, and the findings from the jury’s deliberations then guide further deliberations in the legislature.
But in the end, the strength of a democracy depends on the willingness of people to do what sometimes can be very difficult and even dangerous work. As the great American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, put it so well in a speech in 1857 before the onset of the American Civil War:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Photo: Murphys Lake at the northern edge of Owls Head Provincial Park