A democratic moment

January 20, 2010 2:04 PM

Yes, we've just experienced a democratic moment in New Brunswick politics. But no one should think that this has been the kind of consultation that the Shawn Graham Liberals were looking for.

Leave aside whether the new agreement satisfies you, or addresses the objections out there. There was an unprecedented populist reaction to the original memorandum of understanding, and the government responded. In that sense, the system worked rather robustly.

But there's reason to be skeptical about the Liberal assertion that this was the process they wanted when they made noises last October about consulting New Brunswickers. They would have preferred a quieter, tidier exercise. And make no mistake: the deal announced last fall, including the outright sale of NB Power, was their first choice. If New Brunswick and Quebec could have got that deal through, they would have.

If this had been genuinely about hearing from New Brunswickers and sorting out the best idea with the populace, the Liberals would have used a different opening gambit: a lengthier discussion last year of the problems facing NB Power (problems the Liberals played down until late 2009), a presentation of a range of options to be explored with Hydro-Qu├ębec and some public hearings.

Instead, the obvious favourite option was put out there with the hope (or in the self-confident belief) that the public would accept it. Only when the opposition became too overwhelming did the government retreat.

The rebellion by a group of cabinet ministers and MLAs is also being cited as evidence the system worked. MLAs listened to their constituents, presented their views to the government, and an unpopular plan changed. But ministers and members push back on, and modify, proposals all the time, and we never hear about it. This Gang of Five chose to go public after the deal had been changed. That they felt the need to do this is a measure of how enduringly toxic the dead-and-buried October proposal, and the process that came with it, may be to their re-election campaigns.

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