Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Political science fiction

Newspaper columnists have their tricks of the trade, or ways to engage readers in written combat.

One trick is to make a strong, unpopular argument — one the columnist may not necessarily agree with — for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of people.

A sports columnist, for example, may write a column on the eve of the Royal St. John’s Regatta that rowing isn’t a “real” sport.

That would stir people up (the crowd lakeside, for sure), and generate a few letters to the editor.

A.k.a. badges of honour.


That particular journalistic trick came to mind when I read an article in the Weekend Telegram, Political myth-busting, in which two Memorial University political science professors tackle a number of NL political “myths.”

My immediate reaction was that the professors — Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby — were trying to get a rise out of NLers.

No more, no less.

Myth No. 1

That the province would be better off if it didn’t join Canada.

Which “ignores the fact” that NF was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time of Confederation.

First things first, that’s not true — NF was not on the verge of bankruptcy in ’49.

Newfoundland was broke and teetering on bankruptcy in the early 1930s when the country surrendered its democracy for a government by commission, but our finances were strong by the late ’40s.

As for being better off on our own, arguments could be made either way.

Myth No. 2

The reason for the collapse of the fishery, and our tendency to blame “Ottawa, Quebec or foreigners.”

Anybody but ourselves, in other words.

I recommend Marland and Kerby pick up a copy of the 2010 book, Managed Annihilation, History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse, by Dean Bavington.

As the title indicates, Managed Annihilation contends that northern cod were administered into virtual extinction.

Three guesses who did the administering.

Myth No. 3

It’s not the province’s fault it was ripped off by the Upper Churchill agreement.

No question, Joey Smallwood himself can take much of the blame.

The contract was signed, and a contract is a contract, but it's not as simple as that.

In 2005 Dr. Jim Feehan and Melvin Baker wrote a report called The Origins of the Coming Crisis: Renewal of the Upper Churchill Contract.

The paper raises questions of conflict-of-interest, economic duress, and business ethics.

There’s loads of blame to go around.

Myth No. 4

An independent Newfoundland would be “very successful.”

As the former editor-in-chief of The Independent newspaper, I’ve never heard it said that we could be “very successful” as a separate country.

If anything, the thought of separation from Canada scares the Bejesus out of people.

Because of the unknown.

Myth No. 5

Government can save rural Newfoundland.

The reason for settlement has apparently “vanished.”

Said Marland, “The reason for people living in all these small communities no longer exists.”

Talk about a defeatist attitude.

The fish resource can — and must — be rebuilt.


Marland says political myths exist due to the province's fervent sense of nationalism.

“Nationalists will keep saying things that advocate their points of view and they will conveniently ignore things that don’t."

But often legitimate grievances about Confederation are written off as the whines of nationalists from downtown bar stools.

From my perspective, the first rule of journalism is that there are two sides to every story.

Maybe it should also be the first rule of political science.