ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador has been so far off the radar this summer it is possible people have forgotten there is such a thing.
Even the seemingly endless political train wreck of Labrador MP Peter Penashue has been blown off with a collective shrug and a look that says, “Yeah, what else is new?”
Penashue, you may recall, is the intergovernmental affairs minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Elections Canada has pointed out that Penashue spent too much in his 2011 campaign.
His campaign boss ended up apologizing for the spending errors.
But in the past two months, no one in the circles I have travelled has uttered a sentence about politics or politicians.
It was kind of sad, really, watching political junkies digging through the Dumpster scavenging news scraps about Muskrat Falls, looking for talking points to fill their tweets, blogs and incoherent rants on talk radio.
Until this week.
Now that the regatta and the folk festival are over in St. John’s and people are getting back from holidays, a few government actions have raised heads from their summer stupor.
Many people are now questioning of the ethics and intelligence of Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s government.
A government decision to spray a toxic herbicide it banned last year has set off a chemical reaction among environmentalists and others who have worked for years to end the spraying of pesticides and herbicides.
Even though it banned the use of Tordon 101, which contains the known toxin 2,4-D, the government said it will spray it along hundreds of kilometres of roadsides to kill brush. Opponents say it is poison and the government should use mechanical clearing.
Transportation and Works Minister Tom Hedderson said the spraying program is necessary to keep highways safe and the chemical is no more dangerous than salt.
In Bonavista, town councillor John Norman voiced his dissatisfaction with the provincial government’s maintenance of the town’s historic sites.
All are major tourism attractions that bring traffic to the remote community.
In response, Mayor Betty Fitzgerald wrote a letter to Tourism Minister Derrick Dalley saying Norman doesn’t speak for the town, and she hoped his comments would not jeopardize council’s standing with the government.
Fair enough, but Fitzgerald didn’t write the letter. She asked a political aide of Bonavista Tory MHA Glen Little to write the letter, and Fitzgerald signed it.
Last week, the government announced that MHAs are now forbidden to approach civil servants when dealing with constituent issues and must now go through a minister’s executive assistant or the minister.
Executive assistants are political appointees who are usually friends of the minister or the party.
NDP MHA Gerry Rogers said it is a violation of confidentiality and politicizes the work that they do when working on behalf of constituents. Rogers believes the move puts a chill on people seeking help from their elected representatives.
With the polls showing the provincial NDP making significant gains while the Tories are dropping like a lead jigger, it is hard to imagine this as anything but a move to limit the effectiveness of opposition members and their legitimate role in an honest democracy.
You have to wonder if anyone in the province understands the meaning of conflict of interest. Or maybe they just don’t care because this is how politics has always been done in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The decline of the Roman Catholic Church in the province coincided with rising literacy rates. That is because education and knowledge are power.
Now that citizens have become politically literate and aware, the power elite are losing their magical powers.
Greg Locke is The Chronicle Herald’s correspondent in Newfoundland and Labrador.