Gazette

Address to convocation by Dr. Lynn Verge


(June 4, 1998, Gazette)

I'm proud to share this convocation stage with the graduates who just earned your bachelor's and master's degrees through years of attending classes, studying, writing papers and exams, and resisting temptations to spend money on other things. Congratulations, class of 1998!

I was a Memorial bachelor of arts graduate in 1970 and I've had many associations with Memorial in the years since. Being honored today by my university, by Newfoundland's university, is very special for me. In 1970 when I got my BA, I had a lively interest in politics, especially Newfoundland party politics, but I did not for a minute imagine that I would ever end up being a politician. Politicians were older men with black overcoats and felt hats. There wasn't one single woman in the House of Assembly. "Dorothy Wyatt - She Won't Be Quiet"- bumper stickers for the first campaign of the future St. John's councillor were just spotted the spring I finished at Memorial. Besides, I was rather quiet - the least likely student in Burke House to end up in the House of Assembly I was later told.

Well, as my life turned out, I have been a politician of some longevity; I've spent most of my adult life involved in politics; and I relish the political experiences I've had. In addressing this convocation today, I want to recommend politics as a vocation for members of the class of '98. I want to challenge graduates and others listening to take part in the political process.

Just about everyone subscribes to the notion that democracy is vital and government is necessary and important. Yet many people disparage politics - party politics, government politics - as being dirty and contemptuous. "You're playing politics," is a common put-down in political debate. What are politicians supposed to do but play politics? (No one insults scientists by accusing them of playing science, or mocks lawyers by saying they're practicing law. There are other ways of mocking lawyers.) People frequently said to me while I was in the House of Assembly, "How can you stand it - all the nastiness, all the public scrutiny?" Some who expressed such doubts were university faculty, to whom I would reply, "At least where I am the nastiness is out in the open." I would point out that wherever there's a group of people there's "small-p" politics, and in closed institutions where the competition and jealousies are suppressed, the environment is not as healthy as in the comparatively open forum of Confederation Building.

Since the last election, people sometimes say, "You must be relieved to be out of it." Well, actually, no, I'm not. On the whole, I found my years in politics, particularly the 17 years I held elective office, very satisfying and, since I lost the last election, I've been participating in party politics as a volunteer.

The poor image of politics is not fair and it's harmful. Good people are discouraged from running for elective office because of the false beliefs about the unseemliness of politics. And when well-educated, talented, energetic people abandon the field, it will be occupied by other than the best and brightest. The more people shun politics because they think it's hopelessly contaminated, the dirtier politics will become. After all, in a democracy, politics is what we make it.

We might pause and examine what we have made of politics in Newfoundland. Our record is rather dismal. The lowest point, and a pivotal point, came in 1934 when our House of Assembly voted unanimously to suspend our democracy, leading to 15 years of rule by a British-appointed commission. We are probably the only jurisdiction in the world to have voluntarily abandoned democracy in favour of dictatorship.

Another low point came when we joined Canada without getting back our sovereignty and without having an elected Newfoundland government negotiate our terms of union.

After Confederation, the Canadian government appointed the first premier. Once elections eventually resumed, for many years there was no effective opposition and Premier Smallwood operated virtually a one-man government with few checks or balances. It wasn't until the government changed in the 1970s that there were even requirements for public tendering or the merit principle for government hiring.

As one political scientist said to me, democracy is rather thin in Newfoundland. Why is this? Weren't there opportunities for people to do better? Are we doing better now? Or, in the late 1990s, are we allowing things to slip back to the way they were in the 1960s? I'm sorry to say that I see signs of regression.

That's where you graduates come in. Equipped as you are with the skills and knowledge you have acquired, you now have the opportunity to get involved in politics and make a contribution. Don't be frightened off by the notion that politics is demeaning because it's not true. And don't be discouraged by the more insidious excuse that you can't change anything, because you can - and if you don't, someone else will, and you may not like the result.

When I tell you politics is an important calling and that my experience in politics has been positive, I'm not saying it's all sweetness and light, because it's not. Politics, after all, is about people - the good, the bad and the ugly. Politics is about competition among people - groups and individuals - for influence over public policy and allocation of public resources. Politics is about greed but it's also about generosity. In my years in politics, I've seen much more of the best of human nature than the worst.

The evolution of Newfoundland politics in the 1970s and 1980s included the institution of safeguards against government corruption: 1) a legally-mandated open and fair public tendering process for awarding public contracts; 2) a public service commission to enforce the merit principle for hiring government employees; and 3) freedom of information legislation. The existence of these protections for most of the time I've participated in politics accounts in no small measure for my overall positive experience. Politicians are much less likely to succumb to their baser instincts - or the baser instincts of their constituents who are clamouring for favours - if there are prohibitions and penalties. These safeguards are not free of loopholes, however, and with downsizing and legislative amendments, protections can be circumvented or neutralized. We must guard against losing the ground we gained in the 1970s and 1980s; we must not slide back to the 1960s.

And what is it about participation in the political process that I have found satisfying? While I was an MHA, I loved the variety of opportunities to work on large policy questions juxtaposed with the daily job requirement of responding to individual constituents' requests for help with personal problems. The individual cases often shed light on larger policy issues. I took pleasure from meeting people in their communities, in their work places, in their homes - people who were almost unfailingly hospitable. When I was in the government, I saw enough progress to make me believe the effort was worthwhile - fairer representation of women, school arts programs, family law reform, a new lease on life for the Corner Brook newsprint mill. In opposition, I was mindful of checks and balances being essential for a healthy democracy, and I occasionally saw a tangible result such as the halt of the government's plans to sell Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. Out of the House of Assembly, as a private advocate, I've participated in lobbying efforts that seemed to make a dent, particularly back in the heady days of the women's movement in the 1970s. There are many ways to participate in politics. What you need is motivation to make a difference and friends to collaborate with and spur you on. Think about it. If the least likely student in Burke House circa 1968 could end up as a politician and like it, so can you!