I felt like Winston Smith when I found what I was seeking in the newspaper archives. I hung on like to a ring buoy holding me above a tidal wave of lies. And I swore that this election, I would support truth.
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith unearths a tattered article that survived the mass destruction of historical records. It confirms his memory is correct and the all-powerful governing Party is lying. It gives him back sanity, and strength.
Thankfully, Winston’s world is imaginary. Nevertheless, I’m still holding on to what I uncovered.
Last election, Gordon Campbell and numerous Liberal ministers-in-waiting really did unequivocally and repeatedly state there was absolutely no chance they’d sell BC Hydro or BC Rail, reduce healthcare funding, or bring in major public service cuts. Significant promises, which arguably tipped the election 10% from squeaker to landslide.
If I was a Liberal MLA, I’d feel embarrassed. Humiliated. I’d have resigned my riding long ago, showering in apologies. Wouldn’t you?
But broken promises and outright lying have become common features of modern governments. Many politicians act like the general public is merely a voting lapdog who needs to be tossed a pretty-coloured, fake bone every four years. Almost regardless of political persuasion, our governments are becoming increasingly disdainful towards us. Daily, they’ll dupe the media, reject public input, ignore experts, deny obvious truths, circumvent laws, and concentrate power in their own hands. Overall, they’re becoming more fascistic. And we keep eating it up.
This isn’t Nazi Germany, Zimbabwe or even Guántanamo Bay, but those are extremes. Essentially, authoritarianism is heightened centralization of government power, and BC has markedly moved in that direction this decade.
Consider the current government. The BC Liberals delivered crippling cuts to public services and social security, re-wrote fundamental laws from child labour to elder care, privatized countless assets, erased union contracts, dismantled regional health bodies, let tuitions skyrocket, lowered the minimum wage, expunged the Forest Practices Code, undermined legal aid, and caused many courts, schools, parks, and shelter and hospital beds to close around the province, all while extensively restructuring every ministry. It was as if their project were “Operation Shock and Awe Everybody Into Submission”. Environmental protection deregulation? “Many [bills] were passed in a matter of days with no consultation and very little legislative debate,” wrote West Coast Environmental Law. BC Hydro sell-off? Legislation was “rammed” through in a week “with absolutely no public consultation,” stated BC Citizens for Public Power. Closures and privatizations in parks? The government was “refusing to conduct broad public consultation” protested Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Labour Code and Employment Standards re-writes? “This one-month timeline suggests that the Government is not interested in real dialogue,” argued the BC Teachers’ Federation. Even two Liberal MLAs publicly complained about being steamrolled!
This government has also exhibited a characteristically tyrannical approach to law: Create ways to rule above the law. The Liberals’ Delivery Improvement Act, for instance, allows them to ignore many legal contracts. Their Significant Projects Streamlining Act allows ministers to overrule virtually any laws constraining “significant” developments.
Notably, many MLAs publicly denied the Streamlining Act allows ministers to ignore parks boundaries, bypass municipal land use regulations, or legalize illegal effluents, but the Act transparently contradicts them. Dictatorial decision-makers are typically immune in this way to rational argument or even self-evident truth. Organizations representing hundreds of scientists publicly protested their ignoring scientific facts in numerous decisions, e.g. government-appointed fish farming experts made recommendations, and the government largely did the opposite. The Liberals deny they’re selling BC Hydro or expanding gambling, even as they’re doing both. Privately, I asked my MLA why they’d instituted certain heartrending cutbacks. He pleaded that they simply didn’t have enough money. Then why give billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest 20%? He explained that this was an investment. Witness his mind’s version of logical math: Giving money to the rich stimulates the economy, but giving money to the poor is a devastating cost drain.
Worse, modern authoritarians are learning ways to ensure their dubious achievements outlive petty elections. Our Liberal government, for example, proudly claims they abolished over 173,000 “burdensome” regulations in health, safety, building standards and other fields. Some were undoubtedly out-of-date. But while deleting hundreds of pieces of legislation per day, how much thoughtful weighing of the public interest could have been going on? And the years of stakeholder consultations that went into creating many of those will never be gotten back. Just like we’ll probably never get back BC Rail, BC Ferries, MSP administration or any other privatized assets, all of which are now ticking time bombs, soon to ignite cost explosions beneath our feet.
This isn’t partisan; the Liberals’ term has been unprecedented in degree but not nature. Such authoritarianism has developed under the NDP, Social Credit and governments around North America. So why are we voting for these people? Even if we like some of their aims, how can we support disdain for the public, and for truth? Wouldn’t any candidates genuinely willing to discuss issues be better?
Winston Smith’s world was too dangerous for him to speak out. If this were truly a wholly fascist state, probably we couldn’t publicly criticize like this. But if BC were truly democratic, neither would our government be able to simply ignore widespread public criticisms.
Either way, we know Winston would cherish our opportunity to support truth at the ballot box.
Originally published in Focus, April 2005.