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Surely not a kick in the asphalt

I grew up in a one-industry town, Ottawa. The Government of Canada was the principal employer and most everyone either worked for government or worked for someone who worked for or delivered product or advice or services to the Government of Canada.

Our family was no different. My father moved to Ottawa to take a job as a public servant, then became a political aide to government and ultimately a Member of Parliament.  

Since suppertime talk around the table, particularly when there were guests, centred on the doings of government, we kids absorbed much of the lore about how this one-industry town worked. 

We learned from listening to our parents and their friends to recognize the signs that foretold what was likely to happen next in our one-industry town before it actually took place.

We knew, for example, if we heard the word “arrogant” more and more frequently when adults spoke about the government, that it was likely that particular government’s days in power were numbered.

We also learned that one of the clearest signs that an election was just around the corner was the sight of paving machines putting down new asphalt. 

We children around the table grew to understand that people who lived where the new pavement was put down would gratefully vote for the government who put it there. It was a given. 

Growing up in Ottawa, you could count on it like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. I assumed it was the same everywhere in the country.  

When I moved to Newfoundland and Labrador I noted that the familiar close link between ballot box and paving machine was indeed in place throughout the province.  

From the Avalon in the east to the Humber Valley in the west to the Trans-Labrador Highway in the north, it was comforting to see the same pattern of electoral politics that I grew up with repeated. Buying people’s votes using their own money was firmly in place. In a way it made me feel that I had never left home.

That’s why I was so unsettled when the news seeped out that Frank Coleman, our soon-to-be third consecutive unelected Tory premier, was doing something alarmingly different. Instead of presenting the public with a gift of new pavement paid for with their own money, he was turning the whole asphalt-for-votes equation on its head.  

I couldn’t understand it. I wished for a moment that I could be transported back all those years to my parents’ supper table to hear what they and their friends would have to say about Mr. Coleman’s daring variation on a theme so familiar to us all.

When Mr. Coleman’s paving company signed a deal with the provincial government it was understood that he would pave W kilometres of highway for a total of X dollars, the job to be finished in Y weeks.

Mr. Coleman agreed that if, in the highly unlikely case he failed to fulfill those terms, he would have to pay the provincial government Z dollars. Those Z dollars would go toward setting up a new contract, calling for tenders and signing with a different company to finish the job Mr. Coleman had defaulted on.   

The idea here was not to punish Mr. Coleman, who everybody says is a very nice man, but to ensure that the taxpayer would not have to foot the bill a second time for setting up a second contract to finish the job.

As everyone in NL not a full-time resident of the Funks knows by now, to everyone’s utter amazement, three days before stepping forward to offer himself as the third consecutive unelected Tory premier of the province, Mr. Coleman did indeed default on the contract and the paving machines ground to a halt.

I imagine at this point, Frank Coleman got together to commiserate with his close friend Tom Marshall, the second consecutive unelected Tory premier. Tom no doubt said how sorry he was about Frank defaulting on the contract but wished him well in his new job. Frank, in turn, would have wished Tom a happy retirement.  

The mood was no doubt like the end of a pleasant restaurant meal. As the two good friends got up to leave, a pair of nice men, as everybody says, they somehow forgot to pay for the meal. An innocent oversight.

I truly can’t believe what some cynical people have suggested that Frank is trying to take the asphalt-for-votes trade-off one step further. He is going to give the taxpayers no asphalt and put their money in his own pocket. That can’t be. He’s too nice a man for that. Everybody likes him and he likes everybody. Even people he hasn’t met. Many of them not yet born. 

By the time you read this, Frank Coleman will no doubt have already realized his mistake and paid the missing Z dollars he owes the Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers. All will be well and Mr. Coleman, head held high, will stride confidently into his new job as the third consecutive unelected Tory premier and everyone will live happily ever after.

— Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following:



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