23 October 2009

Kremlinology 9: By-elections

If it seems to you that there have been more by-elections since 2003 than at any comparable previous time in recent political history, you are absolutely correct.

Twice as many, in fact.

On average there was one by-election per year between  1982 and 2003.  But in the period of the provincial government’s greatest prosperity, politicians have been leaving their jobs on average at the rate of two per year.

There have been a dozen by-elections in the six years since the provincial Conservatives returned to power in 2003.  In the six years before that there were only seven and in the entire period of Liberal rule – four Premiers and 14 years – there were 16.

And just to really drive the point home, in the seven years between Brian Peckford’s massive victory and the fall of Tom Rideout’s Tories in 1989, there were just six.

The Conservatives have also shed more cabinet ministers compared to any administration since 1982 and lost them in unusual or controversial situations.

Former Tory leader Ed Byrne resigned to face corruption charges.  Former leader Loyola Sullivan left politics in a complete shocker later that same year. Paul Shelley resigned suddenly in early 2007.  Since the 2007 general election, Tom Rideout packed it in during a dispute over road paving work.  Trevor Taylor walked in the middle of controversies over health care cuts, fisheries and forestry affecting his district and Paul Oram pulled pin a week after Taylor amid controversy over health care cuts.

Here’s the data:

1.   Number of by-elections since October 2003:  13

  • Exploits
  • Placentia and St. Mary's
  • Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi
  • Port au Port
  • Kilbride
  • Ferryland
  • Humber Valley
  • Labrador West
  • Baie Verte-Springdale – 2007*
  • Baie Verte-Springdale – 2008
  • Cape St. Francis
  • The Straits & White Bay North
  • Terra Nova

*  Cabinet minister Paul Shelley resigned in early 2007 necessitating a by-election in Baie Verte-Springdale.  In the event, the by-election wasn’t called until late in the year with a date a few days before the general election.  The writ for the by-election was vacated by the general election writ.  The seat was won by Tom Rideout who resigned the next year.

2.  Number of by-Elections in same period before 2003 (i.e. 1997 to 2003): 7

  • Trinity North
  • The Straits & White Bay North
  • St. Barbe
  • Port de Grave
  • Humber West
  • Bonavista North
  • Conception Bay South

3.   Number of by-elections between 1989 and 2003:  16

4.   Number of by-elections between 1982 and 1989: 6



Jason Hickman said...

The stat that you didn't include, which I'd be interested in seeing (for both the current 6-year period, and the previous one), is: whether the seat-leavers who caused the by-election were from the government side, or the opposition, and whether there was a switch in parties after the by-election.

For instance, in the '03-'09 period, Kilbride was a government seat before and after the by-election, and SHQV was an opposition/NDP seat before & after. I'd be interested in how many times the seat switched.

Many times, by-elections come around when members from the party that lost the election decide that they don't want to serve out a full term in opposition - but I suspect that may not be the case here to a great degree.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Good point, Jason.

1. Let me start by noting that the increased frequency of by-elections in the past five years is paralleled by the turn-over in cabinet and in the senior executive.

2. By my quick scan, of the by-elections since 2003, only three were opposition members who packed it in for one reason or another. The rest were caused by incumbents who departed for a variety of reasons.

3. Particularly noticeable is the high number of by-elections caused by cabinet ministers who resigned from both cabinet and the House. Since 2007, all by-elections have been caused by these sorts of sudden departures. Before 2007, you had most noticeably Ed Byrne and Loyola Sullivan.

4. Who won the by-elections isn't really an issue of any consequence. What is noticeable is that at a time when you have basically a very large number of newbie MHAs, incredible prosperity in the province (and hence an easy political climate), a relatively tame media (the childish whining of DW et al to the contrary), and several other factors, these guys have been bailing in disproportionately high numbers and - by my rough glance - disproportionately from the ruling party.

Jason Hickman said...

Re: #2 - is the trend very different for the 6 years pre-03?

Re: #4 - I think it's important, in that a switch in parties can possibly symbolize bigger changes on the horizon (eg. Tobin's old seat going PC back), or that the folks in the district were (or were not) upset that a by-election was forced on them.

Edward G. Hollett said...

The answer to both is simple: yes. The trends before 2003 were very different.

I looked at this earlier so I am going off the top of my head here, but of the 15 by-elections since 1997 (I left out St. John's West inadvertently and am discounting the two not finished) only six involved changes of party by my count.

The ones you are thinking of came in a clump between 1997 and 2000 and all involved government politicians who went on to other things.

As for opposition guys taking their leave, after 1989, two by-elections were caused by an opposition politician who wanted to move along and after 1993 there was only another one of those opposition types who left.

Now if you look at it another way you can see the way the recent trend is so striking. Of the 13 by-elections since 2003, eight involve the government caucus.

Nine of the by-elections 17 between 1989 and 2003 were government caucus but, the majority of those came after 1997.

No matter how you slice it, the current situation is significantly different.

The picture that grows up here is one of turmoil and a very unusual turmoil at that. There is related in the senior bureaucracy.

There is, I would suggest, a correlation between this turmoil and the problems with getting things done. There are lots of things that have gone MIA with this crew.

It is also related - somehow - to the flip flopping on major policy issues over relatively short spans of time.

The recent business on lab and x-ray is just compressed in time somewhat; it's actually quite common on even bigger issues like Equalization.

We have another flip-flop or confusion over EU trade.

Then there is the whole thing with energy: Rhode Island and Gros Morne case being just two examples out of a much larger problem with an energy policy that is effectively dead in the water.

Turmoil and really wild inconsistency must make it a hectic, wearying place to work.

Managing the chaos (or what may seem like chaos) would probably be the best way to describe the way it might seem at times. All that is without adding in the sorts of scandals like the House mess and breast cancer.

It also means that there is great difficulty in building the kind of team relationships (politicald and political-bureaucratic) needed to get through tough spots like the current one.

In one sense, shedding cabinet ministers like these last two seems to be a symptom of the deeper problems.

Now the members of The Fan CLub won't like this sort of commentary but when you look at a series of indicators you sometimes see some very striking patterns. Those patterns are quite disconcerting.