11 September 2007

Danny Williams: I am my own electoral grandpa

In the land of completely useless news releases, one on Monday from the Premier's Office would surely be crowned king.

That is, it would be useless if it didn't reveal a far more serious problem with the current Elections Act than the trivial bit of business it purports to discuss.

Let's see if we can map out the problem.

The release headline purports to explain that a by-election is being called for Baie Verte district, yet at no point does the release indicate that the by-election has actually been called.

The reason for that schlamozzle is a series of changes to the Elections Act introduced by the Williams administration.

Under those changes, a by-election must be called within 60 days of a seat being declared vacant. The district of Baie Verte has been without a member in the House since former cabinet minister Paul Shelley resigned on July 12, 2007.

Hence, a by-election needs to be called very soon. The deadline is Wednesday.

However, the Elections Act also sets a fixed date for the general election. The writ for that can drop no later than Monday, September 17 so that voting day can be set for October 9. Once the House of Assembly is dissolved and a general election called, the by-election would simply be eliminated.

Unglaze those eyes.

It gets better.

Paul Shelley did his old boss a fine favour when he left, knowing full well the dates for the general election and when the writ for that would be dropped.

And that is really one aspect of what the "news" release is about. Someone shagged up royally in the rush to deliver on this particular promise from the last election, never considering the possibility of this sort of scenario. The Williams amendments from a few years ago cover the resignation of first ministers but they ignore the ordinary sods of the provincial legislature, like say cabinet ministers. They were clearly poorly thought through.

The release includes a wordy comment from the Premier which, like the rest of the release, is long on self-adulation but short on substance.

Like when exactly is the by-election the release mentions?

Turns out that in the midst of all the self-pleasuring comments, no date is given. This would lead one to conclude - logically - that no date exists for the by-election, since the Premier did not visit His Honour, the Lieutenant Governor and seek the necessary document authorizing the by-election as required by the law the release takes great pains to point out was brought into existence by the very fellow who couldn't find the time to take a short car ride to Government House at any point since July 12.

58 days ago.

And thereby give effect to his own law.

Plenty of time to have a by-election within the time limits prescribed by legislation which - we are told - was amended in order to reduce "the timelines required to call a by-election."

Now under ordinary circumstances, one might forgive the Premier for filling out the paperwork and calling a by-election, announcing it and then getting the big writ dropped a few days later.


He could just take a cab down to Government House and drop the big writ on Wednesday. That way, he'd have killed two birds with one easy stone. He'd also have avoided the huge waste of time involved in issuing this news release that does nothing except praise himself to the hilt.

But we promised this tale gets better and indeed it does.

Under changes to the Elections Act introduced just this past spring, sped through the House of Assembly and gazetted before Paul Shelley packed it in, people have been able to vote by special ballot in the by-election that hasn't been called yet.

That's right.

The only problem is that the section of the Act, cooked up by former cabinet minister Chuck Furey while he was chief electoral officer, stipulates that a person may apply for a special ballot no more than four weeks before a writ of election is issued.

It doesn't specify general election or by-election. It just says "writ of election."

Since everyone knew the date of the general election - it being spelled out in black ink - figuring out the date for special balloting was pretty simple.

But what about a by-election, in which the Premier has the discretion of waiting up to 60 days to make the call? One would need to be Kreskin to figure out when the four weeks begins.

Maybe not, though.

To determine eligibility to apply for a special ballot, would one count from the end of the 60 days or the beginning of the period? One can make a logical argument both ways.

However, since the intent of the reforms introduced by the current administration [*see note below] was to reduce delays in holding by-elections, one might reasonably conclude that the clock started ticking on the day the resignation became effective.

Now, bear in mind as well that Paul Shelley didn't just walk into the Premier's Office on July 12 and throw his teddy in the corner, effective immediately.

Not by a long shot.

In January - nine freakin' months ago - Shelley announced he was leaving politics and would resign once the House finished its spring session. He fixed the date towards the end of that session, in other words, at such a time that he and his colleagues could have figured out the problems that would ensue from the amendments to the Elections Act they were pushing through.

Because here's the thing: under the Elections Act, a voter in Baie Verte district would be reasonably entitled to have applied for a special ballot at any time after June 14 (when the amendments received Royal Assent) since that is less than four weeks before the earliest date on which the by-election for Baie Verte could have been called.

Let's see if we can put it together in just one - very long - sentence that, as much as anything else, embodies the sheer inanity of the current elections law in this province.

Take a breath:

The news release announcing a by-election that never contained the information on the by-election supposedly being called, but which actually discussed why changes to the Elections Act introduced by the current administration needed to be followed - even though they created a nonsense of calling a by-election and then calling a general election days afterward, actually pointed out yet another problem with the special ballot provisions of the Elections Act, namely that someone could have actually, legally applied for a ballot to vote in a by-election that had not been called, almost a month before Paul Shelley actually resigned.

I am my own electoral grandpa, indeed.

The people - Liberal, Progressive Conservative and new Democrat - who brought you this farce will soon be knocking on your door, asking for your vote so they can run the province for another four years.

Take your time before deciding.

Frankly, it's doubtful any of them are even qualified to be your latex salesman.


[*Incidentally, it is not the Williams government with or without a capital "g". It is Her Majesty's Government. The first minister presides over an administration which will - like its predecessors - come to an end. The government is the enduring entity.]