21 July 2011

Nurturing a democratic revolution

Public life in Newfoundland and Labrador remains as fundamentally undemocratic as it ever was.

Paternalism remains the order of the day.  As three sitting members of the House revealed, they they are the face of government in their districts. 

Never mind that neither of them is actually in government.  As members of the legislature, each member has but one job:  to hold the government to account for its actions.  They do so on behalf of their constituents. Doesn’t matter if they sit on the government back benches or the opposition benches.  Their job is to serve the people of the province and the House.

By that measure, none of the current members do their jobs very well. 

The House of Assembly sits  - on average - the least number of days of any legislature in the country.  Members have little time to study any legislation the government proposes.  From the government side, members usually read prepared speeches full of officially sanctioned drivel.

The opposition members of the legislature are no better.  Liberal and New Democrat alike, they tend to rely heavily on official government statements for what they know and say about a bill.  Their comments in an afternoon sitting of the House are often laughable paraphrases of what officials told them in a morning “briefing”.   One need only look at the Hansard record of speeches by Lorraine Michael and Yvonne Jones on the day their rolled over and helped the government in the Abitibi expropriation fiasco to see this situation plainly.

The House has no functioning committees to review legislation. The Committee of the Whole remains nothing more than a hollow exercise in form over substance. The public accounts committee – once the means by which the legislature reviewed all public spending – remains as dead as it was during the darkest days of the recent patronage and corruption scandal. 

As amazing as it is to say, the House of Assembly in the early 21st century has reverted back almost to what it was before the collapse of Responsible Government in 1934.

The House of Assembly is reduced to a form of Punch and Judy show. And to compliment it, recent changes to the provincial access to information laws have systematically reduced public knowledge of government actions when the legislature is not sitting.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have turned their backs on politics in increasing numbers.  Voter turn-out in recent general elections and by-elections is at historic low levels.  They know that they have little control so there is no incentive to take part. 

Even the appointed House officers – the Speaker, and the watchdogs of privacy, children’s interests, elections and public accounts – are bumbling and useless. Some offices have been or are filled by political hacks who do not even pretend to be impartial.

A modern, prosperous province deserves a healthy thriving democracy.  Nothing short of a spiritual revolution can reform public life in Newfoundland and Labrador and raise it to the standards that the ordinary men and women of the province deserve.

Here are some ways to do that.

For starters, we need election finance reform:

  • Ban corporate and union donations.
  • Only individuals should be able to contribute to political parties to a maximum of $5,000 a year.
  • Ban “in kind” contributions to parties and candidates.
  • Limit election, by-election and leadership campaign fundraising and spending.
  • Limit spending by political parties and third parties during elections and during the years between general elections.
  • Require full disclosure of donations when they occur, with additional monthly updates on the Chief Electoral Officer’s website.

Piece-meal and largely unnecessary changes to elections in the province from 2004 onward have produced an electoral system that is an embarrassment in a democracy worthy of the name. Electoral reform should include the following measures to break the influence of money and to restore some power to the backbenchers and opposition members:

  • Remove the provision that the resignation of a premier triggers a general election.  Overbearing ego created it and it serves no useful purpose.
  • Eliminate mail-in ballots and the current system that allows voting before an election writ is actually issued.
  • Restore the mandatory 90 day period in which a by-election must be called to fill a vacancy.  The 2004 change to 60 days proved unnecessary and, as in 2007, produced the laughable case of a by-election that was called but never actually held.
  • Cut off incumbent expense charges, cell phones and other perks of office 45 days in advance of a fixed election date. This will discourage campaigning at public expense by incumbents.
  • Compel members not seeking re-election to vacate their offices and cut off their expense accounts 45 days before a fixed election date or 30 days after they announce their intentions publicly, whichever saves the public more money.
  • Introduce amendments to the House of Assembly Act that set mandatory sitting days (for example 50 days in the spring and 40 in the fall) for the House of Assembly with cash penalties for each member if the House does not sit the prescribed number of days.
  • Introduce amendments to the House of Assembly Act to establish legislative committees, set the number of hearing days they must sit.
  • Make the membership on the committee a function of House seniority regardless of whether a member is on the opposition benches or government back benches.
  • Give the committees research and administrative staff to be hired by the Speaker.
  • Update:  To go along with this, some other changes to funding would follow:  the office of the leader of the opposition would get funding for administrative positions such as chief of staff, executive assistant and communications director.  Caucuses would no longer get funding for staff and research positions.  Instead, every member would get a standard allotment for a constituency assistant, a travel budget etc. to support individual work as members.
  • Update:  The Public Accounts Committee should be the only one with an opposition majority and an opposition chair. 
  • Cabinet minister would only be allowed to serve on the House of Assembly management committee.
  • Introduce legislation to limit the size of cabinet and the number of government party members who may draw extra payments for government duties.  Exclude those members drawing extra pay from committee work.
  • Strengthen the conflict of interest rules for politicians to limit their business and other interests while serving in the House. 
  • Add charities to the list of prohibited interests that members may have, especially once they sit in cabinet.
  • Extend the prohibited period for doing business with government after leaving office to five years for all politicians and political staff.
  • Former cabinet ministers should be barred from any dealings with all government departments, not just the one for which they last served as minister.

To restore the integrity of the House of Assembly officer appointments, nominees should be vetted during public hearings by a House of Assembly committee on appointments.  Nominees should come from a publicly advertised competition, although the list of potential candidates may include recommended nominees from cabinet.

Existing legislation should be amended to allow that officers can only be removed by the Speaker with the concurrence of the committee.  Any suspension or removal from office while the House is not in session must be the subject of a public hearing at the next sitting of the House.

And that’s just the start of it.

In future posts in the series, we’ll look at changes to the province’s access to information laws and reforms to senior appointments.

There are more than 15 good ideas for a stronger Newfoundland and Labrador.

- srbp -

People unfamiliar with the legislature might not understand how some of these changes could produce a dramatic difference in the House.  Let’s see if this helps:

  • Banning corporate and union donations breaks the influence of big money on party policy and shifts power back toward individuals.
  • Adding charities to the conflict of interest guidelines closes a gigantic loophole in the current conflict guidelines that has proven to be a major problem in the United States. 
  • The new committee structure is intended to restore some power to the legislature and to individual members of the House and help break the centralization of power in the first minister. Among other things, it breaks the patronage hold that Premiers have on perks and bonuses that are often held out as a way of influencing members unduly. 
  • Individual members should be able to develop a profile, reputation and a power base that would make them contenders for cabinet based on merit rather than obsequiousness and pliability.
  • Funding committees instead of caucuses prevents majority parties coupled with a biased Speaker from doing as the Conservatives did in the current legislature with funding for the official opposition.
  • Cutting off expenses before a fixed election levels the playing field between incumbents and challengers at the district level.