05 October 2011

What if they gave an election and nobody came? #nlvotes #nlpoli

Next Tuesday, the face of the province’s House of Assembly likely won’t change very much at all.

The new premier will take office following an election with what is on track to be a record low turn-out.

That’s got nothing to do with public opinion.  It’s got everything to do with the way the politicians re-engineered the law governing provincial elections in a string of changes made after 2003.

For starters, how long does an election campaign have to be? 

Well, according to the Elections Act, 1991, there must be a minimum of 21 days between the day the House is dissolved and voting day.  Historically, incumbent parties liked to call elections with the shortest possible campaign time.  But some elections have gone on for almost a month.

After 2003, the provincial Conservatives introduced changes that set voting day as the second Tuesday in October.  They could have the official campaign period before that for as many days as they’d like.  In 2011, they called it so that there was the minimum time to campaign allowed by law.

But that doesn’t mean there is actually 21 days of activity.

When the Tories picked the second Tuesday in October as their preferred date, they didn’t pick by accident.  They picked it so that voting day would always be right after the thanksgiving day weekend.

Clever boys and girls are they.  That automatically reduces the  period during which voters are paying attention to the campaign by at least three days.  No party is going to campaign on the holiday weekend, for fear of pissing off voters.  And voters who are travelling around to visit relatives aren’t going to be thinking much about politics as they sleep off a big scoff.

Take that 21 and knock off three.

We are left with 18 days.

Advanced voting takes place a week before the final day.  Lop off four more days.

That leaves you with a functional campaign period of just 14 days.

The election financing rules make it illegal for an individual candidate to raise funds before the election is called.  That makes it pretty tough for a candidate in a district to raise local cash for his or her own local campaign. They have to rely on the party.

For someone who might want to run as an independent candidate, it’s impossible.  Well, impossible unless you made millions on the lottery or by flipping your cable company.  For the average schmuck in the street, the rules are stacked against you.

To see how it works in practice, don’t look at the Liberals who barely tried over the past four years.   Look instead at the NDP to find out how those rules work.  Party president Dale Kirby told Randy Simms a few whoppers on Tuesday about fundraising.  He claimed they only had money for a few ordinary people.  That bit was true. 

The fib was the bit he left out:  the NDP’s major bankroll comes from one union.  The single largest contribution of anyone, to any party, bar none.

Kirby also left out the fact the NDP use the House of Assembly and the government money that goes with it, just like all parties do for the odd staffer here and there.

But a whole campaign, all year?  Only the incumbents can do that.  And rake in cash the provincial Conservatives have, especially from people who do business with the government.  The Tories are bankrolled by Big Oil,  the other Dale Kirby whopper.  The province’s construction industry chucks the most grease on the wheels of the governing party’s machinery.

Incumbents flush with cash, others starved of cash, and election rules that make it very hard for anyone who doesn’t already have a high profile from having been in office already to try and get known in a mere two weeks.

But the real loser in all this is the voter.  People don’t pay a great deal of attention to politics at the best of times.  They have other things in their lives. 

Election campaigns, and all the noise and commotion that goes with them are the means by which parties get their attention.  Elections are supposed to be when voters get to make choices based on information.

The only problem is that provincial elections in Newfoundland and Labrador are designed not to engage voters.  They don’t give anyone enough time to get involved.

And this time around they certainly don’t give much chance for the parties to send information around and canvass for votes.  A week before polling day and your humble e-scribbler has received exactly nothing in the mail from either of the three parties.  One candidate – the Tory – showed up on the doorstep last week for the first time since he first got elected.  He had a brochure that said little.

The Tory obviously knew shag all about Muskrat Falls than the bullshit he’d been told to say and had nothing to offer other than that. The Liberal hit the doorstep on Tuesday night.  No sign of the Dipper and odds are neither he nor a piece of literature will show up between now and the last day to vote.

One of the most common complaints this election is that people don’t know who their candidates are.  One voter-friend of the scribbler in St. John’s East was surprised to discover who the incumbent was in his district. 

Ditto for a few people in Virginia Waters who were shocked to know their member of the House before the writ dropped was none other than Kathy Dunderdale.

The other candidates across St. John’s are unknown, for the most part and none of them have sufficient time to get their message to voters before the first votes are cast.  And that’s even if you allowed them a full bank account and all their prep done so they could start canvassing on the first official day of the election.

Aside from structural impediments to campaigning that all three parties have endorsed over time, the three political parties have all decided to avoid creating any sense of interest or excitement in the electorate this time around. 

Advertising appears to be at an all-time low volume.  The parties have a social media presence.  But the three parties in this province seem to use it as a token of their hipness rather than as the tool for voter activation that it can be.  .

Of course, for the incumbents – especially the Tories - that’s a useful strategy.

For the opposition parties, it would be idiotic.  Well, it would be if we started from the premise that the opposition parties want to unseat the government party.  Sure they say the words about what they’d do if they formed government, but the opposition political parties seem to think they are incumbents too.  Neither the Liberals nor the NDP have done anything meaningful that would risk them winning the election and taking over government. They both seem to be contented with things as they are.

It’s an old refrain around here that the three parties have essentially the same platform and that they all agree the Tories should be re-elected.

The election has turned out to be proof of it.

And all that is the reason Kathy Dunderdale will take off based on one of the lowest, if not the record lowest turn-outs in provincial history.

You’d almost think they wanted it that way.


- srbp -