26 March 2014

Principle, Parliament, and Money #nlpoli

The House of Assembly unanimously voted in favour of a bill on Tuesday that gives the government permission to spend $2.8 billion as part of next years budget. 

Officially, it is called interim supply.  It’s “interim” because the bill fills in the period between the 2013 budget – the last time the House gave the government permission to spend money – and the 2014 budget bill that will give government permission for the next year.

Incidentally, on that basis, you can expect that the 2014 budget  will be something like $8.4 billion when finance minister Charlene Johnson reads the budget speech in the House on Thursday.

“Permission” is likely not a word you are used to hearing when it comes to the House of Assembly and budgets but in the Westminster legislatures like the one in Newfoundland and Labrador that’s exactly what the House does.  It gives government permission to spend public money.

Donald Savoie is a political scientist who specializes in power and government administration.  His latest book is Whatever happened to the music teacher?  How government decides and why.  Savoie uses the word “authority” to describe the relationship among voters, the legislature,  government departments and public money but the idea is the same.

“In a parliamentary system,”  writes Savoie, “voters confer authority on Parliament, Parliament confers authority on the prime minister and cabinet, and, leaving aside some notable exceptions, the prime minister and ministers confer authority on government departments and agencies. The accountability of the prime minister, the ministers, and their departments to Parliament is fundamental to our system of responsible government.”  [p.37]

Those two sentences tell you pretty much everything you need to know to understand why voting is important and why the House of Assembly is important.  It’s about money.

As Savoie points out, that connection between voting and money is basically at the heart of every major constitutional development from Magna Carta in 1215 through the Bill of Rights in 1689. In Canada, the constitution requires that parliament and each of the provincial legislatures meet at least once a year specifically to give the government permission to spend money.

The budget bill actually does a bit more than just tell government it is okay to spend the money it wants. The legislature tells government the maximum amount it can spend and what it can spend the money on.  Through it all, the members of the legislature hold the government to account for spending public money.  We hear “accountability” a lot lately but it is basically about making the government report to the legislature about how it spent public money.

Voting in favour of a money bill does a bit more than just approve government spending.  Parliamentary tradition makes a vote on an expression of confidence in the government.  Vote in favour of the bill means that you are endorsing the government and what is doing.

In that context,  it is just weird for an opposition political party to vote in favour of a money bill.  In a minority parliament, where the supply bill might actually be the result of negotiation between the government and opposition,  you can see the opposition party or parties voting for something they helped put together. 

But in a majority parliament, where the government will get its way no matter what the opposition does, there’s no reason for the opposition to endorse the government by voting in favour of a money bill.  There’s every reason for the opposition to vote against the bill. During the debate, members can always speak favourably of any specific issue, but fundamentally, the opposition party isn’t supposed to support the government. 

Now some people might say that they are just voting for the good ideas in the budget.  Well, at the very least those people aren’t familiar with the way the House works.  There are lots of good spending ideas in any government budget:  health care,  education, income support,  take your pick.

Some might claim that the people of the province couldn’t understand why the Liberals might vote against all the good spending in the budget for things like roads, and schools and such.  We’ll that just insults the intelligence of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The truth is there are also plenty of good reasons – principled reasons – to object fundamentally to the way the current provincial government is running things.  Opposition leader Dwight Ball rattled off a bunch of them in his speech to the House at the start of the current session.  This one alone would be good enough to justify a vote against the government’s plan for spending any amount:  “…after ten years of [spending] more money than any other government in our history, they have broken the bank and will have to borrow to make ends meet.”

With that clear statement of principle still ringing around the House of Assembly, voting to support the current administration of the province – as the Liberals and New Democrats did on Tuesday - makes no sense at all. 

And yet, that’s exactly what Dwight Ball and the rest of them did.

The people of the province can only wonder why.