02 October 2014

Madness #nlpoli

The day after she took the oath of office,  Judy Manning, the province’s new attorney general and minister of public safety, and Premier Paul Davis, her boss,  are facing intense public criticism.

It’s hard to tell whether people are more upset by her evident, and admitted, lack of experience practicing law or the fact that neither she nor her boss are too fussed about getting her a seat in the House of Assembly any time soon.

Either one alone would be enough to call in question Davis’ fitness for the job.  The two combined are damning.  On top of that, you have to add in the completely unnecessary appointment of Keith Russell to cabinet. Then the day before, you have the latest twist in the Humber Valley Paving saga:  it’s really as rough a first couple of days as any politician has had.

There are so many things to discuss but to keep things manageable let’s down on the Manning Mess.

Former Premier Tom Rideout called Davis’ appointment of Manning “political madness on a scale”  he had not seen before in his 30-odd year political career.  He made the comments on the political panel on CBC radio’s Central Morning Show. There’s an online story and audio if you want the full effect of backuppable Tom in full rant. 

The constitutional convention on unelected cabinet ministers is absolutely clear.  You can have one but the appointee must seek a seat in the legislature without delay.  In Alberta, that means that both the new Premier  - who doesn’t have a seat - and a newly appointed minister in his cabinet are running in by-elections that have already been set for October 27. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a minister has gone six months before winning a seat.  That was Edward Roberts in 1992.

In Davis’ case, he’s got to call a by-election by this weekend.  There’s no reason for Manning to avoid running in that one,  another one due shortly afterward,  another one that will happen if Tom Marshall quits politics, or another one that they might cause if Felix Collins decided to take his pension and go now.

Rideout was unequivocal in his comments to CBC:  “There's two byelections ready to be called and there's one pending, so excuse me, Ms. Manning and Premier Davis, but you don't have a choice but to seek a seat in the legislature if you're going to hold down a position in the cabinet when one becomes available. You can't pick and choose.”

Which is absolutely correct except that Davis and the provincial government’s chief legal advisor have chosen to avoid an election until the next general election.  Asked by reporters about it following the swearing-in ceremony Manning claimed that we don’t know when the next election will come. 

Well, that’s true except that Davis has unequivocally said he will call it sometime next year and in all likelihood that call won’t come until six months has come and gone by quite a stretch.  As it appears, Davis he will go to the limit under the existing House of Assembly Act, namely October 2015.  But Manning should also know that Davis could go to the constitutional limit:  October 2016.

What Davis and manning propose is not merely to bend the constitutional convention but smash it entirely.  You can tell by the rationale Manning used to explain their decision [via the Telegram]

I’m satisfied with the mandate that I’ve been given by Premier Davis, and of course, Premier Davis has just been chosen by elected delegates throughout this province….If you think about it, when we have general elections the leaders are, of course, selected in their own districts. In this case, we had the opportunity for everybody in this province to go in and vote for the delegates who ultimately chose our leader. So in actual fact, I think it’s more representative of the chosen leader that we have for our province. I’m quite happy with that mandate.

When we have an election, to paraphrase Manning, people are elected in their own districts. People only vote in a district for the candidate in that district.  But Paul Davis has been selected by people from across the province. That is better, Manning argued.  The fact that Davis then chose her to serve in cabinet gives her a superior position to one she could get by merely standing for election in a district on her own.

Note that Manning dismissed the well-established legal and constitutional means of electing representatives to the House of Assembly.  The rules for it are known, apply equally to all, and are subject to the resolution of any disputes by an impartial third party , that is, in the courts.

What Manning argued was superior was a process run by a private association.  The ability to participate in the process is limited,  As the 2010 and 2014 Coleman leaderships showed, decisions about participation are made by an unknown group, in secret, in order to meet their own undisclosed ends. 

Whether she was just desperately trying to rationalise Davis’ decision or she genuinely thought those things doesn’t matter.  The fact that she offered something so preposterous as the explanation for her decision to ignore a fundamental constitutional convention is a travesty that one cannot ignore.

Manning cannot continue in her position. The public reaction against Davis’ decision has already caused damaged to his administration’s fragile credibility. The longer she stays in the position, the worse things will get for Davis. She must seek the Conservative nomination in one of the by-elections before Christmas or resign immediately. She has no alternative. Anything else would be madness.