26 January 2015

A swing and a miss #nlpoli

The usual round of Saturday chores this weekend brought with it the usual accidental meetings with all manner of friends and acquaintances.  Even the least political among them wondered what went on in the House of Assembly last week.

Good news.  There is help for them.

Your humble e-scribbler laid out the positions of the various players before the debates started.  There was a comment on Tuesday, another on Friday, and a more detailed description of the political landscape the morning  the debate started in the House of Assembly.

On top of that, two news reports appeared over the past weekend – from CBC and the Telegram -  purporting to tell the inside story of last week’s emergency debate in the House of Assembly.  They cover different aspects of the goings-on.  The CBC one in particular adds a bit of detail but generally confirms what the Tories were up to.

Pull back from all the details, though and a much clearer picture emerges.

Let’s start with the parties and the situation as the parties themselves saw it.

Polls,  polls,  polls

The Conservatives think they scored a touchdown,  in the words of former cabinet minister and twice failed leadership candidate Shawn Skinner. That he was he said on On Point with Peter Cowan this week. He also described the move to cut seats from the House as a surgical strike.  Some other anonymous Conservatives told Cowan that they were looking for a knock-out punch with this move and they evidently think they scored it.

The reasons they gave are all familiar:  cuts are popular.  They needed to cut a few bucks and set and example.  The Conservatives expect to see a bump in Davis’ polling numbers.

For them, a bump in the polling numbers is what this is all about.  No matter what Paul Davis says this week when he gives a 120 day update on his premiership, his goal remains the one he laid out at the second Conservative leadership convention. His main concern is changing the Conservative polling numbers so he can get re-elected.

What the Leader Decided 

Some Liberals agree with Conservative assessment.  They expect to see a slight bump upwards in the polls for the Conservatives.

On Twitter,  Paul Antle said that Ball hit four targets:

…fewer seats, protects Labrador, maintains democratic process and ensures 2015 Election.

Former party executive member John Hogan said something similar on On Point:  Ball’s “gotten the idea passed in the House of Assembly, he's protected the four seats in Labrador, which is the amendment he wants, [and] he's protected the integrity of the process.”

Everyone else is naughty

Meanwhile, the New Democrats have taken to condemning everyone else.  Outgoing leader Lorraine Michael condemned the Liberals and Conservatives for cooking up a deal between the two of them, in the hallways while the House debated the bill to cut members through the night of Thursday and early morning of Friday.

Lana Payne said much the same thing to the crowd at On Point

“It really reinforces this notion of cynicism that people have about politics, particularly the idea that this legislation gets changed in the hallways, very little time for debate, and now really we have a commission that will do nothing but draw lines.”

Inside Baseball

What everyone saw last week was confirmation of the extent to which all three political parties in the province live inside a tiny world of their own.  It’s largely divorced from the one the rest of us inhabit.  And the parties themselves are focussed on things that really don’t matter to the rest of the world.

That’s the definition of inside baseball.

Before all you smart folks start insisting that democracy is important to everyone, let’s distinguish here between that bit and the stuff the parties were wrapped up in.

The Conservatives wanted to get a bump in the polls for their leader and their party.  The idea they hit on was to take an idea that both Dwight Ball and Lorraine Michael had endorsed and that people seem to favour.  Their idea was to bring this into the House, get a quick win, and position their guy as a leader as a result.

The problem with that thinking is that people are not going to head to the polls firmly convinced they will vote for one politician or another based on whether o not they supported cutting any politicians form the House of Assembly.  One.  Eight.  10.  All of them.  Doesn’t matter.

Voters are worried about stuff that will affect them substantively.  In the current situation, they are wondering about taxes,  cuts to health care and education and, in the case of a lot of people, whether or not they will have a job come May.

That’s why all the media questions on the very first day of the emergency session quickly turned to the budget.  When’s it coming, they wanted to know.  Any sign of how bad it’s going to be, they wondered.

Outside of a few oddballs,  most people in the province don’t give a rat’s behind about the House of Assembly.  Shawn Skinner says people came up to him all the time talking about cuts to the House.  Shawn is either telling us a load of crap or he needs to get new friends. 

Someone took a poll the weekend before the session started.  Odds are that an overwhelming majority loved the idea, in the abstract.  Put more information in front of them, and they might take a different view.  The smarter politicians know that.  It’s why they didn’t want the issue to linger in the House for very long.

Even if, by some bizarre set of circumstances,  people actually gave Paul a big thumbs-up for cutting the House,  the political value of it would vanish come the spring when the budget arrives.  Those very facts are what should have told the Conservatives that this was not a very good way to boost their man in the polls in a meaningful way if at all.  If we accept that they told Peter Cowan the absolute God’s-honest truth,  then poll-boosting was the goal.  If that was the case, it only shows how disconnected they are from the big picture.

If the Conservatives wanted to screw with the Liberals a bit, then they succeeded.  They successfully buggered up the nominations process.  But that’s an internal thing that outsiders don’t care about.  There’s also no reason to believe the Liberal organization is that fragile so, aside from some short-term problem,  the Conservatives have accomplished nothing substantive in that respect either.

Notice, though, that we are still talking insider baseball stuff here.

On the Liberal side, the episode reveals some other problems.

Drop the writ.  No.  Wait.  Something else.

The one thing that stands out from this episode is the ease with which Liberal leader Dwight Ball disregarded his strategic political situation and got suckered into a side-show.  His one answer in every situation should be “drop the writ”.

I need to go to the bathroom.  Go see the LG first and drop the writ, Paul.  Your bladder is not more important than the future of the province.  Hold it.  And drop the writ.

Budget problems?  We have too much uncertainty and the future of the province is too important to leave to people who can;t sort out their own leadership.  Drop the writ.  have an election.  Let the people decide.

Cut the House of Assembly?  We need reform our democracy.  Let’s put our ideas to the people themselves.   I pledge that the Liberals will take action within six months of taking office with the appointment of a democratic reform commission. In the meantime, Paul,  drop the writ.

On January 12,  Ball merely questioned whether or not the government could get the cuts done in time for the fall.  He agreed with cuts, without question, because he had already decided for himself this was a good idea. Ball had endorsed 40 seats. The only quibble he had, according to CBC’s Peter Cowan, was about whether or not this could be done in time for the election.

On January 15,  when Premier Paul Davis actually made the announcement of a cut to the House,  Ball’s only major concern was whether or not the whole thing could get done by the fall.  Ball also told reporters he had no problem with moving the date of the election, ostensibly set for the fall under changes to the House of Assembly Act introduced in 2004.

Ball changed his position the next day. He told NTV’s Toni-Marie Wiseman that he didn’t want the election delayed until 2016.  But his objection was not one based on principle:  he supported the idea of cuts.  Ball merely wondered whether or not the whole thing could be done by the fall of 2015. Unfortunately for Ball, he had already agreed publicly both to the cuts and to the delay of the lection. 

Caught with an obvious problem, Ball tried to change the focus to a cut in cabinet.  But this was nothing more than a minor point.  It was also a clear sign that Ball had never considered the larger issues involved in House reform in 2013 when he originally decided that cuts to the House were easy and desirable.  Two years later and faced with both an actual situation and the need for more thought, ball just ploughed ahead.

In an election, an error like this one could have cost Ball the Premiership.  That would have been the knock-out blow the Conservatives were hoping for.  In practice and in this context,  the damage will likely be minimal.  Ball and the Liberals have the chance to fix things so this doesn’t happen again.

Ball could have scored a strategic coup by simply rejecting Davis’ proposal from the beginning, on principle.  There were plenty of reasons to dismiss it for the crass, cynical ploy it was.  As it was,  Ball was caught.  Eventually, the Liberals did the only sensible thing and didn’t filibuster. They would have looked stupid given that they agreed on the principle of cutting the House and would have only quibbled about tiny points.

Liberals got nothing.  Election will be in 2016.

In the end,  while the Liberals think they got something big in the final compromise version of the cuts bill,  they got nothing out of this exercise that will help them later on beyond the stuff that will only matter to people inside the small world of local politics. 

They agreed with the Conservatives on the need for cuts. There’s no success in an anti-democratic, unprincipled, and regressive decision badly arrived at.  Both parties already agreed they would keep seats in Labrador.  That’s more a case of pandering than anything else.  So much for those.

As for the “integrity of the process”,  a process that allows politicians to decide a fundamental matter of public representation without any consideration of the public’s view can have no integrity. It is nonsense to claim that a fundamentally anti-democratic, unprincipled, and regressive process has integrity.

Then there is the matter of a 2015 election.  Th.is was Ball’s only apparent concern.  He seems to have believed, naively, that agreeing to a November election was still staying within the current calendar year.  In reality,  Ball consented to having the election delayed on the principle of achieving the cuts to the House he desired. Once he did that, Ball gave up any further basis for objection when the process is delayed again at some point later on in order to let the elections office and the boundary commission finish their work.

Liberals involved in this will probably cluck that their amendments will force an election in 2015. The final compromise with the Conservatives limits the commission to a single extension of 10 days after the first 120. The next couple of clauses allow the government to appoint another commission in 2016.  There’s also a clause that said that a failure of the commission wouldn’t prevent an election in 2015.

Wonderful stuff.

Boundary Commission not one shot deal

People who think this boundaries thing has to be finished in 2015 apparently assume that there can only be one commission appointed to set the district boundaries.  The law that sets out how to draw provincial electoral boundaries dates from 1973.  It replaced the sort of gerrymandering process that even in the 1950s allowed the government to create 36 districts distributed along religious lines.

Those religious districts also allowed Joe Smallwood to provide greater representation for rural parts of the island than they would have gotten in a simple distribution based on population.   That over-representation for rural votes lingers in our current seats. The four seats for Labrador in the most recent version of the electoral boundaries law reflects a similar attitude.  Over the past couple of days some politicians have suggested the people in St. John’s deserve only four seats among the lot of them. 

The fact that those sorts of notions come from politicians who voted in the House the other morning just confirms that the people in the House of Assembly have a weak attachment to parliamentary democracy.  They also have no idea what provincial politicians are supposed to do.

Anyway,  the boundary commission law was supposed to operate on a pretty simple basis.  Every 10 years,  the House would appoint a bunch of people to distribute a set number of seats around the province, based on population.  The commission would do its work regardless of whether there was an election or not because, at the time,  no one knew for sure when an election would be.

The last-minute amendments that brought the House sitting to an end last week did out a time limit on the commission the House will appoint over the next 30 days. They will get a chance to work for up to 120 days. They can get an extra 10 days, if they need it. 

And on Day 131,  the whole gang can get reappointed to begin working again for another 130 days.  The government can keep doing that as long as they want. The way the string of amendments works is that the commission can work in calendar 2015.  If it fails to complete its work in calendar 2015, then on 01 January 2016,  the commission can be re-appointed to start again.

The opposition parties can whinge all they want but there’s nothing to stop the government from re-appointing the commission until they get a result.

The argument for the government is simple:  the opposition parties all agree that we need to make the cuts.  They all agree that they must be done properly.  Rather than scrap all that hard work,  reappointing the commission will do exactly what the Liberals and New Democrats agreed to last winter.  Mr. Ball is just flip-flopping again.  He already agreed to delay the election until November, if need be.  This will just take a bit longer, but it will allow the election to happen using the reduced number of seats he agreed was needed.

Between irrelevance and a hard place

The fundamental problem for New Democrats in the seat debate was not that they were hypocrites but that they were nakedly obvious hypocrites.  On the one hand they complained about the process that led to a reduction in the number of seats.  Yet at the same time,  Lorraine Michael supported the reduction in the number of seats solely in order to save money.

The New Democrats promised to filibuster the bill.

Instead, they did nothing.

On top of being hypocrites, the Dippers were impotence personified.

The Triumph of Cynicism

Memorial University political scientists Amanda Bittner is right.  We have a problem.  The events of the past couple of weeks are “the sign of an unhealthy democracy.”

“Any effort to hijack the process and push through substantial change without appropriate consultation and consideration of multiple voices is deeply problematic, and a sign that we have a major problem on our hands.”

All three political parties are equally guilty of hijacking the process.

But let’s be clear,  what happened in the House of Assembly is rooted in the cynical manipulations of the past decade or so. From the patronage scheme cooked up after 1996 to the reduction in sitting days to this cut in the public’s voice in the House of Assembly, the politicians have acted in their best interest, not in the public interest.

Major pieces of legislation pas through the House of Assembly with he sort of cursory review that this one received.  If the opposition is not already disposed to support it,  they will do so after hearing the official government briefing offered before second reading.  They seem to take the view of Kathy Dunderdale, namely that government officials must be right in everything because they are the smartest people alive. The opposition parties seem not only incapable for forming their own opinions about government policy,  they seem to be completely disinterested in doing so. 

A swing and a miss

To keep going with the tortured sports metaphors from the politicians,  Bill 42 was not a knock-out punch for the Conservatives.  They didn’t score a touch-down. 

The Liberals, meanwhile, swung at a wild pitch.

The New Democrats were at the concession buying a soft-drink.

For all the fussing,  the parties are left with their big strategic problems:

  • The Conservatives still have to deal with the budget.  If they start to cut, as the economic problems suggest they should, then that week in January will be long forgotten.  
  • Liberals still have the internal problems of their nomination process. They are not insurmountable problems but they will be a nuisance.  The biggest problem they have happened in front a camera on the Thursday before the debate started. 
  • The NDP have their leadership problems.  Even after Earle McCurdy takes over, the party will be organizationally, bankrupt and directionless. Earle might add a bit of colour to politics over the next few months. Hopefully, Earle won’t whine about it.

And the rest of us can look forward to more of this sort of insider baseball over the next year and a half, until the next election.  That election won’t happen in 2015.  It’s like going to be in the spring of 2016 and may be as late as the constitutional limit in 2016.

The only reason it’s going to happen then is because the politicians can’t fiddle with that just to fit their own best interests.