Whenever the provincial government gets into financial trouble, someone will suggest that one great way to save money would be to cut the number of members in the House of Assembly.
Some people make the suggestion because they think members of the House doing nothing anyway. Others suggest that cutting the House is a way of sharing the pain of cuts coming to government generally. And others justify proposed cuts to the House of Assembly because other places with a larger population have fewer politicians to represent them.
None of those are valid reasons to cut the House budget. Reform of the House of Assembly should be about representing the people of the province more effectively. It should be about reducing the control of monied interests, including unions, and increasing the influence of ordinary people.
Cutting the number of members as proposed by Dwight Ball, Lorraine Michael, and Paul Davis, is solely bout appearing to save money or share the pain of government cuts. In truth, such a move will only serve to concentrate power in our province into the hands of an ever smaller group of individuals, many of whom are unelected and unaccountable. It is as regressive and anti-democratic idea as one may imagine.
We must remember the size of the government’s financial mess if we are to begin this discussion properly. As SRBP noted in a post on December 23, this is the fourth financial crisis the provincial government has faced since 2003. That means that we have faced deficits so large that the government must consider or actually implement spending cuts and large numbers of layoffs four times in the past decade. That’s more frequent than at any time in our recent history, with perhaps the exception of the global recession in the early 1990s or in the last years before the collapse of Responsible Government in 1934.
The current budget deficit may be large but it is one the provincial government expected. Indeed, the ridiculously-named Prosperity Plan established two years ago described a decades’ worth of ongoing financial problems. The provincial government is prepared, as the plan goes, to accept deficits of up to $500 million a year, on average, in some years as oil prices go up and down.
The provincial government’s current financial problem is not a temporary thing. It’s the result of chronic overspending. The “Prosperity Plan” confirms that spending more than the public can afford is official government policy and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
In the current and coming fiscal year, the government is spending about $1.0 to $2.0 billion more than it can afford. Chopping off eight members of the House of Assembly, as currently proposed by the provincial Conservatives , Liberals, and New Democrats will save about $2.0 million. That’s it. Cutting eight members from the House will save about one one thousandth of the annual problem the provincial government has.
The entire House of Assembly costs $15 million or so a year to run. Even if you demolished the entire legislature, you’d only gain $15 million. That’s not even one percent of the overspending.
So basically when you have a problem as large as you have, it’s a dumb idea to talk about trimming such a paltry amount. This is a dumb idea now when it is proposed by Steve Kent and it was every bit as dumb and idea in 2013 when Dwight Ball and Lorraine Michael suggested it.
This is a dumb idea because it doesn’t do anything. It’s a dumb idea because it fools some people into thinking, as Russell Wangersky suggested in December, that it’s a way of sharing the pain. No it isn’t. Cutting the number of members in the House of Assembly shares nothing.
What’s worse, cutting the House of Assembly will make our political system less competitive than it already is. The always annoying labradore laid this out in early 2013 when Lorraine Michael and Dwight Ball first endorsed the notion of slashing the number of people in the House.
He looked at elections in all provinces since 1949. In smaller legislatures, governments tend to get elected with more than 80% of the seats. Smaller legislatures also tend toward what labradore called electoral blow-outs of the kind seen in New Brunswick in 1987 or in this province in 2007.
And thirdly, fewer members in the House means the legislature will be less effective:
Third, there is the simple mechanics of running an effective and modern legislature, as foreign as that concept may be in Newfoundland and Labrador. A smaller legislature will not have the numbers, the diversity of views, or the diversity of backgrounds, for anything resembling useful debate or functional standing and special committees. And, given the statistics presented above, a smaller legislature tends to be dominated by a large and powerful governing party, with a small and weakened opposition. The damage and corrosion of the Dannystan years is going to take decades to fully come to light — a process that won't begin until the current governing party is out of office. Institutionalizing a lack of accountability, something which the Danny Williams party so desperately sought, especially in the 2007 election campaign and after, is the very last thing the provincial government and public need.
Changes to the election laws in Newfoundland and Labrador have already made elections less competitive. For example, an individual cannot stand for election and stand any hope of succeeding unless he or she is running for a political party. The election finance laws make it difficult if not impossible for an independent candidate to campaign and collect funds before he or she is officially accepted as a candidate by the chief electoral officer. political parties, though, can collect votes 30 days before the lieutenant governor issues a proclamation for an election or by-election.
Cutting the number of members in the House of Assembly will make a bad situation in the province that much worse, at least when it comes to openness, accountability and transparency.
Dwight Ball wants to reduce the number of people in the House of Assembly. So do Lorraine Michael, although not because it is a progressive idea. Clearly, this is not a progressive idea.
What makes this idea very bad for the Liberals though, is the problem it will create within the party. This idea doesn’t bring Paul Davis and the Conservatives any obvious benefits. If they get the 40 seats by next fall or even by 2016, Davis doesn’t improve his party’s chances of winning more seats.
This is a move by Davis and the Conservatives to screw Dwight Ball and the Liberals. And by the looks of things, Ball is well screwed. For one thing, he can’t oppose his own idea. He can only quibble about the timing. Davis will likely challenge Ball to put his principles where his mouth is and act on this idea of his.
For another thing, the real problem for Ball and the Liberals is that they already have 26 candidates in place across the province with other nominations on the way. if Davis and the Conservatives can redraw the electoral boundaries for 40 seats, those people will now have to compete once again for a nomination. With eight fewer seats, some of those nominations will almost certainly pit candidates against incumbents, incumbents against incumbents, and candidates against candidates.
Some of the potential strife will involve key players. Consider realigning seats in St. John’s. That will, almost certainly, force battles among candidates such as Tom Osborne, Paul Antle, Siobhan Coady, and Cathy Bennett. Other, lesser known candidates will also face the challenge of fighting over a seat. Just because those people aren’t high profiles won’t save the local fights from having high intensity.
There’s nothing sweeter in politics than causing strife inside your enemy’s camp and this move by the Conservatives will do that in spades among the Liberals. The problems will be in Labrador where there will be at least one fewer seat. There’ll also be a seat or two that will disappear between the south coast and St. Anthony. Right now that’s a bastion of the Liberal Party. Which of the current members of the House will have to go?
Imagine pitting Christopher Mitchelmore against Jim Bennett for the one seat on the Great Northern peninsula. Imagine Dwight Ball having to wrangle for a combination of a big chunk of Humber East and Humber Valley. The same story will play itself out in central Newfoundland and the Avalon for the Liberals.
The Conservatives will be laughing all the way to the polls. They might not win the election but they will have done as much political damage to their opponents as possible. Davis and his team don’t care. Most of their people won’t be seeking re-election. Fewer seats to run in means fewer candidates to find.
Over in the Dipper camp, whoever replaces Lorraine won;t have many seats to think about anyway. This re-appointment might bring their St. John’s seats down to two incumbents with George Murphy forced to find somewhere else to live.
In another world, Dwight Ball could escape the problem of his strategically bad idea by kicking it down the road. Three years from now, he would face a struggle among a testy caucus of people looking to re-election who don;t want to leave politics. They’d be unlikely to endorse a cut to the number of seats, and Ball would have to find a way to appease his caucus without breaking his commitment. People might be worried about something else by then, anyway.
But now? Well, now Dwight Ball has to cope with that mess today. The Conservatives might even postpone the election until next year just to make it happen. They will talk about the principle of it, in light of big cuts to the public service and make fun of anyone, like Dwight Ball, who wants to save his own political skin while voting others out of a job. They will make Dwight Ball wear all of it.
It’s hard to imagine a policy idea more foolish for the Liberals than cutting the House of Assembly just to save money. For the Liberals, though, it is even dumber an idea because of the costs it will force them to bear.
What the Liberals should have backed was a package of proposals to strengthen the House and make it more effective. Intellectually- and democratically-bankrupt ideas like slashing the number of members in the House should have been left to trouble someone else’s political soul.
That isn’t what happened. So this week, Paul Davis showed there is some political fight left in the Conservatives. And people who complain the Liberals haven’t released any policies can marvel at this little gem that clearly slipped their notice. It’s a doozey.