20 January 2015

Ballsiness #nlpoli

Before Christmas, Liberal leader Dwight Ball had been calling for an election as soon as possible.  After Christmas, faced with the chance to chop a few seats from the House as he had already pledged to do, Ball was quick to agree both to the cuts proposed by the Conservatives and to a delay in the election at least until November. 

Ball’s hasty decision will cause him two very serious problems, as we have already noted.  Now that the bill is in the House there are new dimensions to the problems faced by Ball and the Liberals. 

Deep in the Hurt Locker

First, Ball has a shed-full of candidates either already nominated or chomping at the bit to get nominated in the old 48 seat configuration of the House.  They are now mid-way up shit creek. They will all have to fight new nominations in the new districts.  In some cases, they will be squaring off against other candidates and in some districts, current caucus members will be bashing heads together to see who will have to find a new job after the next election.

This is not just a problem of hurt feelings.  Candidates have spent money, time, and energy to win nominations.  They will now have to do so again. The Liberal party will have to organize all those nominations very quickly. Their system is not geared to a rapid election call but that is what they now face: In one swoop,  the province’s political parties went from a fixed election date to one called the old-fashioned way, that is, whenever the mood strikes the Premier.  The result is that the Liberals may have to jam a whole bunch of nominations into a short time period. This will not be good.

The Liberals will have to freeze the entire nomination process.  Thus,  in some cases, candidates who have already been approved or “green-lit” as it is known will have a decided advantage.  They will have access to the Liberal nomination machinery while others in districts that right now do not exist will not have the same information. Some will be able to campaign for nominations while others will be hampered. The potential for internal strife is enormous. 

Now it seems likely that very few Liberals have realised yet what this means.  They might all assume that someone else will bear the brunt of the cuts. It is a human trait to assume we are immune from the things that kill all the other people just like us.  The truth is always different.

The truth is that the Liberals will not know how brutal this problem is until the boundaries commission publishes the actual boundaries of the seats sometime in June, at the earliest.  The changes to the boundaries act give the new commission 120 days to do its work, incidentally.  That puts us into June.  If they take longer, then the report date gets pushed back.

The members of the voting public will also realise the mess that 34 or 36 seats on the island will create only once they discover that they are no longer voting with the people they used to vote with. Truth be told,  voters will likely only pay attention to questions of what district they are in and where they will vote once the election has been called.

Given the magnitude of the cuts coming to the seats on the island,  voters can and very likely will become confused between  the person who represents them now in the district they are familiar with and the one who will be looking for their vote in a district they don’t know anything about. The result could well be widespread confusion that would make the federal robocall scandal look like an amateurish university prank.

This assumes, by the way, that the commission can somehow manage to make all the districts roughly the same size.  The current electoral boundary law allows for a wide variation in the population of a district from the average.  We may see some very large districts, well above the average, just as we will see some smaller seats in places like Labrador.

The Dysfunctional House Embodied

Changing an electoral system so dramatically is no easy task. All the members of the House of Assembly who back this move simply have no idea of the magnitude of what they are on about. They have not spent enough time thinking about it nor listening to the public to adequately consider it.  In that sense,  the way the House is dealing with this legislation is proof of how dysfunctional the current House is. 

Members are voting on something without knowing the implications or hearing the views of someone besides the officials who drafted the bill.   They cannot get around this by means of a quick telephone poll done by someone over the weekend, or a raft of petitions. The members of the House need to hear from political scientists,  parliamentarians, and others concerned about the legislature as well as the average person. In a House that worked properly, a bill like this would not be rushed through in an emergency session.  A committee would take it and review each bit and report back to the House after weeks and months of review.

Changing the way people are represented in a democracy takes more consideration than a quick answer to a media question a couple of years ago.  And an answer given in the heat of the moment cannot be the only position, forever, regardless of changes in information or circumstance. The Conservatives have run the province this way for a decade and this is exactly the reason we are in the mess we are currently in.  More of the same is no change.

The Liberal amendments,  are no better than the proposed legislation itself in that respect. They are minor quibbles over largely trivial points. It doesn’t matter if the boundaries commission is told to propose a number from within a narrow range of seats with Ball’s choice in the middle or if they are told a specific number to use.  The result is the same, on principle. 

If the Liberals or the New Democrats are considering a filibuster on this bill they should think again.  Neither disagrees with the government on principle as they did on Bill 29.  Therefore, they have nothing to dispute.  A filibuster over 39 seats or 40 seats will look as foolish and as much a waste of public money as it is. The best they should do is work with the Conservatives to get the bill out of the House as quickly as possible. 

A filibuster on this bill will focus on the Liberals and New Democrats, not the Conservatives.  People will wonder every day why they are arguing against a bill they are on record already as agreeing with.  There was a disagreement on principle on Bill 29.  There was, by contrast no disagreement over the Muskrat Falls legislation:  all the parties agreed to Muskrat Falls.  The public just believed the opposition parties opposed Muskrat Falls. On this emergency legislation,  the Liberals’ and New Democrats’ positions are already known.

Time Management

The second problem Ball and the Liberals have is that they have granted the Conservatives a reprieve from their own legislation that fixed an election date in the fall, at the latest.  We are now looking at a date some time in 2016.

We have already noted that the boundary commission will take four months to report back on its proposed boundaries.  That puts us in early June, assuming that the commission is appointed and starts work by the first of February.  The House will then have to put the changes in legislation.

If the report comes back in June, the House might approve it immediately as the House might still be sitting.  If the commission is delayed, then the House will have to reconvene in July or August.  They won’t be able to fight over the boundaries.  In order to get everything ready,  they must rubber-stamp the boundaries no matter how bad they are.be

The provincial elections office has assured everyone they can reprogram their system within two months, allowing another two before polling day for some kind of public awareness campaign.  If nothing goes wrong,  they might possibly be ready for an election in September or, more likely October.  That assumes everything goes off without a hitch and that the federal government is not at the polls in the fall.

Bear in mind, though, that this is the same office that has not been able to deliver any of its financial and poll reports on by-elections and generals elections  within anything approaching a reasonable period.  The financial reports for the 2011 general election, for example, are nowhere to be seen as we head into the next general election.

This is also a government, we should note that has been unable to do just about anything on time, let alone on budget since 2003.  We can have little confidence, all things considered, that the commission can finish its work in 120 days,  that the House will come together to approve the new boundaries not long after that, and that the electoral commission can do all that it needs to do by even the optimistic forecast of November.

Every incentive

Once the Liberals agreed to delay the election,  the specific date became irrelevant.  The Conservatives can find whatever excuses they want to delay and delay and delay again.  The next election will be in 2016.

The Conservatives have no incentive to rush an election this year and every incentive to delay. They get to stay in office, in power.  They get to collect their salaries and benefits, and build up bigger pensions.  They get more time to hope that the Liberals screw up or drop in the polls.  And if they do not screw up then, as everyone saw on Monday, a gang of Conservative political staffers and supporters will accuse a Liberal member of something nefarious. They have done the same sort of thing before, including with the same member of the House.  What actually happened will not matter if their shrill accusations get the eye of the media, as they will, and therefore get more attention than they deserve.  Right does not give might in the Twitter world, as the Conservative attack teams know all too well.

By the time the Conservatives do go to the polls, the public view may have changed.  The economy may have turned around.  And with fewer seats in the House,  the Conservatives have an easier time staying in power.  Remember that they only have to win 20 seats in a 38 seat House to form a majority.  If they tie with the Liberals,  the Conservatives get to stay in office because the parliamentary convention holds that the party in power wins the tie.  And even if the Conservatives get a plurality in an election split among three parties, they get to stay in office by the same convention.

The Conservatives don’t have to go to the polls until October 2016.  This is January 2015.  A lot can change in the better part of two years between now and when the Tories must have an election.  Just think of what has changed in the past 12 months.

So it is that Ball and the Liberals have granted the Conservatives the one thing they desperately wanted:  time.   Let us return to the question of the number of seats.

Think Big, Paul Davis!

If the Conservatives have half a political clue in their heads they will get behind the Liberal amendment to freeze the four seats in Labrador and go with their own total number of seats. The Conservatives would be smart to accept this amendment to their plan because it will only put the Liberals in a harder spot.  Heck, the Conservatives should go the Liberals one better and push through an amendment that reduces the number of island seats even further.

Every seat the Conservatives take off the political playing board will only magnifies the internal strife within the Liberal camp. Since the Liberals have endorsed the Conservative premise that the cuts are solely about cost,  there is no practical limit to how small a number of seats you have in the legislature.  Theoretically,  the Tories can go down to five or six island seats before they might run into any serious push-back.

Think about it for a second.  These cuts are driven entirely on the basis of cost savings and the fact that voters, supposedly, love the idea of chopping politicians. 

Well, if they can save $2.5 million annual by cutting 10 seats and keeping 38, let them cut 38 and keep a mere 10.  If 10 ex-politicians make people smile, they’ll die of hysterical joy at the thought of 38 political corpses on the pavement.  Go big,  boys or go the frig home out of it.

As Dwight Ball argued on Monday’s Open Line in favour of cuts to the House, modern technology allows constituency offices to handle many more people than they used to.  After all, we might wonder,  couldn’t we have just 10 offices office to send out birthday greetings to Nan?  Maybe we can book the dinner at the local fireman’s committee using an automated online service like the airlines use.  That would be much more efficient.

There is no limit to how far you can take the superficial arguments offered to support cuts to the House. The incentive for the  Conservatives is that every step further only serves to make Dwight Ball’s problem worse.

Paul Davis started the New Year in a bad political spot.  Not even three weeks into 2015, Davis already has a new lease on his political life thanks to the fellow who would replace him.  If this is an sign of what is to come,  the next general election, now set for some time in 2016, might prove to be more interesting than anyone imagined.