19 January 2015

Not fit for it #nlpoli

It’s not surprising that the provincial Conservatives and their supporters want to reduce the representations the people of the province have in the House of Assembly.

After all, the plan to cut 10 seats from the House of Assembly and make other changes in the interest of “modernisation” fits their pattern of behaviour over the past decade.

But there’s a bit more to it.

Staying in office as long as they can

What first meets the eye about this cut to the House of Assembly is that it meets a simple need for the Conservatives, namely staying in power as long as they can.  This is a convenient excuse for the Conservatives to delay the next general election until 2016.  It’s going to take much longer than the government has acknowledged to figure out how to fit the province into 38 seats and then for the elections office to figure out the rest of it.

The simple solution will be a delay in the fall election.  The Conservatives always had two ways to extend the election into 2016.  One was to change the law.  The other was to just ignore the law. The requirement for an election every four years is contained in a law passed by the House of Assembly.  It doesn’t contain any penalties if the provincial government just ignores the four year rule. There might be political problems but those problems aren’t as sure as you might think.

Ordinarily, it might cause them problems if the Conservatives just ignored the law. But if there is an agreement among all the parties, then there’d be really no serious political backlash. There’s already been some talk about that agreement and if they agreement in the House to cutting the number of seats, they’ll quickly push for a delay in the election that must go with it.

Maximising the cabinet

In addition to the cuts to the number of seats,  the Conservatives plan to set the House standing orders committee on a review of the House procedures. The word “modernizing” is there, suggesting that this whole package is the brainchild of Steve Kent. The last time anyone revised the Standing Orders,  we got the conditions that led to the spending scandal.  Everyone should keep an eye on this exercise.

Revising the House standing orders – the rules about how the House operates – could be about substantive changes to the role the House plays in our province. Given that they’ve already decided to cut seats and that they plan this review of standing orders to be done quickly, this review of standing orders won’t likely produce anything meaningful.

In most legislatures,  there are committees of members that  review government proposals.  They often hold public hearings in which people can go and present their views to the committee members themselves.  That takes time, though.  And if you allow time, people can find the flaws in hastily developed schemes.  They can build opposition to bad ideas or take a decent one and make it better.  None of those things are palatable thought s to politicians who are used to listening to no one.

No one should be expecting those kinds of changes.  The cut to the number of politicians in the House makes substantive committees unworkable, for one thing.  The rushed process makes it plain the government doesn;t want any real input.  They just want to go through the motions. They will claim that there will be public consultation using “modern” methods.  By doing things quickly and by avoiding public hearings, though,  politicians limit the chances that anyone can actually figure out what they are doing. That’s what we will see in this rushed “modernization” project and its what the “modernization” project will deliver:  lots of fluff and nothing of substance.

Minimising people

“Consultation”  in the way some politicians use the term is really just a cynical part of their agenda to maximise their ability to get things done without interference.  The cuts to the House of Assembly are a case in point. 

The boundaries commission that will be appointed in this emergency session of the legislature is a good example.  They might have enough time to take a few e-mails or host an online town hall or have some kind of massive flurry of tweets. There are two things the politicians won’t do, though.  They won’t give people time to think about the proposal and hear other points of view.

And they won’t listen to anything but discussion of the one option the politicians have already selected:  cuts to the number of politicians in the House. The boundaries commission will only be interested in the public view if there are any complaints that this street or that town should be in one district as opposed to another.

That doesn’t just minimise public input,  it pretty much ensures that anything the public thinks about the bigger question of their presentation is irrelevant. That’s whole point of course: to make it appear that people have some influence or power, all the while marginalising or eliminating real public power over their own affairs.


Another word you can expect to a lot of when some people talk about these changes is “efficiency.”  That’s one of the claims supporters have already made for this plan to cut the House of Assembly right alongside sharing the pain. 

A few people in media streeters over the past few days expressed their support for the cuts on that latter basis.  Others have talked about the fact that we don’t need that many politicians anyway.  We have too many.  We have more than we can afford.  Fewer politicians will make government more efficient.

Some self-described business people were quick to endorse the plan to cut seats in the House of Assembly over the weekend.  One turned up in a Telegram story that also featured your humble e-scribbler.  Another had an exchange on Twitter with VOCM’s Paddy Daly.  Who they are specifically isn’t important.  What’s valuable for our discussion is the basis for their support of the cuts.

The people who put this argument forward measure efficiency only one way:  they compare how many politicians we have in relation to the population compared to the ratio  in other provinces.  Getting closer to the national average or to the middle of all the provinces would be good, so that argument goes, because we are more efficient.

You can see a problem with that argument pretty quickly if you just think about it for a second. They don’t tell you what the politicians do.  If you don’t know what job someone does or what it takes to do the job, you can’t tell anything at all.  You don’t know if you have enough people or if you have too many.

The other argument was a combination of different ideas. The main part of it was that politicians need to cut their own jobs in order to have the legitimacy to cut others.  Other parts of the argument relied on the notion we have too many politicians.  Another was that people don’t like politicians anyway. Overall, everyone agrees on the need to cut;  the only quibble is about timing.  We just need to get on with the job of cutting the right way, went the argument.

Again, you can see the problems with these arguments fairly quickly:

Everyone agrees on the cuts.  Everyone in the House of Assembly agreed they should be able to spend public money on anything they wanted without receipts.  That turned out badly and that experience should stand as a warning against repeating the same mistake twice.  After all, your mother knew the danger of going along with the crowd when she used to talk about jumping off the wharf.

People don’t like politiciansThere are too many of them. The “too many” argument is rebutted with the same observation as before.  As for the idea that people don’t like politicians,  just recall there are lots of people and things we don’t like in this life.  Imagine if we wiped out taxes.  People don’t like them, after all.  Well, we still need money for this, that or something else. Only tax as much as we need, might be the reply. That’s a fine starting point. But how much is enough?  No one knows. We have to figure it out.  Maybe that would be a job for politicians.

Legitimacy.  The notion of legitimacy or of setting an example is a superficially persuasive one in this instance.  After all,  a government can hardly cut legitimately, so the saying goes, without bearing the same burden of cuts and restraint as they impose on others.

The problem with what the provincial government is doing by cutting the House is not that they are reducing.  The problem is what they are reducing.  Governments in the past  have led by example. The difference is that they made cuts where the overspending happened:  in the government itself. Reducing the size of cabinet and the senior public service,  imposing wage freezes,  and reducing benefits are all ways that cabinet can deal with its financial problems credibly and appropriately.

Those sorts of cuts are also substantive. The cuts proposed by government are, at best superficial. Cutting 10 politicians would save about $2.5 million annually.  A change of 10 cents a barrel in the price of oil would wipe out whatever savings cuts to the House would produce.

More importantly, reductions across government wouldn’t impair the ability of the legislature to do its core business of keeping an eye on what the government is doing.  One of the reasons government is in its current financial state is because the House hasn’t been functioning properly. Cutting the number of politicians, especially those outside the government party reduces the public’s ability to hold the government to account.  There is simply no justification for that.

Some useful business ideas

One way to understand what we are talking about here is to use a business analogy.  Politicians go to the House of Assembly to represent each of the voters of the province.  They make decisions on our behalf about issues that will affect all of us.  One of the biggest things they decide is how to spend our money.  Clearly, some of the politicians have been doing a very bad job of that and that’s why we have a problem.  We also have a problem because the House of Assembly hasn’t been working properly to do its job of keeping an eye on the people spending money.

In one sense, the House of Assembly is like the board of directors of a company.  The shareholders pick the directors to oversee the business of the company  - to keep an eye - while the shareholders focus on other things.  The directors hire people to run the company and, in many cases,  some of the directors – like the cabinet – actually run the government on a day to day basis.

Using that analogy,  you can see what is happening in government.  The people who mismanaged the finances have come up with a plan to fix things. Their plan starts with cuts to the number of directors of the company.  We went through this argument last week, in case you missed it.  If management has been making a mess of things,  the best company response isn’t going to be firing directors off the board.

Forget the current polls for a second.  If you have fewer politicians, you make it easier for the others not only to get re-elected but to get re-elected in numbers to form government. After all,  it takes a smaller number to make a majority of 38 seats than it does of 48.  So right off the bat,  your change to the board of directors has not tackled the fundamental management problem.  That hardly seems sensible.

But there’s more to this business analogy.  What’s interesting here from the standpoint of those business people who are so enthusiastic for cuts to the board of directors is what the cuts mean for them as shareholders.  That ratio of one politician for so many voters  - call them shareholders to make it easier for the business analogy-  is an indication of the relative influence of each voter.

If you reduce the number of politicians,  what you are doing is like a stock split.  You arbitrarily reduce the influence of each shareholder.  At the same time, you maximise the ability of individual directors or groups of directors to keep control of the company and carry on doing the sorts of things that got us into this mess in the first place.

Try that argument on someone who runs a business and see if they still think that cuts to the House of Assembly are the sensible first action to deal with the financial crisis caused by the current company management.

Not fit for it

In another respect, though, our modern business friends betray the same shallow attachment to the principles of parliamentary democracy as did their predecessors 80-odd years ago when Newfoundland, as it then was called,  faced a far more serious financial mess.  Those business people, all men at the time, and their supporters had run the country for years.  They eliminated income tax at one point in the 1920s not because it was good for the country but because it was good for them. 

The government also relied very heavily for its income on import duties.  That protected the companies many of those business people owned because it made imported goods, often of better quality, too expensive for ordinary people to afford.  One of the immediate impacts of Confederation in 1949 was that those import duties fell away.  The companies all folded up or became wholesalers for imported goods.  Ordinary men and women, meanwhile, suddenly had a windfall of cash and a flood of inexpensive goods to buy.

In the early 1930s,  a great many people in Newfoundland believed the best thing to do would be to get rid of democracy altogether in the country.   That was an old idea among the country’s elites.  They viewed parliamentary democracy, as Jeff Webb put it,  as “expensive, cumbersome and inefficient.”  In the 1930s,  one businessman told the commission appointed to study the future of the Newfoundland government that the “average person here is such that we ought never to have had self-government; we are not fit for it.”

Old ways die harder

Conservative politician Glen Littlejohn made headlines in the province over the past couple of weeks.  He was upset at the mayor of one of the towns in the district Littlejohn represents in the House of Assembly.  At a public event,  the mayor had praised Littlejohn and noted all the money coming to the district from the provincial government.

Littlejohn’s problem was that the mayor had not been effusive enough in his praise.  As a result, Littlejohn said, he felt “appalled” and “embarrassed.”

Some people might make fun of Littlejohn.  They likely would poke fun at his hurt feelings given that current polls suggest Littlejohn won’t win his seat in the next election.  What they should do instead is understand what Littlejohn was talking about.  It’s patronage and as outdated as this idea might seem, patronage is at the heart of politics in the province these days. Things haven’t changed very much in the past eight decades or so. 

As political scientist George Perlin put it in 1971, historically, “the dominant factor in the Newfoundland context has been the use of public resources to make personal allocations or allocations which can be made in personal terms, in return for the delivery of votes.” That’s basically what Littlejohn was talking about whether he realised it or not.

Patronage became especially important again in Newfoundland and Labrador after 1996.  The parties in the House of Assembly agreed to change the rules about the way the House operated. Politicians would work less than before. They also got to spend their House allowances not on doing their jobs as politicians but on anything the politician wanted.  Many of them them took to the whole scheme enthusiastically, none more so than the politicians elected for the first time in 2003.  As subsequent investigations showed,  the politicians who spent the most of their allowances annually on patronage came to the House in the fall of 2003.

The real story of what was known as the spending scandal in 2006, then, was not the five politicians who went to jail.  The real story is the way in which the modern politicians re-created the sort of patronage scheme that existed in Newfoundland a century earlier, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Patronage didn’t disappear with the revelations in 2006 and 2007.  The practice of using public funds to garner political support persisted.  The Conservatives organized old fund programs and created a few more to which they had better access than other politicians. As we learned when Tom Rideout quit politics,  the Conservatives handed out road paving based not on the basis of need but on which party represented the district in the House.  Government districts got a big amount.  Opposition districts got less.

Politicians were quite open about the way they viewed things. After the Liberals won the recent by-election in her old seat,  former cabinet minister Charlene Johnson condemned the people of her district as ungrateful liars. They were ungrateful for all the public money that she and her colleagues had brought them over the past decade.  Danny Williams said much the same thing,  noting that the people of the Straits-White Bay North had turned their backs on Williams and his party, despite all that they had done to spend public money in the district.

Nor did the Conservatives change the way the House of Assembly itself operated in 2003.  They actually reduced the role the House of Assembly played in governing the province.  The House typically has typically sat for fewer days a year since 2003 than at any times in its recent history.  There are no functioning committees to keep an eye on what the government is doing. The ones that do exist are created for a limited purpose for a short time and then vanish, only to be re-created again the following year to do the same pro forma review of the annual budget. The public accounts committee remains moribund despite the recommendation by Chief Justice Green in the wake of the spending scandal.

Smaller legislatures tend to elect governments that dominate the legislature with 80% of the seats or more. There’s a considerable body of research that confirms this. Closer to home, labradore has documented the local tendency to electoral blowouts.

Reducing the number of seats in the House of Assembly will only exaggerate a tendency already present in this province to concentrate political power in the hands of the government and the Premier. Memorial University political science professor Alex Marland has noted this. “The Official Opposition,” wrote Marland, “is therefore often a small group of overwhelmed MHAs while a third party, if one exists, is a fringe organization. Opposition MHAs may find themselves responsible for multiple critic portfolios and it is unrealistic that they can be sufficiently informed about myriad topics or fully attend to all of their expected duties.” The result is that, as in other small legislatures, the government escapes proper scrutiny.

The Return of Patronage and Paternalism

Those business people we mentioned earlier are not bad people.  Nor are they smarter or dumber than anyone else.  They also aren’t alone in their attitudes toward politicians.  Their views reflect the experience of people in a place where politicians dole out patronage and punish those who disagree with them. People in the province tend to look on themselves not as the people politicians are elected to serve but as people who must go along in order to get along or get anything.

Alex Marland described one of the consequences very well.    “Political participation is sufficiently limited that interest groups prefer to meet behind closed doors and family networks continue to hold considerable sway within party politics. There is a historical pattern of democratic fragility…”.

There’s also a tendency,  as Marland noted, for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to trust “elites to represent their interests.”  He’s referring to paternalism,  the tendency of local politics to centre on the actions of strong leaders.  Paternalism reduces voters to a child-like condition.  Politicians exist to look after them.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians seem to view themselves as governed than as their own governors.  They see themselves as the victims of others rather than masters in their own house.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s political heritage has produced a very weak attachment by people to parliamentary democracy.  That weak attachment, to use a very academic sounding phrase,  has actually been made worse over the past decade by the presence of billions of dollars of oil revenue. This is something SRBP examined in a series of posts in  March 2013.

That series included observations by Terry Lynn Karl on the experience in other oil-dependent societies.  In her 2007 book The paradox of plenty,  Karl wrote that oil wealth “produces greater spending on patronage that, in turn, weakens existing pressures for representation and accountability. In effect, popular acquiescence is achieved through the political distribution of rents. Oil states can buy political consensus, and their access to rents facilitates the cooptation of potential opponents or dissident voices. With basic needs met by an often generous welfare state, with the absence of taxation, and with little more than demands for quiescence and loyalty in return, populations tend to be politically inactive, relatively obedient and loyal and levels of protest remain low -- at least as long as the oil state can deliver.”

Loyalty and obedience before representation and accountability

In Newfoundland and Labrador,  the provincial government has very deliberately spent more than it was taking in.  Some have blamed this on an accident caused by unpredictable oil revenues.  The problem with that explanation is that it is just not true.  The provincial government has actually spent not just what it predicted oil would be but more besides. 

The current problem is one the provincial government predicted.  Its “Prosperity Plan” included the expectation that the government would run deficits annually of up to $500 million as oil prices fell and climbed.  While the provincial government planned for deficits,  it didn’t expect the size of the current drop in price. The result is that they are plunged into a deep financial crisis.  Note, though, that they have not told anyone either how bad the problem is nor how they intend to deal with the massive deficit likely to come in the next fiscal year.

Their first initiative is to cut public representation in the House of Assembly by 10 seats. It is precisely the sort of decrease in representation and accountability Karl described. The total saving can be eliminated by a mere 10 cent per barrel fluctuation in the price of oil. We know, therefore, this is not an initiative to save money, to set an example, or to do anything else related to the government’s financial problem.

For all that, the idea of cutting public representation in the legislature has gained considerable support.  The reasons they offer are superficial though, and few have wondered how bad the government’s problem is that it must first look to cut the democratically elected representatives even though other ideas would produce far greater savings.

What’s particularly striking among the support for the government outside the circle of Conservative activists are the number of people who are willing to accept  the proposal because the government is proposing it. The idea is already becoming, for some, a question of patriotism,  of putting the supposed common good ahead of personal good.  That sort of argument is designed to limit public debate. It’s a tactic we have seen before from the current administration and it is one that has resonated strongly with voters.  It is resonating now despite the number of times that very approach has produced a very bad result, even within the past decade. 

One can hardly imagine a better display of the paternalistic nature of our political culture than the ease with which some people have already acquiesced to this initiative, without question. What has probably escaped their notice is that they have already accepted the same premise on which their ancestors gave up self-government in  the fall of 1933.  They tied their right to self-determination,  political accountability, and representation to the country’s bank balance.

Those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have so easily agreed to surrender their power for 10 cents on a barrel of oil might do well to wonder what will they give the next time the government comes calling.  Will they surrender more of their liberty because of government mismanagement rather than go to the polls and let the people decide their future for themselves?  If their political heritage continues to be as strong as it has been,  we could well be moving closer to the return of commission government in Newfoundland and Labrador.