05 February 2015

Elections and Voting #nlpoli

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador (2015) – Part 4
The politicians in the province share a lot of common views and tend to agree on most things despite being organized into political parties that are – theoretically  - supposed to have some sharp differences among them.  The House of Assembly itself is organized to minimise the chances that the government won;t get its way, quickly.  

In the fourth instalment in this series on politics in Newfoundland and Labrador, SRBP looks how elections work.
Yvonne Jones was the first woman leader of the Liberal Party. 

She was the first woman to serve as leader of the official opposition and, more recently, she became the first women to represent Labrador in the House of Commons.

Yvonne Jones will go down in history for another accomplishment, though.  That one has nothing to do with chromosomes.

Yvonne Jones was the last person to be elected to the House of Assembly as an independent candidate.*

No more Independents

Jones contested Danny Dumaresque for the Liberal nomination in the district that used to be called Eagle River. It became Cartwright  - L’Anse au Clair.  Dumaresque won the nomination but Jones ran as an unaffiliated candidate.  She beat Dumaresque handily, with more votes than Danny had won in 1989.

Theoretically, you could still run these days as an independent candidate.  Changes to the provincial election laws in 2007 make that practically impossible.  The special ballot rules introduced that year allowed people to cast votes in an election before it even exists. They can request a ballot and vote up to 30 days before the writ is dropped.

On paper, it looks like someone can vote for a candidate or a party. 

Small problem.  A candidate, as defined in the Elections Act, is a person who has filed a nomination with the electoral office between the day the writ drops and the designated final day for nominations. An individual could campaign as hard as he or she wanted to, but all the while they are out knocking doors,  the political parties can be racking up votes in the box.  They get a 30 day head start on voting.

They also get an infinite head start on fundraising.  Only candidates or parties can receive campaign donations under the Elections Act.  Since a candidate can’t exist until the election is called, the party can rack up a huge bank account on behalf of its eventual candidate.  The loner is out in the cold. 
Parties also get a jump on campaign expenses, too.  If you can’t raise money, you also can’t spend money if you are an independent person running in an election.  The Elections Act makes it illegal for a person who isn't a candidate to spend money on an election.

The original version of the expenses clause limited candidates’ and parties’ alike to the actual campaign period for their advertising.  In 1998,  an amendment that sailed through the House of Assembly changed the whole section.  It was part of an overhaul of the legislation based on experience in the 1996 election.  The parties formed a committee and worked out a number of changes to the Act.  of course, they couldn’t really anticipate what would happen a decade later.

Uncompetitive Elections

Since 1949,  elections in Newfoundland and Labrador have not been very competitive.  There have been only three changes of the political party that controls government in the 66 years since Confederation:  1972,  1989, and 2003.

The Liberals won every election between 1949 and 1972.  The Conservatives held power between 1972 and 1989.  The Liberals held power again from 1989 to 2003 and the Conservatives have been the majority party in the legislature since 2003.

The only minority election was in 1971 and the Liberals only managed to hang onto power for the few months until the 1972 general election cleared up any confusion about who the public wanted to run the province.

Even among individual members of the House, the odds of getting defeated – outside of those three big changes – were pretty small.  The effect of this electoral stability has been that competitive elections occur relatively infrequently, they tend to occur inside the incumbent party (or the ascendant party), and happen only in those seats where the party doesn’t already have an incumbent.

The competitive electoral choice – therefore – happens inside a private organization using a process that can be best described as unregulated.  The participants are a tiny fraction of the electorate in a district.

If we use the Conservative contests as an example, the rules governing the contests are subject to some idiosyncratic interpretation.  The party constitution states that only party members can vote in a nomination.  The party doesn’t actually have membership so they let anyone living in the district vote in a nomination.

That’s actually very open, when you think about it for a second.  In the next second, you have to realise that the party leadership can also change the rules just as easily,  as they did in 2011. In order to avoid a leadership contest,  the party officials rejected most of the signatures on a nomination form because they weren’t members of the party. 

How can you tell someone is a member of a party that has no membership process?  Good question, but since the Conservative party is a private organization, how they run their affairs is entirely their own business.  In the case of picking a Premier, though, the party’s private, internal business winds up being pretty significant public business.

Selective Hearing

The electoral system in Newfoundland and Labrador minimises the value of the individual candidate and the individual voter just as the House of Assembly operates in a way that reduces the impact of an individual member on policy to the least it can be short of eliminating the House altogether.

While we may imagine that elections happen in the open,  many of the key decisions in our electoral system happen away from public view where rules apply fairly to all.  In 2010  and again in 2014,  a small group of people within the party currently controlling the government decided who would be Premier. They ignored every established convention because they did not suit their purposes.

And after the original inside deal collapsed,  the Conservatives found a leader based on the votes of only a few hundred people accepted by unnamed people according to rules they alone interpreted. One the new leader's most significant moves, as Premier, was to push a new law through the House of Assembly that reduced public representation in the legislature.  He and his colleagues claimed their plan was merely fulfilling the wishes of the people who were, supposedly, clamouring for cuts to the House.

Faithful servants of the people, surely, although none of them seems to be able to show proof of the massive public outcry for cuts to the House.

The servants’ hearing is very selective, of course.  The same politicians who heard the peeps about the size of the legislature ignored the public clamour against the appointment of an unelected cabinet minister. 

Funny thing that.
Friday:   Government by Committee

*  In 2019,  voters at opposite ends of the island returned independent members to the House of Assembly.