People are talking about the budget.
People are talking about Bill 42, the politicians’ decision to cut public representation in the House.
People are talking about the recent polls.
People are talking about the next election.
People have predictions about how this one or that one will play out.
But they are not looking at everything.
They are not looking at the whole board.
And you gotta look at the whole board, Sam.
Some people – especially Liberal activists – think there will be an election this fall, guaranteed. Somewhere there are words on a piece of paper that say so. There may be 40 seats in that election, if the commission appointed to set those seats can do the job in the 130 days the House set as a limit in January. Otherwise, there is will be 48 seats in that guaranteed fall election.
This spring, the provincial government will bring down a budget. There will be cuts to spending, borrowing, and some increases in fees and taxes. That is how big the problem is, the finance minister – our fourth in three years – tells us. It is so big that everything is delayed. We are doing the budget “consultation” later than usual and the budget itself will appear in late April or early May, which is later than usual. Because things are that bad.
Before we go any further with this, let us make it clear that this whole thing is about power. All of it. About power. The Conservatives have it. Everyone else doesn’t. The Conservatives are not stupid, no matter what anyone might think or what their actions might suggest. They know what is going on.
The Conservatives will only give up their grip on power when they have to give it up. Someone will have to make them give it up. Until then, the Conservatives will do what they can to stay in power as long as they can. If things work out, they might not have to give up power. As long they are in power and they have time, there is hope.
This is not rocket science. It is not unusual. Ask anyone at the top end of the Grimes administration. The Liberals went from 2001 until 2003. They could have gone until 2004 if they needed to go that long. But the Liberals went as long as they did because they could. They wanted to give Danny a chance to slip up or for something good to happen for the Liberals.
As it turned out, things didn’t work out for the Liberals.
The Next Election
Now let us deal with the next election. The election will take place sometime between now and the date in October 2016 when the current administration’s constitutional mandate runs out. That is the only hard limit the Conservatives face. The constitution says you can only go five years between elections: “No House of Commons and no legislative assembly shall continue for longer than five years from the date fixed for the return of the writs at a general election of its members.”
The last election was in October 2011.
2011 + 5 = 2016.
The only way the Conservatives could go beyond that limit is – under section 4 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – in “time of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection.” Even then they would need a resolution of the House of Assembly that, in the words of the Charter, isn’t “opposed by the votes of more than one-third of the members” of the House.
So unless someone wants to start an insurrection and unless a war breaks out somewhere, the longest we can go without a general election is October 2016.
Just a little bit longer
Everything other than that hard constitutional date is calculation.
The calculation is about whether the polls. The Conservatives will wait just a little longer to see if an opportunity might open for them to win an election. And until the numbers turn around, they will wait just a little bit longer.
One of the big factors in their calculation will be polls. They are not good. The Conservatives are behind the Liberals by about two to one. Even allowing some slide that the leading party always experiences once the writ drops, the Conservatives don’t have anything right now that looks good enough to eat into the Liberal lead in the polls. So the Conservatives are waiting just a little bit longer to call an election.
Their most recent efforts to turn the polls have been focused on turning former Policeman Paul into something you could call Decisive Paul. The invented fight with Ottawa. The cuts to the House. They have tried. Nothing worked.
The Conservatives are stuck at around 20 percent in the polls. That’s roughly half of what the Liberals are polling. The House seat cutting thing did nothing for them at all. It will not hasten the election by one second although, as noted here before, it will serve as a convenient excuse to delay the election this fall if the Conservatives need to wait just a little bit longer.
The Commission appointed under the Electoral Boundaries Act has 130 days to come up with a set of boundaries for 36 seats on the island. In all likelihood, they will get the boundaries drawn. It’s a few maps and a few consultations with people. They should be able to get it done quickly. They don;t have to make it look pretty. It just has to be 36 seats.
If they don’t get the job done, the Conservatives can appoint another commission or extend the current one. They can keep trying until someone gets it right.
Some people will insist that’s not what the words on the page say. One shot. Done. Then it’s 48 seats in the fall. They might even tap a finger on the page for emphasis. Good for them. There isn’t a word on the page that prevents the government from appointing a commission until they get one that comes up with an answer.
The next election will have 40 seats.
One way or another, it will be 40 seats.
The problem with delivering 40 seats will most likely come with the gormless, patently incompetent crowd at Elections Newfoundland and Labrador. If they are not ready for an election this fall, then the Conservatives will just delay. They already have Dwight Ball’s consent. He gave it in front of reporters. Ball denies he said any such thing. The recordings don’t lie.
And so it will be that the Conservatives can slide through the fall without an election, if they want to do so. If the polls are not running in their favour, they will not want to go to the voters for a mandate they know they will not get.
The Conservatives hinted very strongly last fall that we’d have an election this spring. Don’t worry about this unelected minister thing: election come soon, they said. Judy will run in the next election. You know. Like. In a few months time.
Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
Spring is on the way and the election is not.
The budget is bad. The polls are worse.
Surprise, surprise. No election this spring.
The Words on the Page
But that is not the law some will say and the law says plainly there must be an election this fall.
Tap finger for dramatic emphasis.
Lots of people can argue a long time about what sections 3 and 3.1 of the House of Assembly Act mean. Some will say there was supposed to be an election already. Others, your humble e-scribbler included, put the date sometime this fall.
This is not a legal question. This is a strategic issue. The words don’t really matter.This is about power. The limit for the next election is 2016 and everything after is strategic calculation.
This is strategic calculation.
The Conservatives can change the wording of the House of Assembly Act if they don’t want to go to the polls this fall. If they don’t change the Act, they can just plough through with the express consent from Dwight Ball. Dwight will insist he never consented. The Tories will play recordings of him saying “I don’t have a problem with that” or words to that effect.
Worst case scenario for the Conservatives: a whole bunch of lawyers earning beaucoup billable hours will spend some time on Duckworth Street arguing in front of some really smart people about the whole thing. Even if the justices of the Supreme Court order something or other that says the government needs to call an election, there might be an appeal. In fact, there would almost certainly be an appeal because enormous constitutional issues are involved.
So in that case, we would not go to an election in the fall because the Liberals took the Conservatives to court and Big Issues are involved. The issue would not be about the Conservatives but about a lawsuit brought by the Liberals. People will tune out. The Liberals will go to court. The Conservatives stay in power.
There might be an election this fall. Odds are there won’t be one. It all depends on whether or not the Conservatives think they can win an election then.
In some ways the situation with the election law is like the situation with the boundaries law. Some people think the Conservatives get only one shot at it. They don’t. The words in the Act are clear. The intention of the Act originally was to set boundaries. The recent fiddling was about trying to play politics. If the government decides to continue with a second commission after the first one fails – if it fails – what will happen?
The most that will happen is that the Liberals or someone else will take the government to court. Who will the judges side with, if they even get asked to sort it out?
This is about power and the Conservatives will still be in power. Everything else is a calculation. Like the calculation of how many billable hours the lawyers can get arguing yet another case in front of the smart people on Duckworth Street about what those words on the page mean.
Certainly, not voters.
They find this sort of stuff tedious, at best. To them, it is insider baseball without a ball and bat. They might take notice if this somehow splashes back on the Liberals. Otherwise, and most likely, they will stay firmly in the position they took some time ago: time for a change.
A court case or two would just be another delay on the road to the election. People may well get pissed off at whomever is responsible for the delays. The Liberals should pay attention to that. The Liberals would gain nothing from being perceived as the cause of any delay in the election. They would gain nothing from the public perception that they had a hand in delaying an election. It would make no sense for the Liberals to delay or to cause a delay or to give any excuse for the Conservatives to stay in power, but that is what they will likely do. The Liberals will likely give the Conservatives cover because that is what they have done so far.
This is a strategic problem the Liberals need to fix. They got away with it in January. They may not be so lucky the next time.
Then there is the budget..
We’ll turn to that on Tuesday.