30 March 2015

More like a snapshot than a panorama #nlpoli

Last week, a group called Samara released the results of its research on Canadians and politics.  Democracy 360 they called it.

The media locally covered it, if for no other reason than it showed that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians trailed the country in things like donations to political parties.  Didn’t fit our perception that we all love our politics, some reporters said.

One of the news stories went to Memorial University and talked to students. Results are shocking said one student politician. Students are really politically engaged, apparently.  They talk about politics a lot.

Democracy 360 and the coverage of it are more good examples example of why it pays to look at the details to find out what is going on.

Take the university students, for example.  Memorial University students aren’t that involved, engaged or active in politics.  Only 10% of them turned out for the recent student union elections, according to a story in The Muse. All that talk about how politically aware and involved MUN students are is just…well…errr… talk.

That’s pretty much the same thing for politics in general in this province.  Perception is one thing.  Reality is quite something else.

And it’s the same thing for this Samara research as well.  It isn’t about politics generally in the country and each of the provinces.  Quite the opposite.  They did online interviews with about 2,400 people to talk about federal politics.  That will give you are fairly reliable look at the whole country. By the time you get to Newfoundland and Labrador, you would be looking at a few hundred at best. Then you’d have to look at those few hundred to see how those people spread across the province or how the sample looked for age, income,  sex, and the rest.  By the time you get to the provincial level,  the information you get from your respondents might not be quite as representative of the province as a whole as the big sample is of the country.

Voter Turnout

Anyone who has studied local politics can tell you that there is a very obvious difference in Newfoundland and Labrador between federal and provincial politics.  Take turnout at elections, for example.   Alex Marland had a tidy little table in a 2009 paper in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies on voter participation. Turnout in federal elections has been typically quite low compared to the rest of the country.

marland - turnout

The turn-out in 2011 was about 53% in Newfoundland Labrador. With the exception of a couple of elections in the late 1950s,  53% is not radically lower than it has been recently.

Provincially, the turnout is quite different. 









































Bit of a difference, eh?

Historically,  people in this province have been more attuned to provincial politics than federal politics.  They turn out in droves for provincial campaigns.


According to Samara 10% of the people they interviewed from this province gave money to a federal political party. That actually fits with experience in provincial politics.  As labradore pointed out in 2011, there are districts in this province where no one made a political contribution to any of the provincial political parties.  Well, no one except the incumbent politician who made what was basically a token donation to the party he or she represented.

labradore found much the same thing when he got his hands on the 2011 election financial numbers:

  • “Personal donations accounted for just 21.2% of PC candidates' revenues. The personal contribution amount was up slightly to $172,000 (from $160,000 in 2007), but personal donations to the PCs continue to slide as a share of their total, as it has in every election since 1996. For the first time since 1999, personal donations to the PCs represented a plurality of all personal donations to all candidates — 49%, vs 31% for the Liberal candidates and 20% for the Dippers.
  • Personal donations to the Liberals rose from $91,000 in 2007 to $107,000 in 2011, and was virtually unchanged as a share of Liberal candidates' intake (39%, down from 40%).
  • The NDP was the big gainer in the personal donations sweeps, up to almost $72,000 from just $17,000 in 2007. In fact, individual donations to the NDP in 2011 were more than in the previous four elections combined. Individual donations to the NDP, at 20% of the total personal donations, was that party's highest on record, never having hit a double-digit share in any previous election.”

Go back and look at labradore’s work on political donations – there’s quite a bit of it -  and you’ll see lots of useful things. One of them is that individual donations are far lower in this province than the corporate ones. He’s done a neat comparison between Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. 

There are two things to note about money and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.

First, the federal system bans corporate donations. Only individuals can contribute and there’s a cap on contributions. The provincial numbers tell us that the federal elections rules aren’t skewing the local record on individual donations. 

What Samara found isn’t the least bit surprising.  It’s consistent with the tendency of people here to look locally before looking federally.  It also likely reflects the basic idea that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are more used to be governed that looking on themselves as the governors.

Second, the provincial corporate donations include a bunch of money that is actually from individuals.That’s especially true of small businesses or professional corporations.

People ranting about the evils of corporate money should note that.

People who want to change political finance rules in Newfoundland and Labrador will face lots of opposition from people who would argue that the only way to get the big gobs of cash you need for politics is to leave things as they are.

Maybe yes.

More likely no.

It just means you have to shift a lot more than the rules in order to change the political culture. The one goes with the other:  you can shift the money rules and help to shift the way people look at their role in politics.

Out of touch

According to Samara, half “of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians report some form of contact by a federal political party or politician in the last year—the lowest in Canada. Nationally, 63% of Canadians report being contacted. “

That’s federally, where politicians have cash to spend on household mailings and actually use it to keep in touch with voters.

The number provincially would likely be much, much lower.  Politicians here have cash available to make contact with voters but few use it.  The most they’ll do is place a small ad in the local paper.  Provincial politicians will attend every garden party, turkey tea, or seniors’ home.  Beyond that, you will seldom hear tell of your local politician.

One result of this sort of behaviour is that people in Newfoundland and Labrador have a very queer idea about provincial politicians.  A whole bunch of people, including the provincial New Democratic Party leader would have us get rid of most of the provincial politicians representing St. John’s.  The argument is that people in town don;t rely on their member of the House like the folks out around the bay.  The townies have their city councillor instead.

The whole notion is so fundamentally frigged up you don’t even know where to begin to put it right.  Let’s just leave it at the simple observation that people understand there’s no reason to call Tom Hann if you are concerned the provincial government is underfunding education or health care.  It’s not just that Tom is too busy defending to interests of wealthy householders in the east end who want to sell off their heritage properties rather than see them preserved.  It’s that people understand Tom and the rest of the crowd at Tammany on New Gower have nothing to do with education.

Thanks be to God.

As frigged up as the idea is plenty of people believe it. 

Then again, politicians around these parts have lots of frigged up ideas. When the Chief Justice was going around trying to stamp out the sort of basic corruption that went on between 1996 and 2006,  plenty of politicians of all stripes argued vehemently against doing away with their little patronage scams.  People expect us to give them cash and trinkets and all sorts of other treats, the pols insisted.

Lots of it went by the boards. The Conservatives created a whole bunch of slush funds in the tourism department to keep their bit of it going. The other parties did the bets they could, either by cycling people through the odd jobs in the opposition offices  or operating a free-of-charge bed and breakfast for constituents in town for this, that, or the other purpose.

In any event, some of what Samara found makes sense.  Some of it either doesn;t make sense or needs a lot of extra information if one is to make sense of it.  Their research isn’t exactly a 360 degree, that is, an all-round picture. 

It’s sort of a snapshot.

With a camera that’s a bit wonky.

But still.

It makes you think.