27 April 2015

Hysteriana #nlpoli

The response to the proposed boundaries for districts in the House of Assembly has been…what’s the word for it? … oh yes,  totally off-the-wall, batshit crazy.

On the Burin peninsula you have a bunch of people who claim that having two members represent Marystown instead of the current one member is an unprecedented tragedy of biblical proportions,  The town will be split in two, they claim.

Presumably families will be separated, unable to speak to one another across the giant zone of barbed wire and land mines that the northern district will erect between the southern district.  Berlin.  North and South Korea.  Right here.

In Gander, the local chamber of commerce is concerned that moving a neighbouring town into a new district will have even more serious consequences.  They think that putting Glovertown in a different electoral district than the one it is in currently will shift their economic ties from Gander to Clarenville.

According to CBC,  the chair of the chamber “said new boundaries mean Glovertown will be part of the Terra Nova district, even though the area hospital and government services are in Gander.”

"The Glovertown/Eastport area is being pushed to the Clarenville district, which we have a huge problem with, as Gander is the service centre for those types of communities," she said.

One small problem.

Glovertown isn’t in the same electoral district as Gander now.  Gander is in Gander.

Glovertown is in the district of Terra Nova.

What’s the difference?

Well, nothing, if you look at it from the perspective of people trying to set up the districts that will elect people to the House of Assembly.  Indeed, the difference would be nothing if you looked at the current situation in Gander as the regional economic hub with Glovertown in a different district.

The electoral districts don’t set economic patterns. People in Glovertown will still go to Gander to go to the hospital or to shop, if they have been doing it all along. 

Follow the money

The reaction to changed electoral districts does make sense, though,  if you look at it from the standpoint of social and economic changes going on in the province over the past 25 years.

The boundaries commission set the districts on the island – Labrador got an exemption from the changes – from scratch.  That is, they didn’t adjust existing district boundaries.  They wiped the map clean and started drawing as if they were doing it for the first time.

When they hit an area where they had to make a choice of some kind, they looked at other information. Some of it was historic. Some of it was economic. They wanted to know, for example, what direction people travelled in to do their shopping and so forth. It was one of the ways they defined “community of interest.”

What you are seeing in Gander is not a problem with the boundaries but with a perceived economic shift from Gander to Clarenville.  Gander is a town that didn’t exist before the creation of the Newfoundland Airport in the 1940s. In the first couple of years after Confederation Gander was a government centre and it rapidly became an economic hub for the communities along the coast.

The government’s own demographic analysis over the past quarter century concluded that, over time, people would shift into the major centres from outlying areas. Gander was one of those centres. More recently, though, Clarenville – another hub – has done relatively better than Gander.  Lots of people working in Bull Arm or even in Long Harbour have found Clarenville is a conveniently close centre. 

And so it is that the town at the bottom end of Trinity Bay has done relatively well for itself. There have been lots of new homes built there in the past decade. Some of those houses have been coming on the market lately. Take a look at the prices and you will see that the prices are comparable to what you’d see in any boom town.

The lure of Clarenville’s recent boom has pulled people from all directions, including the west. Transportation is far easier today than it was even 20 years ago.  People are way more mobile and are willing to travel farther than before for things.

The Town’s presentation to the recent budget consultations reflects the economic boom in Clarenville.  Since 2007,  the population of the town is up by 14%.  Gander, by contrast, hasn’t been doing quite as well.  The Gander chamber of commerce presentation doesn’t have any sign of positive things.  In fact,  one point that stands out from the Gander chamber’s presentation is the reference to the loss of the local school board district office during the recent consolidations.

The contrast between the two presentations and the consultation sessions is striking.  In Clarenville, there were five presentations.  In Gander, only two.  The Gander chamber was concerned about further cuts to government services because the town is heavily dependent on public spending. 

Interestingly, the community accounts for the two areas don’t support the markedly different presentations offered by Gander and Clarenville to the recent budget consultations.  Gander’s population growth is roughly comparable. The migration rate is about the same.  Gander’s average income for couples is $98,900 compared to Clarenville’s $89,000 and the average per capita income in Gander is 10% higher than in Clarenville.

Gander and Clarenville are actually comparable, in other words.  And as Long Harbour and Bull Arm construction winds down,  Clarenville won’t be quite the little boom town any more. All those houses are on the market at high prices because things are winding down, but that isn;t what people are seeing.  They see the relative recent trends 

What’s different is the perception among civic leaders of Gander as stagnant, in decline, or under threat, and Clarenville where things are bright.  That perception turned up in this case in a concern from the Gander chamber of commerce about a change in electoral districts that isn’t actually a change at all.

If you look at the Corner Brook,  Marystown, or the New Democratic Party’s official response to the boundary changes, you are seeing a response to the wider demographic and economic shifts over the past couple of decades in the province as a whole.  While the towns and cities in the province aren’t saying it clearly, what is happening is that people in places like Corner Brook are seeing fully the impact of what’s been going on.  That tends to confirm their fears as, for the first time, people are seeing more clearly the reality of what has been happening in the province.

There are fewer people in most parts of the province.  Economically,  places like Corner Brook and Marystown aren’t doing as well as they were doing even 10 years ago. More parts of the province are dependent on provincial government spending than before.  Economic prosperity from private sector activity is more localised than it was.

At the same time, the population has been declining.  When you cut the number of seats in the House, you make each district larger.  In places where the population has dropped,  you are going to have to draw a much larger district to capture more people.  In St. John’s, you can find 14,500 people in a space roughly 10 square kilometres.  In Fortune Bay- Cape La Hune,  you can only find half that number in an area of more than 15,000 square kilometres.  With the new district maps,  what many people knew intellectually is now right in front of their faces.

The province’s New Democrats have taken a political line that is neither new nor democratic. They are focussing on the loss of seats in rural Newfoundland as if it was a deliberate and massive attack by one crowd on another. That fits with the cries coming from Corner Brook, Stephenville, and Marystown.

The New Democratic Party line plays not only on the old townie-baymen division,  it also plays on the insecurities born of the economic disparity between those on the island where the local economy is doing relatively well and those where things are not as good or are actually in decline.

The NDP line is not democratic since it suggests that people in some parts of the province should have more political influence – as represented by a vote – than others.  None of that should be surprising, though, since the province’s progressive political party routinely supports regressive or reactionary ideas.  Why should they prefer old, undemocratic ones any differently?  But that’s all another story.

What’s going to be interesting in the next few weeks will be the way the debate over the House boundaries shapes up when it gets to the House of Assembly in June.  It will be interesting to see if the discussion about the number of seats and where they are continues in the almost hysterical vein it has followed thus far.  Or maybe it will  finally come to grips with the real issue that is on everyone’s mind – the economic, social, and political future of the province.

After all, that’s what the next election is going to be about.