29 June 2015

Rex, re-districting, and getting it right #nlpoli

Rex Hillier:  the first political victim of the bill that redrew the political map in Newfoundland.

Simple story.

Easy peasey.

And complete crap.

Rex Hillier won the Liberal nomination in the old district of Conception Bay South.  He beat a guy named Steve Porter by a handful of votes.

As the story goes, Porter didn’t actually campaign very hard. He did a few things and on the night of the vote, he only started calling around a the last minute to get people out to vote.

Hillier won the by-election to replace Conservative incumbent Terry French. He’d typically won the seat by an enormous margin.  That was a big win for the Liberals as it helped show the Conservatives were in big trouble.

The thing is, though, that Porter never lost his interest in the seat.  When the chance came around to have a second run at it,  Porter took the second shot. In fact, he was all over the nomination at least from the moment the boundary commission released its revised report.  This time Porter picked up some extra help from experienced campaigners within the party.  It paid of.

Two things contributed to Porter’s victory.  The first was the fact the party held nominations in every district that hadn’t been affected by the redistricting exercise.  Political parties in Newfoundland typically don’t expose their incumbents to a nomination fight.  The Liberals have been no exception. 

That changed after 2011 and Dwight Ball can take well-deserved credit for it.  He insisted on re-running nominations this time, just as he had already started the nomination process for the party well in advance of the January re-districting bill in he House.

Having a nomination fight in the new districts meant that incumbents potentially faced a challenge.  That extended even in cases like Hillier’s, where the new district wasn’t radically different from the old one. 

The second factor was Porter’s interest in the nomination. Other districts haven’t seen fights, even where there is a relatively new incumbent. Porter wanted this. He rightly suspected Hillier was vulnerable, got some help, and proceeded to unseat a new incumbent.  Porter didn’t arrive late on the scene, nor did either he or Hillier have any advantages or disadvantages from the rules. That too has been a welcome change from the short of shenanigans all parties have experienced in nominations.

Some people have been floating the idea that Hillier lost about 1,000 potential supporters as a result of the new district boundaries. Not really.  We are talking about a handful of votes here in both the nomination Hillier won and the one he lost to Porter.  The shift in the district boundaries didn’t rob Hillier of a massive supply of votes such that the redistricting cost him the election. 

Both nomination fights were tight and the better organized campaign came off on top in both instances. That doesn’t take the sting out of the loss for Hillier, but it does show that a properly-run nomination process can be valuable for the party in keeping everyone on his or   her toes.  Again, it is part of a string of reforms that have come along since 2011. Ball can take credit for many of them.

To go back to the CBS nomination, though, let’s allow for a second the Hillier apologists are right.  If Hillier was so politically weak that a few voters made the difference, then he’d have been a lousy choice to go into a general election with. By their own logic, it’s a good thing the Liberals held a nomination fight so that they would be going into the election with the candidate who stood the best chance of winning.

That’s not what the Hillier apologists would want you to say, nor is it the truth.  Hillier was a strong candidate and he lost out to a candidate who was every bit his equal.  The point here is that anyone who wants to try and find some reason why Hillier lost – other than just by the way things worked out – could wind up offering an excuse that undermines their own candidate.

The Liberal experience in Conception Bay South is a model for the party in the future and for the other parties as well. Competition for nominations invites fresh energy. The Liberals held competitive nominations in every seat, including the ones with incumbents under the old seat distribution.  The party hadn’t called the one in CBS by the time the redistricting bill hit the House of Assembly.  Hillier would have faced a challenge anyway.

There’s nothing special in that. Other incumbents will go down to defeat as a result of nomination battles. The difference is that, unlike CBS, those are match-ups that come from the choices of the incumbent politicians. In a couple of spots,  incumbents are facing off against each other because they both have strengths in the same seat in the new district boundaries.  They could run in adjacent seats if they wanted.  They could also do like Jim Bennett is doing and look for a nomination in a completely different seat, well away from the one they currently represent. 

That’s the thing about our political system.  There’s no legal requirement that you live in a district in order to represent it in the legislature. Voters in some districts tend to prefer local people, but the truth is, anyone can represent a district if the voters want that person.  That’s the way it should be.

And politicians get to pick the seat they want to offer in.  Take New Democratic Party boss Earle McCurdy as a good example.  He actually lives in Mount Pearl North, the seat held by deputy premier Steve Kent.  Instead of run against a tough incumbent,  McCurdy is running in St. John’s West, the seat next door to his.  it’s one where the NDP think they have a shot given that the incumbent Conservative is weak.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, at all.  Well, except in the mind of NDP incumbent Gerry Rogers.  On Twitter she defended Earle’s choice of a seat to your humble e-scribbler by asking why would he run in a seat he doesn’t live in?

Why, indeed?