08 June 2015

Small ball, election dates, and other minutae #nlpoli

Later today, Premier Paul Davis will introduce a bill in the House of Assembly that, among other things,  sets the next provincial general election for the last week of November. The most likely day for voting is November 24, with the official campaign starting 21 days before that.

There’s no surprise in this. The Conservatives have been talking about November as an option since January when they introduced the plan to cut public representation in the legislature. Reporters asked Liberal leader Dwight Ball at the time if he thought the election should be delayed to November to avoid a clash with the federal election set for October 19. Ball said he didn’t have a problem with the delay.

For the past couple of weeks, Ball has been insisting that the Conservatives need to have the election done by the end of September. That’s the anniversary of Paul Davis’ election as Conservative leader. It’s also the third different position, incidentally, that Ball has taken within the past six months on the timing of the next election. At the end of last year, Ball told the CBC he thought people should go to the polls in February in order to let a new government deal with the provincial government’s financial problems. A couple of weeks later, Ball had no problem with a November. Now, he wants it all done by the end of September.

Ball’s new date is actually a misreading of what the current version of the House of Assembly Act says. Idiotic changes made in 2004 by the provincial Conservatives require that a new Premier elected like Davis has 12 months in which to advise the lieutenant governor to call an election. Sectio0n 3.1 says:
Where the leader of the political party that forms the government resigns his or her position as leader and as Premier of the province before the end of the third year following the most recent general election, the person who is elected by the party to replace him or her as the leader of the party and who is sworn in as the Premier of the province by the Lieutenant-Governor shall, not later than 12 months afterward, provide advice to the Lieutenant-Governor that the House of Assembly be dissolved and a general election be held.
That doesn’t mean the election has to be over within 12 months of the governing party electing a new leader, the latest Liberal position seems to be. It means the new Premier has to call the election within 12 months after taking over as party leader and Premier.

Davis could call the election on his first anniversary with polling to take place between 21 and 30 days later. That’s the campaign period set by law. Or Davis could announce an election starting at any time. He could say the election will be on May 11, 2016 with the campaign starting three weeks before that. As long as the election happened within five years of the last one, the government would be legally, constitutionally just fine.
Indeed, Davis doesn’t actually need to change the Elections Act to set the next election. He could just go to Government House on any day at all and advise the Lieutenant Governor to issue the necessary papers in the fall. That would meet the legal requirements.

That’s not the only thing that Ball and Davis have missed.

The Federal-Provincial Overlap

Ball wants an election by September 26. The provincial chief elections officer has already told Ball and the other party leaders that his office will need four months to get ready for an election. The electoral boundaries commission report is due today. If the government introduces the bill to establish the recommended districts in the report the whole thing could be over by the weekend.

June plus four months gives you early October. Ball wants an election in late September. He says that the timing is a little tight but he thinks the elections office could ready a few weeks earlier.


Except it’s not just a few days or a week or two.

Ball apparently forgot special ballots.Other changes to the provincial elections law over the past decade - supported unanimously by all parties in the House - allow people to vote in an election 30 days before it is called. If we assume the shortest formal campaign period of 21 days, that means the election Ball wants would actually start in early August. That’s a mere two months from now.

Even if the elections office could get ready by the end of July, it isn’t clear the parties could. Ball has to run 40 nominations to go with the changes to the House he approved last winter. To meet his end-of-September goal, his party would have to run nominations over the next seven or eight weeks.

That’s the height of summer vacation time. Volunteers will be on holidays. Voters will be hard to reach. And the candidates at the back end of the nomination period will basically go straight from a nomination fight into a full-on election campaign right away.  People whose districts haven;t changed much will be in better shape but new candidates will be struggling right into the campaign and all the way through, if the current Liberal date carried the day.

The special ballot period in the Liberal scenario  would be in the month when people are on holidays, for the most part. The rest won’t really be paying attention to elections until after Labour Day. In effect, that reduces the practical time of the formal campaign to the period between September 8 and September 26. Labour Day is late this year.

Again, established campaigns will have an easier time of it here. But in a few cases, especially where tight races develop, that special ballot period could prove the difference between winning and losing a seat.  The Liberals may be betting heavily on poll results and seat projections.  Lots of things can change unexpectedly in a campaign.  Better to plan for the worst case scenario than bet on the most optimistic since the latter seldom occurs as predicted.

In effect, Ball’s idea would pit six parties (the federal and provincial versions of the three main parties) plus two elections offices in competition with one another for money and volunteers.Throughout the election period, Ball and the Liberals will also be dealing with the federal campaign as it gears up. A part of the formal provincial campaign will overlap with the formal federal one.

They’d also be fighting with the federal parties for voter attention   All those parties would be bombarding voters with campaign information about candidates in districts that have changed at both the federal and provincial level. When you consider that voters may - and often do - switch their party choices between federal and provincial politics, the needle on the Confusion Monitor would be likely heading rapidly for the red zone in that scenario. That’s not the Liberal zone: it’s the danger zone.

November Overlaps, too

The situation isn’t really any better in the November scenario favoured by the New Democrats and the Conservatives. They too seem to have forgotten the 30 day special ballot period, too.  The federal vote takes place on October 19.  Special balloting for the November 24 provincial election would start roughly 51 days before that,  that is, around the beginning of October.  And if you allow that the provincial candidates are already campaigning,  then they will be pounding on doors with their federal counterparts.

The provincial Conservatives don’t get any boost out of that.  Their federal cousins are not too popular around these parts.  The ones who really benefit fro the overlapping campaigns will the New Democrats.  The most recent Ekos poll shows the Liberals well ahead of everyone else in Atlantic Canada.  But the federal New Democrats are running second at 25%. That’s substantially ahead of the provincial New Democrats such that the federal New Democrats might well give a lift to their provincial cousins.  That’s what happened in 2011 and odds are good the Dippers hope that Tom Mulcair can do it the second time.

The winner prediction question from the recent Abacus Data poll (28-31 May)  shows another aspect of this.  While the number of people predicting a New Democratic win is still behind the number predicting a Tory or Grit win, the trend for the Dippers is upward.  Any kind of cross-over pull the local New Democrats can get would be a big boost for them.

If local rumours turn out to be true,  they might get another boost.  Corporate Research Associates will release its latest horserace poll later today as well.  CRA has its accuracy problems but the local chatterati think that Don Mills’ polls are pure gold.

Anyway, local political scuttlebutt has it that the Conservative support has tanked and moved to the New Democrats.  The result – according to the chatter – is that the NDP will be in second place in the CRA poll. They’ll still be far behind the Liberals but the fact that the Tories and NDP have switched places will give a big boost to the local Pineapple Crush crowd.

The Game is Small Ball

At the federal level,  support for either of the three parties is soft as baby poo.  The only people putting huge stock in any of poll changes  are active partisans for whatever party is trending upward at the moment.  Well, active partisans and reporters looking to fill space.

At the provincial level,  the party numbers are bit more firm.  The current rumour does fit with what one might expect.  The Conservatives started last fall hoping against hope that things might turn around.  They haven’t.  They’ve got an economy on the down-swing and brought in a budget that they sold as doom and gloom even though it actually calls for a 12% increase in spending.

The hard-core Conservatives might have a hard time going to the Liberals.  Keeping with the local political connections, those folks would go to the NDP if they didn’t stay with the Conservatives.  For those who might not understand, the parties in Newfoundland and Labrador don’t really divide along a right-centre-left spectrum. 

They are all pretty plastic and tend to agree on most major ideas.  Muskrat Falls is a good example:  all three parties back the thing, right down to the bits that block out a competitive market and free enterprise.  All three parties supported the expropriation bill that stripped three companies of valuable assets based on a lie.  It was another assault on the rule of law and free enterprise.

When the parties are all close together,  the smallest things wind up being huge.  And the date of the next election is about as small a thing as you can get these days.  The Liberals have taken three different positions in six months.  The Conservatives wanted to go this spring but the situation didn’t work out.  Now they’re fixed on the fall.

That isn’t so much a strategic calculation as it is a function of circumstance.  The Conservatives have got one cabinet minister on sick leave.  Rumour has it Susan Sullivan is just sick and tired.  Fairity O’Brien is also itching to get out of provincial politics.  Fairity fancies himself a federal Conservative candidate.  Even if he goes down in flames against Scott Simms, Fairity could get a nice federal sinecure if his friends win again.  So with two functionally gone and a bunch more wanting to go, the local Conservatives just can’t hold it together much beyond November. Their elections bill could suspend the automatic by-election after a resignationThe official reason will be because the districts are changing and the vacant seats don;t correspond to the new ones. The other, unspoken reason will be the Tory concern about more losses before the big election.

What the Liberals are doing isn’t any bigger.  They know the public is anxious for an election.  They think there is some advantage to be had from forcing the Conservatives to make the election later than sooner.  The thing is, though, that the Liberals should realise the public doesn’t give a rat’s backside over the spacing of a couple of months.  September is no better than November.  And if the Liberals had stuck to their original line back in January,  they’d have the Conservatives well and truly screwed among the handful of people for whom the timing of the next election is the crucial issue.

As it is, the Liberals have had a series of stumbles and fumbles over the past six months.  What they need to hope for is that the CRA poll only shows that the NDP and Conservatives have switched places.  Anything else would be bad news.