The Premier’s decision to redraw electoral districts and reduce the House of Assembly from 48 to 38 seats has little to do with saving money. As his window of opportunity closes, the Premier is on the hunt for a fix to reverse his Party’s dismal standings. His latest move seems like pure mischief; except it has far ranging consequences.
The 10 seat reduction represents a savings of about $10 million over four years. That is far less than half the amount Nalcor’s Ed Martin wasted in a misguided oil exploration plan that drilled two dry holes in Parson’s Pond!
The strategy of altering the number of electoral ridings for political advantage is not original; though, I am not inclined to ascribe to Paul Davis any of the skills of Prince Machiavelli or even of former Premier Frank Moores, the latter having employed it to great effect.
Frank Moores’ redistribution plan was not just skilful; it had a purpose noble enough to exceed its crassness.
When, in 1975, Moores wanted a second term, he was up against rural and traditional Liberal voters, who, with Smallwood banished, were content to return to their political roots.
But, in St. John’s, the political strength which the Tories boasted in the 1971 and 1972 elections, endured; every new seat created in the capital city area, favoured the Moores’ administration. (Under Premier Clyde Wells the 52 Seat plan was reduced to 48).
Moores ‘sold’ his plan as necessary for good legislative practice; he argued it would bring much needed additional talent to the Legislature supporting a committee structure that included the Public Accounts Committee. Though the Liberals cried ‘gerrymandering’ they couldn’t make a case against more democracy. There was far less money for MHAs then, than there is today.
Davis does not have more democracy on offer; he has less. He and his advisors think they are being slick by placing the Liberals’ election readiness plans in disarray. Naturally, while the new boundaries are being re-designed, they will be forced to stop candidate nominations and repeat those already completed.
In politics, it is fine to inflict a ruse on your foes. But this redistribution plan is emblematic of the Judy Manning and Dept. of Public Safety decisions. Davis doesn’t think ahead. He is unable to envision consequences.
The ruse may slow the Liberals' advantage short-term, but unless Davis can find a way to overcome the Tories’ well-earned lack of popularity, urban and rural, the reward will be temporary.
Davis is telling the public, in advance of an election, he is willing to start the Government’s financial surgery among politicians; the very group that, though not always deserving of it, still elicits their kneejerk disapproval and outright contempt.
Unfortunately, he is part of the group that mistakes symbolism for change; he knows a rounding error will not work given the size of the problem, but that is another matter entirely.
Davis does not have a $1 billion deficit, as some media keep saying. Without early and deep cost cutting, for the 2015-16 fiscal year it will run upwards of $2 billion or more. The amount is almost too large to contemplate, given the pain it represents.
This is exactly what makes the consequences of his seat reduction plan so dangerous.
In the current fiscal climate, it is impossible to re-define public policy that suits the whole province. All change appoints winners and losers; in the post-election House of Assembly political realism will favor the urban areas over rural, especially the more monied, business and population-heavy, urban, north-east Avalon.
When big choices have to be made, like which hospitals survive, rural will have little clout around the Cabinet table. Some geographically large ridings, with dispersed populations will be easy to sacrifice, altogether.
Wittingly or otherwise, the Tories have further endangered rural NL.
A far difference consequence is that a smaller House of Assembly will prevent it from working better. Some will thumb their nose at those who play the democracy card. Let them. A commitment to a stronger legislature, one in which committees function and are given an adequate support structure is in everyone's best interest. It ought to be a mantra of every modern political party, especially one chafing to come in from the cold.
In that respect, Dwight Ball should be chided for his narrow understanding of democratic practice and for supporting any reduction in seats.
If all political parties have no inclination to re-establish a better working House of Assembly, and if rural NL must be sacrificed to resolve the budget deficit, Mr. Davis may as well scrap the entire 1975 Moores administration’s 52 Seat idea and revert, not to 38, but to 32; the number of members which comprised the first post-Confederation Legislature.
It will save another $2.5 million a year.
Alternatively, we could pass the whole democratic process over to a bevy of book-keepers, or cops!
But, having just gotten whacked with a nightstick, democracy might just demand that more of us stand up to account.