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RE:form and function

in View From The Mainland by

After looking at yesterday’s (December 4) Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll for Newfoundland and Labrador political attitudes, I’ve come to a couple of simple conclusions. The first is something that I’ve always noticed about Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: we’re often band-wagoners. We pick the winner, or whomever they tell us, and we flock to them. You know the attitude: the leader can do no wrong, and those who disagree with the popular opinion either keep quiet or are publicly shamed as traitors and so on. Nothing significant has changed in the leadership of the three main provincial parties (as in, they’re the same individuals) and nothing much has changed policy-wise or in the public discourse. Yet, once we sense weakness in the all-powerful leader, we jettison the cargo en masse.

Now, I’m not smearing everyone with the same brush. Not really. But there is a significant portion of the population that acts in this way. The polls reflect that there are some pretty major changes afoot in political attitudes despite no real major change in public policy or programs to cause the changes. Sure there’s Muskrat Falls and Bill 29 I s’pose, but they should have caused an immediate poll reaction before now. So what has happened to cause the recent changes?

The NDP shift in poll numbers has obvious roots, with the entire caucus trying to jettison their leader. I assume some of that party’s poor polling will be corrected on the May two-four weekend, one way or another. On the other hand, this means that now people are gaming for the Liberals again and ridicule toward the other two main parties has set in. This is despite the fact that Ball barely won his seat in 2011, and has been at the head of that table pretty well ever since.

The second observation is less obvious

What I’m here to chat about this week, really, is improving democracy. The entire NDP caucus tried to oust their leader, politely and privately at first I might add. This is obviously an old story. But there’s something seriously disjointed going on when the members of a caucus feel they can no longer work under the leadership of that party, a leader installed by the members of the party.

I’m guessing there’s a lot of people in the PC caucus who would like to pull off a similar stunt with the premier, despite denials there is any pressure. Wouldn’t you? Sitting members also want their chance in the lime light as well, some of whom have been on the sidelines for a decade. So taking down a f(l)ailing leader might be the only hope to squeeze out a few more (pensionable) years.

How can it be done?

Well, in the current parliamentary system of this province, it’s really up to each party and their internal rules over how to recall, eject, or review any sitting member including the leader. I imagine this is always a tricky subject to broach to the sitting leader, who pretty much has everyone in the party – especially in caucus and particularly in cabinet – serving at their pleasure.

We all know that party leaders, especially premiers and prime ministers, hold an immense amount of power, from whipping caucus votes and appointing the Queen’s representative and judges (and in Canada, Senators), to disallowing members at the district/riding level to run for office and removing a member of the House from their party caucus. This has happened in Newfoundland and Labrador a few times already – you know ‘em all.

Should we look to limit leaders’ powers?

I personally agree with the ability of caucus to remove one of their ilk who no longer follows the ideals of the party they were elected to represent – like the #reformact they’re proposing up-along. Something about absolute power corrupting absolutely…

I also agree with the side of the argument that we have to be very careful not to over-ride the will of the electorate unreasonably. For example, Lorraine Michael was elected by the members of her party, and due to her leadership one could argue she attracted more (and more electable) people to the party. Due to her leadership, one could argue, more people voted for her party. This may not be accurate, but it’s hard to deny some voters vote for the leader (such was the case for the Danny coat-tailers).

However, if the ensuing caucus members no longer believe in their ability to follow and work with that leader in the House – or to build for the next election, say – those members should be able to have a say in how they move forward. For they, too, were elected by the same party membership, they too were elected and are accountable to the public, and they too have a stake in the success of the party they work daily to represent.

The voters ultimately decide

By not stepping aside, Lorraine has effectively killed 40 per cent of her sitting caucus, 43 per cent support for her party, and half of her personal popularity.

Ouch.

But we’re not just talking about popularity contests, or jockeying who gets to blow our money on pet projects. We’re talking about the power of the people we send to represent us, in our houses of parliament. Leaders have so much power consolidated in their offices that they can force anyone to toe the party line. Of course those elected on a party platform should, indeed, follow that platform (since that’s effectively the only thing the voters have on which to make a decision)…

…Other than personal credentials, and candidates’ dreams and visions for their district/riding, of course. Which are completely whipped out of even our best representatives if those visions conflict with the great leader’s vision. Labrador has for a long time sent very good MHAs to the House of Assembly in St John’s, but do you ever hear the pre-election bluster…after the election? Great Northern Peninsula? South Shore?

Anyone?

Nope?

Because policy is often determined by a select few in the party, and supported by the ‘majority’ of the party. Regardless of which policy approach is used, it all tends to serve the majority of the population demographically (or, simply, the Avalon) at the cost of the minority. Whatever. Ignore that cynicism if you like, but the cold hard fact of it is, our MHAs and MPs from rural and remote districts tend to act more as the voice of the government to the people, rather than the voice of the people to the government.

Without the ability of caucus to check the power of those at the centre, the centre will always control the message.

I say bring on the #reformact. Increase the threshold number of caucus members required to support it if you like, but members need to have more freedom to govern according to the mandate given by their constituents, not their leader.

Bring it in for Canada’s Parliament and for the House of Assembly. Bring it in to shift power from the top to those who are directly accountable to voters. While we’re at it, bring in the ability for voters to recall their elected representatives when they no longer satisfy them at the local level. This would at least improve our ability to check and correct those who supposedly represent us. Here’s an example of how it works in British Columbia.

Seriously, MPs and MHAs make laws in this country, yet we can’t trust them to be responsible for running their own caucus? And remember, if they step too far out of line, they could be recalled or voted out at the next election (along with their leader).

If you want to see a list of MP commentary on the #reformact and their voting intentions, as well as how to get in touch with them, visit: reformact.ca/supportreport.

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