Irresponsible Government

Premier Paul Davis’ recent appointment of Judy Manning as Minister of Public Safety has sparked a healthy public discussion about parliamentary procedure and the mechanics of our democracy. It has also demonstrated just how little either of those things are actually understood.

For those of us cursed with a perverse interest in political science generally, and provincial politics in particular, Judy Manning’s appointment to Cabinet has been a double-edged sword. (It’s also a political mess.)

Hans Rollman’s Oct. 7 column in The Independent, “Don’t Judge Judy” (which is an amazing title), is a prime example of this double bind. It’s thoughtful, passionate, and well-intentioned, but also wrong.

For starters, it’s mostly attacking strawmen.

Don’t judge journalists

It’s very fair and warranted to point out the difference in tone, language and framing that accompanies coverage of women in politics. It’s true that none of the articles about Dale Kirby or Paul Lane crossing the floor opened with profiles of their romantic partners or convivants. And I think the headline and framing of the first CBC interview with Manning was a touch sensationalist — not even public broadcasting can escape the curse of clickbait.

But that being said, does that mean a politician’s personal relationships and connections to people in positions of financial and political power are off limits to inquiry? Are they only off limits when these relationships are romantic? Or does this limit only apply to women? Are we supposed to treat female politicians with kid gloves in this case? At what point can we not ask about a politician’s personal connections to a financial or political power broker? Was it inappropriate to report on the relationship between Eve Adams and Dmitri Soudas?

Judy Manning. Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Judy Manning. Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

This is a sensitive issue, and it should be handled responsibly. But I don’t think it’s an entirely illegitimate line of inquiry. Manning is relatively unknown and relatively inexperienced. She was called to the bar in 2005, took two years off for grad school, and she is not, by trade or experience, primarily a trial lawyer; Brad Cabana has more experience successfully navigating the province’s court system than our new Attorney General. It’s fair to at least ask if her personal connection to a local Tory dynasty had some bearing on her appointment. If we’re so concerned about her community roots determining where she should run, why can’t we ask if those same roots also influenced her position in government?

If the shoe was on the other foot, and Judy Manning was a man, I don’t think Rollmann would have taken an issue with those questions, and I don’t think his column would have been written.

This is ultimately a moot point. Both Manning and Premier Paul Davis were asked if family or personal connections had anything to do with her appointment, and both said no. Case closed. Let’s take her at her word.

In any event, the real source of controversy here was never her gender — it’s the nature of her appointment as an unelected cabinet minister. This is where most discussion falls apart. So buckle up comrades, because we’re taking a crash course in Political Science 101.

Back to basics

At both the federal and provincial levels in this country, our system of government is known as a ‘Westminster-style Parliamentary System’. Every election, voters in each district send the candidate with the most votes to represent them in the legislature — in our case, the House of Assembly. Most (but not necessarily all) of those elected representatives will belong to a political party, and the party which has the most seats gets to form the government. This gives them free reign to determine which representatives exercise political control over the various arms of state bureaucracy, to set the policy agenda, etc.

The leader of the party becomes the premier, which is why Paul Davis, having been chosen by party members to lead the Progressive Conservatives, holds the Premier’s Office legitimately (suggesting he does not have a mandate is nonsense). The other parties (and independent members) in the House form the Opposition, who are supposed to hold the government to account and, in principle, represent alternative or dissenting opinions during legislative debates with government members.

 In theory…the people we elect are supposed to be thoughtful, exemplary citizens with a keen sense of justice, and who represent the very best in our communities.

In this system, citizens very rarely exercise direct input and control over the laws that get made and the policies that get enacted. This is by design. Instead, we elect representatives to do all that on our behalf. They are our proxies, and they represent our interests, but they are also free to use their own best judgment as to what laws and policies are good and just. In theory, at least, the people we elect are supposed to be thoughtful, exemplary citizens with a keen sense of justice, and who represent the very best in our communities.

Stop laughing. I only said this is how it’s supposed to work.

Anyways. Since we are ceding some of our power of political self-determination over to representatives to act on our behalf, we need a system of rules in place to make sure the people we elect remain accountable to us. The last thing you want is to hand over your political power to someone who won’t answer to you. This is the essence of ‘Responsible Government’.

Responsible Government means the government in power can only hold that power so long as they have the support (‘confidence’) of a majority of elected representatives. Since we are not physically there to keep the government’s feet to the fire, we count on our representatives (both in and outside government) to do it for us. Our representatives are there to question, debate, challenge, and deliberate together on our behalf — to make sure our concerns are represented. But since they can also use their own discretion, this gives them some leeway. If, say, an MHA decides (whether through proper democratic consultation or not — our system does not discriminate) they can better represent citizens’ interests by sitting in a different party caucus, they are free to do so.

The point is, what happens in the House of Assembly is supposed to determine who and what makes up the government, and not the other way around. In this province, of course, that’s rarely the case.

Theory =/= Practice

This is a very rough outline of the system we have, as it’s meant to work in theory. It’s far from perfect. In fact, it really sucks on a number of fronts. For one, it’s not all that democratic. The idea of placing total trust in the wisdom of an elected official is a little suspect — an MHA crossing the floor should need to have that decision democratically ratified by their constituents in a plebiscite. Personally, I think constituents should have the power of direct recall; if you think your MHA is doing a crappy job representing you, and you can round up a significant number of constituents who feel likewise, you should be able to hold a referendum on whether or not to boot them out.

Another thing is that our elected representatives are often not actually all that ‘representative’. Because of our first-past-the-post electoral system, candidates don’t need a 50 per cent +1 majority of votes to win a district. This means there will be a lot of times where anywhere between 50-70 per cent of voters will not have their interests ‘represented’ in the legislature. And as Rollmann rightly points out, representation is distorted in other ways too. Women are grossly underrepresented in our current political system — as are indigenous peoples, the young, the poor, the disabled, and other marginalized groups.

I totally agree with him that we (and our elected ‘representatives’) should absolutely make more of an effort to rectify this imbalance, even by going outside of the legislature and appointing unelected citizens to cabinet. But here’s the rub: those people shouldn’t stay unelected for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Cabinet ministers—that is, members of the executive branch of government—are more than ordinary MHAs. They do not simply represent and govern on behalf of the constituents in their local districts. They govern their department, their part of the state apparatus, on behalf of us all; they represent the entire political community in their capacity as ministers. Steve Kent is not just the member for Mount Pearl North; he is also the man charged with representing the needs and interests of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as they relate to the Department of Health and Community Services. Cabinet represents and governs for the whole political community — the whole ‘people’.

Run, Forrest, run

So, because they work in this ‘global’ capacity, it’s extra important that ministers sit in the legislature. They represent all of us in their capacity as ministers. This is precisely why a constitutional convention about this exists — it’s not a rule written directly into the Constitution Act, 1982 (or 1867), but it is a time-tested ‘democratic best practice’ meant to ensure our executive representatives will actually be there to represent us. In the case of Judy Manning, there is an extra urgency. Not only is she the minister responsible for the Status of Women—that is, the representative for the interests of all women in our political community—she is also heading a brand new department (Public Safety), with a brand new mandate, that will be overhauling and reconfiguring a lot of fairly important policy.

Getting elected in a byelection would allow [Judy Manning] to do her job representing the whole provincial political community as a minister, first and foremost, and then still allow her to represent her local community in the next election as planned.

If she isn’t in the House, she can’t answer any questions about anything her new department is doing — she can’t even introduce her own legislation. She will be forced to sit in the public galleries, silent as the grave, for two legislative sessions. Does keeping the minister responsible for the Status of Women silent really give women a greater voice in government? Is this really a more democratic alternative to ‘parachuting’ her in another district for a few months?

Even if she did parachute into one of the three upcoming byelections, there is nothing to preclude Manning from running in her home district in the next general election anyways. Getting elected in a byelection would allow her to do her job representing the whole provincial political community as a minister, first and foremost, and then still allow her to represent her local community in the next election as planned. Everybody wins!

I want to emphasize here, again, that there is nothing wrong with appointing someone outside the legislature to Cabinet. As Rollmann highlights, it has happened well over a hundred times in the course of Canadian political history; there is precedent, convention, and a few very good ‘democratic’ reasons for a government to do so. Curiously, however, he fails to point out that in every example of ‘unelected ministers’ he cites (Ed Roberts, John Crosbie, and Louis St-Laurent), they all ran for a seat at the first possible opportunity (in Crosbie’s case this actually was a general election held shortly after his appointment, but the point stands). I can understand why Rollmann omitted this, though – it obliterates his argument.

No free pass

Like a broken clock, Rollmann’s article is right, as it were, twice a day. He is right that women are woefully underrepresented in the House, he is right that the media often handles women politicians differently than men (even if I think he himself is erring in the same way, in the opposite direction), he is right that our system can be awfully undemocratic, and he is right that we should not be afraid to flout archaic constitutional conventions if they stand in the way of democracy.

Likewise, it is unquestionably good that the government opted to give a young, professional woman a shot at handling a major portfolio in the province. They should be making more appointments like this. Go outside the legislature and appoint a dozen cabinet ministers to represent all the diverse voices of our province. Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend. To my knowledge, no one, anywhere, is publicly denouncing Judy Manning’s appointment because of her gender.

But Rollmann is giving us a set of false choices. It’s not a question of Judy Manning either being a parachute candidate or running at home. She can do both. It’s not a question of either appointing a woman to sit in silence in the public galleries, in violation of one of the few conventions we have that actually reinforces democracy in parliament instead of limiting it, or else cutting women off from the levers of power. There are other, better options that would empower Manning and other women in the legislature.

There is no defensible reason for her not to run. If she ran, she would actually increase the presence of women in politics, rather than simply on paper.

Rollmann’s heart is in the right place. We desperately need more gender equity and democratic representation in the legislature. But what Paul Davis is offering us does neither. This paper-thin definition of ‘gender equity’ may be the mountaintop from which Rollmann looks, but it is also the cave in which the government hides. That Judy Manning is a young woman is not license for the provincial government to do whatever it wants with the democratic process.

No matter its gender, autocracy shouldn’t get a free pass.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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