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Events last week in Newfoundland and Labrador have highlighted a fundamental question: should candidates with no ties to a given district—also known as parachute candidates—run in elections?
Criticism on social media was directed towards Liberal candidate for the Torngat Mountains district Devon Ryan. While born and raised in Labrador, Ryan is white and has never been to the Torngat Mountains district, which is predominantly populated by Indigenous peoples.
Premier Andrew Furey stated that criticism of Ryan running in the district was ‘undemocratic.’
The Independent spoke with two political science professors to discuss why parties strive to field full slates of candidates, the history of parachute candidates, and representation in politics.
Dr. Amanda Bittner is a professor in the department of political science at Memorial University. She studies elections and voting in both Canadian and comparative contexts.
She says that, generally speaking, major parties with access to lots of seats and the potential to form government will want to field full slates of candidates.
“You want to demonstrate that you have people across the province that are interested in working with you,” explained Bittner.
Dr. Kelly Blidook, an associate professor in the department of political science at Memorial University with specialties in political representation and public opinion, echoes that statement.
“If you can’t get a candidate to run somewhere, it looks like a weakness. It looks like you aren’t really capable, or you don’t have a presence throughout the entire province,” said Blidook.
Both the Liberals and the PCs are fielding full slates of 40 candidates.
“It would look kind of weird for the Liberals or for the PCs to not run a full slate of candidates,” Blidook explained. “Because these are parties that we do think of as capable of governing. And, again, it may be largely symbolic because they’re running people where they can’t win. But the symbolism that you actually run somebody in the entire province shows that you’re not neglecting any part of the province.”
The NDP are running candidates in 33 districts. Alison Coffin, leader of the NDP, told the Independent prior to the close of nominations that the party intended to run a full slate of 40 candidates. That plan did not materialize.
“[The NDP] have a much harder time because of low membership, less resources, and people knowing that they’re running to lose. They just don’t have the loyal members in all of the places to run for them,” said Blidook.
Parachutes and Names on Ballots
In order to get that full slate, that can sometimes mean running ‘names on ballot’-only candidates. These candidates aren’t necessarily expected to win in that district, but will allow the party to at least have a presence on the ballot.
Bittner points out that women candidates often fall into this category.
“Many of the women that are running in most ridings are what we call ‘sacrificial lambs,’” Bittner explained. “Essentially, they’re not really serious contenders, the odds of the women running in those ridings are lower. And so they’re considered ‘names on ballot only’ candidates. That’s problematic in a lot of ways as well.”
According to Blidook, parachute candidates can fall into this category as well, particularly for the NDP. It’s not uncommon for the party to run people throughout the province that live on the Avalon.
“The one value that comes with it is, as far as voting behaviour is concerned, when people don’t have the opportunity to vote for your party they also don’t create a sort of identity with the party,” Blidook said. “So if you’re thinking long term it’s helpful to at least have these people. They may be voting for someone they don’t know, but at least they see the name NDP on the ballot.”
Beyond filling a slate, Bittner cites many reasons why party leaders reserve the power to place candidates in particular ridings.
Examples include protecting star candidates by running them in ridings where they are expected to win (think Premier Andrew Furey in Humber-Gros Morne), getting people with specific policy expertise in office, or increasing diversity in the legislature by running candidates in ‘winnable’ seats. Such party goals may override having a representative from the district.
“[Parachuting candidates is] used routinely for those purposes and often in the name of democracy because of whatever democratic goal the leader wants to achieve,” said Bittner.
While parachute candidates are very common, so too is criticism of parachute candidates.
Bittner says that in Newfoundland and Labrador, ties to region and place are particularly firmly established. She also stresses that the question of whether a candidate should have ties to the district in which they’re running is particularly salient when a region is particularly concentrated with a specific demographic group such as Indigenous communities.
“I think that’s the reason it’s coming under fire in this case. So it’s not so much what their job should be in terms of parachuting or not, it’s also about what is their responsibility to ensuring that their slate of candidates is not only diverse, but is also representing the constituents of that region,” Bittner explained.
“You want to ensure that the person representing those communities is of that community, chosen by that community, supported by that community, and reflects your values as a party,” she concluded. “So if your value as a party is diversity then your choice of candidate should reflect that.”
As to whether criticism of the Liberals choice of candidate is undemocratic, Blidook stresses that voters need the opportunity to criticize what parties do and the decisions they make—and to say what they do and don’t like.
“I think that it makes a lot of sense that a lot of people would say, well, I don’t want someone who’s never been here trying to represent me. They’re not from here, they don’t understand me the way that somebody who’s from here would. So I find the statement of it being undemocratic problematic,” said Blidook.
“It’s a really troubling statement,” he continued. “And I say this because he’s also used the term ‘misinformation’. I think he’s used both of these terms inaccurately. And I see it as a problem because we should use those terms when they’re accurate, because I don’t want them to become meaningless. So using the term ‘undemocratic’ here, basically, to me it’s showing a disconnect.”
“This is a case where the Liberals made a decision that this was going to be the person they brought,” Blidook concluded. “I think it’s kind of mean and rude to refer to that person with derogatory terminology. But to say that [a candidate] would be a poor representative because they’re not from there is entirely valid. And it’s the people who actually live there giving voice to what they want in terms of representation.”
“I found it really weird that the premier used that terminology to describe what they were doing.”
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