Bill 42 fallout: Politics is a game, but elections are no joke

The passage of Bill 42 is a symptom of something that every citizen should be concerned about, writes Memorial University political scientist Amanda Bittner.
Political science professor Amanda Bittner talks to Debbie Cooper about Bill 42 5:21

Governments make decisions all the time. Sometimes we like their decisions, sometimes we don’t. This is the nature of democratic representation.

The fact of the matter is, if the system works properly, then it’s not so terrible for us to disagree with decisions that are made by governments. Process is more important than specific policies.

This is why elections are so significant.

What we have seen in the House of Assembly surrounding Bill 42 is a symptom of something that we should be very concerned about: what we have here is the sign of an unhealthy democracy.

Elections are important, and the rules that structure elections are extremely important. These electoral "rules of the game" affect how the game is played, and so we need to pay attention and really clearly think through what kinds of rule changes we might consider and why.

Elections provide a stable and frequent mechanism by which voters can judge the activities and performance of those elected to office.

If voters are satisfied with the incumbents, then they can re-elect them, but if they are not satisfied, then they have the opportunity to "throw the rascals out."

This process of regular and periodic elections gives legislators a limited level of job security (they need time, after all, to accomplish some of their goals), while providing citizens an opportunity to remove them in the future if they are not satisfied with their representatives’ performance.

Elections make legislators accountable to voters: they know that they have to face them again in a few years, and they know that if they want to keep their jobs, then they need to consider (generally speaking) the electorate’s wishes.

This does not mean that governments only ever make popular decisions, but it does mean that they need to keep voters in mind as they govern.

Why we need to take this game seriously

This opportunity—in fact, this right—to have a say in who governs, who represents us, and how we elect them, is critical for democracy to work.

Premier Paul Davis, seen in the CBC Radio studio in St. John's, launched the plan to cut the number of seats in the House of Assembly. (CBC)

It is therefore absolutely essential that we take the rules seriously, and that we take political institutions (the rules of the game) seriously. Political institutions have an influence on how politics plays out.

Elections, and the rules that guide them, have a critical role in determining how politics works in the province.

In any game – whether it’s hockey, basketball, or poker – it’s pretty clear that changing the rules affects both how the game is played as well as who wins.

The rules are important, and in the case of elections they are either determined by statute (laws created in legislatures) or enshrined in a country’s constitution. Regardless of the origins of the rules themselves, they have a direct and substantial impact on electoral outcomes.

Some examples of “rules” that influence elections include restrictions on fundraising and spending; the processes in place to become a candidate; and whether or not there is any mandated media coverage of debates.

Not a decision to take lightly

Furthermore, and importantly in the context of what has been happening in House of Assembly in recent days, the number of seats in the legislature, the size of electoral districts, and where exactly the boundaries are drawn, are all important factors that affect not only how elections are fought, but also the type of representation that we, as citizens, will have in the legislature.

How to structure (and reform) institutions is one of the most important decisions we make in a democratic society. It is not a decision that should be made lightly, it is not a decision that should be rushed, and it is not a decision that should be dominated by a single party (or even two parties), because parties are clear and direct winners (and losers) when the rules change.

More importantly, citizens are clear and direct winners and losers, and we therefore need to be thoughtful, careful, and mindful of the options available to us, and more importantly, the implications of the options that we choose.

So, we have one very big problem

There is a reason why in strong democracies, districting and boundary recommendations are drawn up by independent commissions, after substantial (and often lengthy) consultation with both the general public as well as experts.

Any effort to hijack the process and push through substantial change without appropriate consultation and consideration of multiple voices is deeply problematic, and a sign that we have a major problem on our hands.

What we have seen in the House of Assembly surrounding Bill 42 is a symptom of something that we should be very concerned about: what we have here is the sign of an unhealthy democracy.

This is a big problem.

We need to take our electoral institutions seriously: the game is exciting, but elections are no joke. 

About the Author

Amanda Bittner


Amanda Bittner is an associate professor in Memorial University's Department of Political Science.


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