Nfld. & Labrador

David Cochrane: Legislature reform faces tight timelines, political risk

Redrawing the electoral map for a rapidly-shrinking legislature is a challenge at the best of times. But when it’s done on an accelerated time frame in the pressurized environment of an election year, it makes things even harder.
The plan to restructure the composition of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly before the fall 2015 election comes fraught with political risk, writes provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane. (Rob Antle/CBC)

Redrawing the electoral map for a rapidly-shrinking legislature is a challenge at the best of times. But when it’s done on an accelerated time frame in the pressurized environment of an election year, it makes things even harder.

In fact, if any deadlines are missed along the way, the chief electoral officer says it could “jeopardize” the election.

So this is precisely why Justice Robert Stack and his committee can’t waste a single one of the 120 days they have to reduce the House of Assembly from 48 seats to 40, and to craft district boundaries that will make sense and be acceptable to the public.

It’s a big task. And one that has time pressures at the front and back ends.

Stack has a reputation for being diligent and thorough. He’s viewed as someone who won’t sign off on something that feels rushed or subpar. If he is going to do something, he is going to do it right.

But Stack and his committee are working on a deadline. They need to present a brand new political map to the cabinet by June 19.

If they miss that deadline, the election will still happen this fall, but with the current 48-seat legislature instead of the projected 40.

So a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of political capital will be wasted if that deadline gets missed.

Deadlines? They've missed a few

And deadlines are always a concern when you’re dealing with government committees or legislative reviews that include public hearings.

The Bill 29 review committee is still putting the finishing touches on a report that was due last fall. The Cameron Inquiry went longer than expected. The promised financial updates on Muskrat Falls started later than promised.

The list of missed government deadlines is long.

At the back end of the process is Elections Newfoundland and Labrador, which will be tasked with implementing the changes in time for a fall election. Chief electoral officer Victor Powers says his agency will need “four months minimum” to have everything ready for voting day. 

Elections Newfoundland and Labrador says it needs new electoral boundaries finalized by early July, in order to have them in place for a fall vote. (CBC)
Ideally that means Elections NL needs everything by early July, otherwise Powers says it would “jeopardize” the election.

Elections NL has to reposition its polling stations and update its voters lists based on the redrawn electoral map.

It also needs to communicate these changes to the public to avoid any confusion on voting day.

That Elections NL communications blitz will launch in the fall  right in the middle of the federal election campaign.

The late June reporting date for the commission and the early July start date for Elections NL leaves almost no margin for error.

That’s a risky place to be, especially when you consider that Bill 42 already accelerated previously established legislated timelines for this review.

And the fact that the committee’s findings will fundamentally reshape the electoral map (using outdated census data) just months before voting day.

Plan has looked rushed

From the beginning, Premier Paul Davis’ plan to shrink the legislature has looked rushed.

It took less than a week for his plan to be announced, tabled in a special session of the legislature, amended and passed into law.

The public line was that Bill 42 was motivated by a desire to save money in a time of restraint. But PC insiders told my colleague Peter Cowan that it was done in no small part to put the Liberals on the defensive.

Tactically, it has achieved two clear victories for the PCs.

... the 30 or so nominated Liberal candidates could be plunged into a Hunger Games style battle royale to hold onto their nominations if two or more candidates see their chosen districts merged, redrawn or eliminated. 

First, the Liberals — way ahead in the nomination process — have had all of that planning and work put on hold for a solid four months. After all, how can you nominate candidates when you don’t know what districts will survive?

Second, the 30 or so nominated Liberal candidates could be plunged into a Hunger Games style battle royale to hold onto their nominations if two or more candidates see their chosen districts merged, redrawn or eliminated.

Christopher Mitchelmore and Jim Bennett could be left to fight for the Liberal nomination in a single Northern Peninsula seat. Either Eddie Joyce, Stelman Flynn or Gerry Byrne could be the odd man out if the three Corner Brook seats are reduced to two.

The polls show that the Liberals are likely to sweep rural Newfoundland and Dwight Ball just supported a bill that will eliminate seven rural seats.

Tactical victories, strategic failure?

But those tactical victories also serve to highlight how Bill 42 could be a strategic failure.

It’s easy to get people to agree that there are too many politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s harder to get them to agree that there is too much democracy.

While opinion polls may show that people support a reduction in the numbers of MHAs, they don’t necessarily show that people want their MHA to be eliminated. So once the new electoral map is revealed, the public mood will likely shift. That’s because the polls can change when the narrative changes. 

There will be eight fewer of these seats in the House of Assembly after a committee tasked to review election boundaries issues its report. That's a reduction to 40 seats from the current 48. (Rob Antle/CBC)
Even a quick glance at population numbers gives a good preview of what’s likely to emerge.

The St. John’s metro area may lose a seat. But the recent urban sprawl means some urban districts will have to shrink while seven rural Newfoundland seats (Labrador’s four seats are protected) will be expanded or eliminated.

Rural MHAs already have a far tougher job than their urban counterparts. They face the problems associated with larger districts, weaker economies, smaller municipal governments, inferior road networks and telecommunication infrastructure.

Challenges will be exacerbated

Now all of those challenges will be exacerbated when the map is redrawn. More territory to cover. More constituents to serve. More kilometres to travel. And then they will be asked to either serve in cabinet or populate the new committee structure that all parties have promised to create.

Once that reality becomes clear, the narrative around Bill 42 will change from cutting politicians to save cash, to the erosion of direct democracy in rural Newfoundland. 

Do you really think mayors, councillors and community leaders will stay silent when they realize their access to their MHA will be curtailed?

Or that instead of competing with 30 towns in their district for their MHA’s attention, they are now competing with 50?

The PCs may have won a short-term tactical victory by catching Ball off guard. But Bill 42 is far from the home run the struggling government was looking for.

The committee has to get the work done on time. The government has to sell the outcome to an electorate that’s already leaning heavily Liberal. And Elections NL needs to implement all the changes so voting day goes off without a hitch.

It’s a heavy logistical lift, followed by a major political sales job. What could possibly go wrong?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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