Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Why a free vote on the budget won't happen

There may be growing online calls for a free vote on the tax-hiking budget, but Liberal MHAs cannot vote against the budget without losing their status, writes Peter Cowan.

There are other ways backbenchers can influence the budget

Members of the House of Assembly are allowed to vote as they wish, but government MHAs must live with the consequences. (Rob Antle/CBC)

It's been a rallying cry for those angered about the budget.

"I call for the Premier to either let his MHAs vote freely or for Mr. Ball resign," says a petition posted online by Christeena Caines.

It's an idea that's grown in popularly, with more than 5,000 agreeing with her by early Monday afternoon. 

If you've been on Facebook or Twitter lately, you've likely seen the profile pictures of a stop sign with the text "I'm asking my MHA to vote No! Budget 2016."

For a man who shies away from strong declarative statements, Dwight Ball was clear on Thursday when he spoke to reporters

"There will be no free vote on this budget," the premier said, although he added, "I do anticipate in the future on other pieces of legislation you will see free votes in the House of Assembly."

But it's not just Ball. Allowing a free vote would go against the basic way our democracy functions.

Budget votes are a test of confidence

There are a few things that governments absolutely have to do, and passing a budget is one of them.

Premier Dwight Ball has insisted there will be no free vote on the budget. (CBC)

There are important decisions about what programs get funding (and in this budget especially, which ones don't) and so a government that can't pass a budget is in serious trouble. 

In fact, they're no longer the government.

The principle of our democracy is that the premier and cabinet must show they have the confidence of at least 50 per cent of the members of the House of Assembly. Without that confidence, they don't get to be the government.

That means some votes are considered confidence measures. Think of it as a test to make sure the government has the backing of enough MHAs to keep governing.

Budget votes are always confidence votes. If your budget doesn't pass you're out of office. Just ask Joe Clark (or his finance minister, John Crosbie), who led a minority PC government after the 1979 federal election. 

They presented a tough budget in December that year, didn't get the support they needed from the opposition, and then lost the subsequent February 1980 election to the Pierre Trudeau Liberals.

MHAs are free to vote however they like

There is nothing of course that actually forces a backbench Liberal MHA to vote with the government. Any backbench MHA is welcome to vote however they like, but they have to be willing to live with the consequences.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett's budget includes numerous tax and fee hikes. (CBC)

A budget represents the agenda of a government, one carefully put together by the premier and the cabinet. Voting against the budget isn't just saying you don't like the budget — you're rejecting the government agenda.

That means any Liberal MHA who votes against the budget will immediately be kicked out of the caucus.

They could continue to sit as an Independent (or cross the floor to join the opposition) but lose the staff and resources that come with being part of a government.

It would also mean almost certain defeat in the next election. This province doesn't have much of a history of electing independent MHAs.

Premier doesn't get to decide

Right now premiers don't get to decide what's a confidence vote and that's the way it should be.

In a minority situation governments would just declare every budget a free vote and if they lose they can just shrug it off as "oh well, I guess I get to keep governing as long as I like" instead of dissolving the house and going back to the voters.

The opposition realizes this, even as they try and stoke the public outrage they aren't going as far as saying it should be a free vote.

PC leader Paul Davis was happy to raise the idea in the House of Assembly last week by asking the premier whether he'd allow it (knowing full well the answer would be no).

Outside the house he stopped short of actually saying it should happen

"It's a confidence vote and every time it's a confidence vote it surely would be outside the norm for it to happen," he said.

When the PCs were in power not only were all budgets "whipped votes" (mean the MHAs are forced to vote with their party) but so were other more contentious bills like Bill 29, that rolled back access to information access, and the legislation around Muskrat Falls.

It would be hypocritical for Davis now to start demanding free votes for everything.

Other ways to influence the budget

Before you start thinking that your Liberal backbench MHA is nothing but a winged monkey there to do the premier's bidding, there are other ways they can influence the budget.

The first step would be to voice your concern about the budget directly to them.

If you're not sure who it is, there's a handy list with email addresses and phone numbers (and, yes, those are their direct email addresses). 

Most MHAs will be happy to discuss your concerns.

If you're represented by  Humber-Bay of Islands MHA Eddy Joyce you even have a guarantee of a phone call back.

"Anybody who wants to speak to me, you inbox me and I'll call," says Joyce, encouraging people to message him directly on Facebook.

Behind-the-scenes MHAs have been lobbying cabinet ministers, presenting the feedback they've received from constituents.

Just because they haven't been speaking publicly doesn't mean they aren't fighting for the issues.

Presenting petitions in the House of Assembly is one way.

Some backbench MHAs are collecting signatures to show the displeasure of constituents.

Pam Parsons, the rookie MHA for Harbour Grace-Port de Grave, presented a petition calling for a new school, instead of closing down Coley's Point Primary in Bay Roberts.

MHAs will often spearhead their own petitions, but there's nothing stopping you from putting together your own petition (just make sure you follow this format). The House of Assembly has very strict rules so don't try and submit your online petition.

You'll still need an MHA to present the petition in the house. If your MHA doesn't want to stand up and do it, approach an opposition MHA; they're usually happy to point out how much people don't like the government, even if it isn't from people in their own district. 

Public pressure does have the ability to change the budget. With enough backlash, government may change even a contentious issue.

But with a $1.8-billion deficit, cancelling a tax increase or cut means cutting or taxing somewhere else. One thing everyone can agree on is that there are no easy answers to the province's fiscal dilemma.


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.