Judy Manning afraid to test electorate, says Edward Roberts

Edward Roberts, the last unelected person to be appointed to a cabinet post in government, says Judy Manning's reluctance to seek a seat in the House of Assembly at the earliest opportunity is cause for concern.

Former veteran of St. John's legal scene says he had never heard of new attorney-general

Judy Manning says she will not run in any of a series of upcoming byelections. (CBC)

The last unelected person in this province to be appointed to a cabinet post in government says a reluctance on the part of Judy Manning to seek a seat in the House of Assembly at the earliest opportunity is cause for concern.

Edward Roberts says it's concerning that Judy Manning will not seek office until the general election next year. (CBC)
Edward Roberts says it can lead to only one conclusion: "They are afraid to do it. They are afraid of the judgment of the electorate."

Manning is a St. John's lawyer who had a limited public profile before Premier Paul Davis appointed her this week as minister of the newly created Department of Public Safety, and as attorney-general.

Manning says she will seek a seat in her home district of Placentia-St. Mary's in the next provincial general election, likely in 2015. The seat is currently held by PC MHA Felix Collins, who has indicated he will not seek re-election.

Manning's decision has generated a flurry of debate because there are two byelections in the offing following the recent resignations of former cabinet ministers Charlene Johnson (Trinity-Bay de Verde) and Terry French (Conception Bay South). Former premier and Humber East MHA Tom Marshall has also indicated he plans to resign.

Decision under fire

The possibility that Manning could serve as much as a year in cabinet without having a seat in the legislature has drawn fire from the Liberals and the New Democrats, and many other political commentators.

Roberts is not surprised.

He said there's a very strong convention that when an unelected person is appointed to cabinet, they seek a seat in the legislature at the earliest possible opportunity.

That's what he did.

In February 1992, then-premier Clyde Wells appointed Roberts as justice minister and attorney-general.

At the time, Roberts was a senior partner in a large St. John's law firm, though he had previously served in the House of Assembly, having led the Liberal party for five years in the 1970s. 

Roberts said he immediately announced his intention to run in the first available byelection, and that opportunity came up four months later in the Labrador district of Naskaupi (now called Lake Melville). 

Despite not living in Labrador, Roberts won the byelection, and was subsequently re-elected in a general election.

She's unknown to me and I don't know why she was selected.- Edward Roberts

Roberts, now a former lieutenant-governor, said he was beginning to worry about how long it was taking for him to earn a seat in the legislature. At the time, he explained, the longest period any unelected minister had served in a federal or provincial cabinet was six months.

"In fact, I would have run in Ferryland if Naskaupi hadn't come open."

More than a century ago, Roberts explained, a member of the legislature in this province who was appointed to a cabinet post had to resign their seat and seek re-election.

"That's how strong the tradition was," Robert said.

Roberts said if he had lost what he called a "strenuous" byelection in Naskaupi, he would have resigned from cabinet.

He said politicians "have no right" not to be a minister of the Crown in a system where they are answerable to the legislature.

"That's the whole basis of our system of government," he said.

Legislative legitimacy

When pressed about Manning's reluctance to challenge for a seat in one of three upcoming byelections, Premier Paul Davis indicated he didn't think it was fair to thrust a parachute candidate on a district in order for a minister to earn legitimacy in the legislature. 

Roberts doesn't buy that argument.

"The people of Naskaupi elected me, and re-elected me. As far as that goes, I represented White Bay North in the House of Assembly, and I never lived in White Bay North. I won there six times."

Roberts acknowledged he was surprised by Manning's appointment.

"I don't know her, and I've been in practice for 40-odd years," he said. 

"I've not been in active practice for a number of years, but I have a licence to practice and I keep in touch. 

"She's unknown to me and I don't know why she was selected," he said.