A recent Angus Reid poll ranked Dwight Ball as dead last in a Canadian premier approval poll. Only 17% of us approve of him. Many of the 83% who disapprove have been vocal and clear: they want Premier Ball’s resignation. The budget lacked vision, untrustworthiness emerged on top of broken campaign promises, and there’s a sense he lacks the visionary leadership we need right now.
Tough times call for tough decisions, most of us get that, but when government enacts the simplest, least innovative, and most extreme measures to recuperate money, and when they do so without proposing a promising economic plan for the future (beyond crossing fingers oil will bounce back) – people are going to despair and rage. Their bank accounts, their quality of life, and the vitality of their province are put in jeopardy by blind austerity.
So it’s no surprise people are plastering the city and social media with a demand for Ball to resign, that’s democracy at work – shout what’s in your heart. But what if the problem is how democracy works here, in our country and province?
It’s an altogether solid argument that our party-based “representative democracy” serves a party more than the people. And if that’s true, our outcry begs the question of what Ball’s resignation would change. Given the dynamics of party-based governments, outlined below, there’s no real reason to think having a new leader would suddenly make the public’s voice heard any louder in the House of Assembly.
The fact that people seem shocked “my government isn’t listening to me” hints at the fact many of us don’t fully understand the inherent flaws of a party-based “Representative Democracy.” For countries and provinces like us, our politicians can’t listen to us because they literally have their own agenda.
Point 1: Political Parties Aren’t Designed to get Your Voice Heard Or Your Wishes Enacted
Political parties are like religions: they have a set of values and beliefs and they stick to them. When you go to a voting booth in NL, you vote for your choice of an MHA in your district with the hopes they’ll make your wishes known to government, but statistics exist to prove that’s an idealized version of how a representative democracy works. MHAs, our elected officials, pledge more allegiance to their party leader than your wishes.
Provincially and federally – there are ramifications if an MP or MHA doesn’t toe the party line. In 2013, the Globe and Mail proved that even the most outspoken MP still voted his leader’s way 99% of the time. The article also exposed that the Liberals and NDP show “ironclad discipline” in voting their leader’s way.
When the journalist analyzed the voting record of NDP MPs under Thomas Mulcair, “Not a single vote had been cast that is out of step.” This is why your “government doesn’t listen to the people.” Your elected MP or MHA can’t rightfully side with your wish over the party’s agenda.
A party leader actually has the right to kick a dissenting party member out of caucus for not toeing party lines. Dwight Ball evicted the only liberal MHA who refused to support the budget here in NL; when Paul Lane refused to support the deficit reduction levy because his constituents didn’t like the levy, Ball gave him the boot.
Federally, The Liberals once kicked a cabinet minister (Joe Comuzzi) out of their caucus for supporting the Conservative Government’s budget; In 2007, the PCs ejected an MP over budget voting.
In 2011, the Federal NDPs disciplined MPs for their long-gun registry vote. It’s party politics: your MP or MHA, your voice in government, will side with their leader as a rule. And if they don’t, look what happens. Canada’s parliament, statistically, has the strictest party discipline in the world.
Point 2: Party Politics Prevent Elected officials from Freely Cooperating with Each Other, and, Acting Independently
It’s not practical to live in an ancient “direct democracy” where every citizen would have to vote on new laws, or the trial verdicts of every crime, so we have a “representative democracy” where we elect officials to form a government for us. And party-based representative governments do make it easy for elected representatives (MPs/MHAs) to choose a head of government (the leader of the party with the most elected MPs or MHAs automatically becomes prime minister/ premier).
But reason #2 for why we have political parties, is so that the party leader can rely on his or her party’s MPs/MHAs for continued support of his or her agenda. Party lines therefore become barriers to productive conversation among elected MPs and MHAs. The NDP fellah from District A and the Liberal missus from District C coulda worked together towards something great, but in a way, it’s party treason to work together across party lines.
Because elected MPs/MHAs belong to parties, we effectively reduce dozens of elected officials to three hive minds: the PC agenda, the Liberal one, and the NDP one.
Joseph Howe (the architect of responsible government in Nova Scotia), didn’t like the party system at all. George Washington, the first president of the USA, agreed. In their opinions, opposing parties create division and conflict among groups of people meant to work together for the greater good, on behalf of society. Party lines affect their ability to cooperate. Party lines also affect an MP/MHA’s ability to vote what’s in their heart, not their leader’s.
Point 3: Only 2% of Canadians are Party Members Shaping Party Agendas
While you cannot control your premier’s actions, you can try to shape his or her agenda … but only if you’re a party member. The great thing about democracy here is you can join a party, and therefore have a vote in who that party’s leader is, and, what their platform is. Yet, only about 2% of Canadians are a party member. 98% of us aren’t. So fewer than 2 in 100 people are influencing any given party’s agenda, and that agenda is supposed to ideally represent all of us?
A political party will regularly have a convention, and at this convention, members get together to vote on policy resolutions (much like how we make personal new year’s resolutions). Party leaders are also elected at these things, based on party member votes. At these conventions, the party leader gets a sense of where his or her party stands on key issues. And ideally, this info is what builds the party’s agenda/platform for the next foreseeable while.
Your best shot then, to control government’s actions, is to be a voting party member at a party convention of your choosing. In the least, you get to have a vote on the party’s leader, and choose the party leader most likely to stand behind your own values. Put another way: you can’t expect your MHA to speak for you if they’re required to align with party values, but, you can help shape a party’s policy resolutions if you’re an engaged member of that party.
Joining a party costs you a membership fee, but it’s nominal. In NL, it’s free to join the NDP, and only $10 to join the Liberals.
Point 4: We Don’t HAVE to Use This Party System
Political parties aren’t necessary for a representative democracy like ours. In fact, the concept of parties is not even part of our constitution, so abandoning party politics wouldn’t be breaking rules. Places like Pakistan, the Falkland islands, and Saudi Arabia actually ban political parties.
We keep the party system around because it makes voting easier for citizens, and, leadership easier for party leaders. But does extreme partisanship prevent MHAs from different parties from co-operating together, or from speaking up for their constituents? It certainly can, as we’ve covered.
Point 5: Can a Canadian Province Really Abandon Party-Based Governments?
Wild times generate wild discussions, and theories have emerged that Newfoundland & Labrador would benefit from abolishing the party-based system that has never really worked for us – PC and Liberal leadership tends to end in public hindsight-despair, and we’re reluctant to give the NDPs a chance.
In the event that a pile of reputable and qualified people ran as independent MHAs in the next election, and got voted in, these elected MHAs would have no party affiliations, thus no party agenda to push. Their focus, theoretically, would be on the wishes and needs of the constituents who voted them in.
If that sounds too simple and perfect; If that sounds like a fairy tale, it isn’t. Non-partisan governments actually exist in Canada. This is how the Northwest Territories and Nunavut do government. People elect the MHA in their district whom they believe in; this MHA goes to bat for the people, not a party.
After an election in Northwest Territories, all the independent MHAs who won in their districts gather to elect a leader from amongst themselves. So, the MHA you put in power votes for the premier candidate whose values seem most in line with those of his or her district. Cabinet ministers are chosen in a similar manner. Some MHAs choose not to accept nominations as premiere, or, to Cabinet, so they can be free to better grill the premier and cabinet ministers on behalf of the people who voted them in as MHAs.
Having a pile of independent MHAs on the floor, who are free to cooperate and agree with each other – instead of worrying about party lines – results in more open discussion and cooperative discussion, at least in theory. To quote the NWT’s governmental website, “A cabinet that ignores the direction favoured by the majority soon runs into trouble.”
Point 6: This Simplified Article is Not Advocating for Anything
This simplified article isn’t advocating for anything. And while confining your vote to one of three party’s agendas is limiting, hey, it does prevent chaos. A more direct democracy in NL could be scary, based on some of the misinformed opinions we’ve all seen in online comment threads.
This article is merely speaking to a sentiment around town now that “government isn’t listening to us.” A party-based government never has listened to you, not directly, and if it ever did do something you liked, it was mainly by coincidence when your values overlapped with its agenda.