By Mario Levesque
Persons with disabilities are significantly under-represented in elected office in Newfoundland and Labrador. Few have been elected at the municipal level, while none have been elected provincially, based on what can be observed or has been declared by individuals.
This is despite the fact the province has a rate of disability of 14.1 per cent for people 15 years of age or greater, representing almost 60,000 people.
The marginalization of persons with disabilities in Newfoundland and Labrador is significant and consistent with other Canadian provinces. For example, persons with disabilities represented less than one per cent of candidates in the last three provincial elections for each province. This is noteworthy because there are symbolic and substantive benefits to having minority representation from persons with disabilities.
Symbolic benefits include the fact that seeing those with similar characteristics to oneself in positions of power leads to more “buy in” or legitimacy. Substantively, the role played by disabled politicians is important, given that their inclusion may lead to greater consideration of disability in policy discussions, which can lead to better policy and the breaking down of stigma and discrimination.
Addressing campaign finance laws and providing incentives for political parties and disabled candidates to seek elected office would help persons with disabilities to be included in society.
For Newfoundland and Labrador, the political participation of persons with disabilities is also consistent with existing government policy. For example, the province’s Strategy for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities has been carefully crafted to align with the provisions of the Human Rights Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes the political participation of persons with disabilities. Political participation is further elaborated in the 2015–2018 Action Plan for the Strategy, which proclaims that representation of persons with disabilities on government agencies, boards and commissions is to be promoted.
Yet, promotion needs to move beyond government agencies, boards and commissions to elected office.
How to proceed? This is challenging because two main blockages prevent persons with disabilities from seeking elected office.
First, provincial campaign finance laws are vague in relation to disability expenses in that they indicate that reasonable campaign expenses, including those related to transportation for election purposes, are excluded.
What does reasonable mean? Is the use of specialized transit to attend community meetings, which can amount to thousands of dollars, excluded? Likewise, are the costs for an attendant to aid a blind person in going door to door or to translate speech for a deaf person excluded? Given their expense, would they be considered reasonable and therefore excluded?
While candidates can have campaign expenses reimbursed, it is capped at one-third of eligible expenses, provided they obtain at least 15 per cent of the vote, a high threshold. This leaves persons with disabilities in a precarious position when seeking elected office.
To remedy this, campaign finance laws need to be modified to ensure equal opportunity for disabled candidates. Specific language in campaign laws indicating that disability-related expenses do not count against campaign limits would be helpful.
Also, disability-related expenses should be fully reimbursed provided candidates receive a certain portion of the vote. Manitoba, through its Manitoba Election Financing Act of 2013, has this provision with a candidate needing at least 10 per cent of the valid votes cast to be reimbursed. Yet, even this threshold is high, and consideration is needed for reimbursement on a sliding scale, with the greater share of the vote a disabled candidate receives, the more he or she would be reimbursed. While not sufficient, this would at least make seeking elected office more attractive for persons with disabilities.
The second blockage for persons with disabilities seeking elected office relates to political parties that are not as inclusive as they could be. For example, none of the three main political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador has a disability wing, yet all have women’s and youth wings. The Liberal party goes further and also has Aboriginal and seniors’ commissions.
Lastly, only the New Democrats have what can be called an “inclusion provision,” whereby, among other things, they seek people of all “abilities.” Other parties and their constitutions are silent on such issues. Why, especially considering the prevalence of disability in the province?
Making political parties more inclusive is hard to address. Mandated quotas are controversial and largely rejected by the disability community itself. A promising alternative is for the government to provide incentives for the nomination of minority candidates. This incentive can be in the form of reimbursing political parties additional moneys should candidates be successful in being elected — up to an additional one-third or half of each disabled candidate’s expenses. In addition, the provincial government can bypass political parties and create a fund that persons with disabilities could access to offset disability-related expenses, as the United Kingdom has recently done. To offset these added costs, the reimbursement rate for non- disabled candidates can be reduced slightly.
Addressing campaign finance laws and providing incentives for political parties and disabled candidates to seek elected office would help persons with disabilities to be included in society. It is also consistent with the province’s inclusion strategy and would contribute to breaking down stigma and discrimination while facilitating a vibrant Newfoundland and Labrador.
About the Author
Mario Levesque (Politics and International Relations, Mount Allison University) researches disability politics and policy in Canada related to political participation, leadership, accessible transit and labour market programming. He is currently working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded study on disability leadership in Atlantic Canada and has published in various journals, including the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, Canadian Public Policy, and the Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research.