Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says democratic reform has proven to be a complex political minefield elsewhere. He hopes he isn’t traipsing into one of his own.
An all-party committee will be struck sometime in the spring to tackle issues like political financing, voter turnout and perhaps how Newfoundlanders and Labradorians cast their ballots.
Parsons cautions that it will be up to the committee to strike its own mandate to determine exactly what it will examine. He says he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself in terms of what changes could come, but he’s concerned it could be a rocky road to get there.
“These, generally, have not gone well elsewhere. When you look at our federal Liberals, you look at the controversy created by promises they made and then basically having to toss them to the wayside. That’s not something that I look forward to,” Parsons said.
“Who in their right mind wants to undertake something that you know is fraught with issues?”
Among the issues top of mind is campaign finances.
Right now, there are no spending limits for individuals or businesses, nor are there restrictions on whether donations from outside the province can be accepted.
In 2016, the Liberals received $506,846 in donations, 82 per cent of which came from businesses. The Progressive Conservatives received $58,525 in donations, 94 per cent of which came from businesses. The NDP took in $72,814 in 2016, 24 per cent of which came largely from unions.
Among the largest donors to political parties in 2016 were Canada Fluorspar NL Inc., which gave $11,800 to the Liberals; Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Inc., which gave $20,000 to the Liberals; and Provincial Aerospace Ltd., which gave $20,000 to the Liberals.
The PCs received $4,000 donations from Logy Bay Entertainment Group and TD Bank.
The NDP’s largest contributors were the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the United Steel Workers District 6, each of which gave $5,000 and each of which is based in Ontario.
Parsons rejects the notion that political decisions can be swayed by large donations, but he says there is an issue with public perception that will be very difficult to fix.
“If people think that they can just pay a sum of money and get a certain decision, that’s just not on. Period,” Parsons said.
“What we’re worried about is perception. That’s something that we’re cognizant of. There’s a real cynicism out there. We need to combat that perception. I’m very interested in looking at that.”
Making political financing documents more readily available is one thing the government could do to help that perception. Elections Newfoundland and Labrador released the finance documents for 2015 and 2016 at the end of the last sitting of the House of Assembly. The deadline for each year was April 1, with each party being granted extensions for at least one of the reporting periods.
Parsons says one of the hardest parts will be deciding what the committee will try to fix. A mandate too large could make the work of the committee drag on. Too small, and the committee will risk blind spots on important issues.
“Are you going to try to fix everything or are you going to isolate certain issues and try to fix them piece by piece?” Parsons said.
“Some things are more black and white, while certain things just depend on your perspective.”
When it comes to changes to how residents cast their votes, Parsons says the difficulty the Trudeau Liberals had with that promise makes it more difficult to consider provincially.
“The feds had a very, very negative experience with it. I know there’s a lot of talk academically about it. It is not an issue that is on the radar for constituents that I deal with,” Parsons said.
“I’m certainly not going to engage in an exercise just for the sake of it, or change for the sake of change. That being said, I’m open to anything.”