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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Paying the price for political ambition


Steve Craig addresses attendees to the police commission meeting in Halifax in 2017. He has resigned as Halifax regional councillor for Lower Sackville to take over the Sackville-Cobequid seat in the provincial legislature. - File
Steve Craig addresses attendees to a police commission meeting in Halifax in 2017. He has resigned as Halifax regional councillor for Lower Sackville to take over the Sackville-Cobequid seat in the provincial legislature. — Postmedia file photo

It happens now and then — this time, in Halifax.

Municipal councillor Steve Craig, who used to represent Lower Sackville, moved up a spot in the government rankings, winning the provincial riding of Sackville-Cobequid in a byelection.

With Craig not finishing his term, the Halifax council is looking at holding a byelection to fill Craig’s municipal seat for about a year — the byelection, apparently, will cost taxpayers about $250,000.

It’s far from uncommon. A politician wins a seat in a municipal election, sees a possible prize in a provincial or federal seat, and decamps for bigger and better things, usually after keeping their municipal gig as a kind of safety net in case they lose.

If they win, they win — but the taxpayer certainly loses.

It happened not all that long ago in Newfoundland and Labrador, too. In 2015, city councillor Bernard Davis won a seat in the provincial general election, two years into a four-year stint on St. John’s city council. Similar numbers were involved: a $200,000 byelection tab.

“I understand people’s concerns about that,” Davis said after he won at the provincial level and subsequently resigned his municipal seat. “I didn’t want it to cost that kind of money, either, and that’s unfortunate. Democracy is costly to administer sometimes …”

Bernard Davis
Bernard Davis

And it’s not always different political positions, either; sometimes, politicians leave their elected positions for government appointments, and voters have to pay again there, too.

It’s easy to argue that democracy has costs, and that it’s important that areas that lose their representatives to new challenges don’t end up losing their representation as well.

So, byelections have to be held and paid for — and the further in time a resignation is from the next general election, the more important it is for the empty spot to be filled.

But here’s the thing: we don’t get to change the terms of our elected representatives in mid-stream. An elected politician essentially gets a contract until the next general election, regardless of their personal performance.

We don’t get to say “Whoops, we’ve changed our minds,” except in the case of governments that might have recall legislation. (And recall legislation, to my mind, is a foolish idea — all it means is that governments and individual members can never make unpopular but necessary decisions without the fear that their decisions could bite them almost immediately.)

But if we make a contract with politicians that they will be serving out a term, well, maybe they should be making some sort of contract with us as well — if for no other reason than because of the ever-climbing costs of replacing them in a municipal or provincial byelections.

So perhaps incoming politicians should be subject to their own kind of contract — an agreement that they will serve out their term in office, the very thing every politician commits to do when they throw their hat in the ring in the first place.

No one says, “Elect me for awhile until something better comes along.”

Since there are clear costs, maybe the politician who skips out on his or her commitment to dine in greener pastures should personally have to pick up at least a share of the tab.

Sickness or clear hardship is one thing; if there are good reasons why politicians can’t finish out their term in office, that’s fine. If they suddenly need to retire, or if they are overtaken by scandal, so be it.

But if elected office is just being treated as a stepping-stone to the next level of government, well, that ends up looking a little personally convenient at public expense.

Since there are clear costs, maybe the politician who skips out on his or her commitment to dine in greener pastures should personally have to pick up at least a share of the tab.

I’d suggest 10 per cent of the byelection cost.

Seems fair.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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