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TO THE POINT: Would term limits deliver better government for Newfoundland and Labrador?

Premier Dwight Ball is greeted by supporters in Corner Brook Thursday night. Ball’s Liberals slipped to minority government status after Thursday’s provincial election with 20 seats in the House of Assembly, 15 for the PCs, three for the NDP and two independents.
Premier Dwight Ball is greeted by supporters in Corner Brook Thursday night. Ball’s Liberals slipped to minority government status after May 2019's provincial election with 20 seats in the House of Assembly, 15 for the PCs, three for the NDP and two independents. - David Maher
Don Mills
Don Mills

Ever wonder about declining voter turnout? Or the rising popularity of third parties? Or the increasing frequency of one-term governments? Do you complain about the political process or the decisions made by politicians on your behalf? Maybe it is time to consider term limits and move away from those interested in a career in politics.

I believe that the vast majority of those who enter public life — either at the municipal, provincial or federal level — do so to make a difference to their communities, their province or their country. The commitment to public service is a noble enterprise, and many politicians, once elected, remain true to that commitment. Unfortunately, for too many, the reasons that people enter politics appear to change with time. Let’s be honest. Politics does not always attract the best and brightest from society to run for public office. It is too often a thankless job, requiring a huge commitment of time and effort with expectations from the electorate that are sometimes unreasonable and often unachievable.

It seems like a lot of political decisions are made (or sometimes not made), not in the best interests of the public, but in the interests of the political party in charge and the desire to maintain government. The history of running deficits in Atlantic Canada is testament to this desire. The accumulation of debt is the price paid by citizens, especially future generations, to keep parties in government.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the public debt is nearing $15 billion ($28,063 per capita, nearly double that for the rest of the region) and the interest to be paid on that debt in the current fiscal year is more than $900 million (the highest in Atlantic Canada). This public debt does not include more than $12 billion of debt associated with Muskrat Falls which ultimately must be paid by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Public debt always seems to increase without any real plan to pay down that debt. Over the next 20 years, $18 billion (more than the debt itself) will be spent by Newfoundlanders to service that debt without a plan to pay it down. The fact that there is little to show for this accumulated debt speaks volumes to the decision-making motivations of governments from all political stripes to stay in power at the expense of the taxpayer. The recent flurry of funding announcements by the federal Liberal government in the run-up to the upcoming election is further evidence of this problem. It is hard to give up power once in a position of power.

Furthermore, for many politicians, the job is actually the best job they ever had and there is personal motivation to do whatever necessary to keep those jobs. As a consequence, too many politicians put personal interests ahead of the interests of those who elected them. Would term limits make a difference?

The general public appears to believe so based on their support of terms limits in Newfoundland for all three levels of government. Three quarters of Newfoundlanders support term limits for provincial and federal politicians, the highest level of support for term limits in Atlantic Canada. Nearly seven in 10 support term limits for municipal politicians based on research conducted by Narrative Research (formerly Corporate Research Associates Inc.), most recently in late 2016.

What are some of the pros and cons associated with term limits? Likely one of the biggest negatives of term limits is losing politicians who are good at their jobs, serve their constituents well and act in the public interest at all times. In reality, this is likely the only good reason for not instituting term limits in government. There are many more reasons for term limits, including getting rid of otherwise career politicians who have mediocre records of achievement. One could argue that in a democratic society, the voters should decide who goes and who stays. Unfortunately, voting decisions are often based on very low expectations of the electorate in terms of job performance which benefits incumbents and leads to long-serving politicians. Declining voter engagement, particularly at the municipal level, further contributes to this issue. Think about your municipal councillor or your MHA. What motivates these individuals in your opinion? Whose interests are they really serving? What difference have they made in your life?

I am pretty sure there are millions of Americans who are thankful that there is a two-term limit for their presidency.

And what would be a reasonable term limit for office? Two terms, three terms? Should term limits be the same or different by level of government? Could candidates run again after serving their term limit and waiting for a period of time to run again? All good questions worth consideration. The biggest barrier to term limits is really the very people that would be affected by term limits, the politicians themselves. It is highly unlikely that politicians would impose term limits on themselves without the public demanding such limits.

One of the possible benefits of term limits might be in the attraction of more highly qualified individuals, particularly those nearing the end of their careers, willing to serve for a limited period of time and not interested in a career as a politician.

Personally, I’m still on the fence. What about you?

Don Mills is the former owner of Corporate Research Associates and a recognized expert in data trends in Atlantic Canada. After selling his business recently, he remains passionate about data - and learning the guitar. He can be contacted at dmillshfx@gmail.com or on Twitter at @donmillshfx.


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