Two things in July changed that.
First, Antle raced around at the last minute and joined the leadership race.
Second, and more importantly, Antle delivered the best campaign kick-off of the lot.
The speech Antle delivered at his launch was a sharp, well written statement. In the scrum afterwards, he handle himself extremely well. At one point, the reporter asked how he stood out from his other candidates. Antle didn’t bite. Instead, he effortlessly refocused the question to frame the choice as between Liberals and the ruling Conservatives.
Antle looked and sounded like an experienced candidate who was ready for the job.
Dwight Ball launched his campaign in his hometown of Deer Lake. The event was evidently well organized. The room was packed with supporters, including the provincial and federal Liberal politicians who are backing him. In both the launch and in subsequent media interviews, Ball displayed his characteristic quiet approach that is free from the histrionics that some politicians think makes them look more effective.
For starters, Antle has bled away a sizeable chunk of what support Bennett had among prominent Liberals. Some of the ones who were backing her or leaning in Bennett’s direction bailed to Antle’s camp as fast as he filed his nominations papers.
Then there’s the lingering issue of Bennett’s luke-warm support for the Liberal Party. Sure, Bennett has a line to cover that – she was a Liberal while she worked for and funded the Conservatives – but the line doesn’t ring any more true two weeks later than it did at the beginning of the race. Bennett has an easy time saying that she is a Liberal. But the problem for Bennett is that has a hard time saying that she isn’t a Conservative, much less explain the reasons for her switch.
Take a gander at her On Point interview, for example. Bennett has lots of prepared lines. She rattles them off seemingly without pausing to take a breath. Some might consider the rapid delivery to be a sign of her passion, a word Bennett uses a lot. What it actually conveys is that Bennett is ill at ease her new role. She knows the prepared script but hasn’t mastered the substance of the issues behind the lines.
You can see Bennett’s discomfort whenever she is asked if she plans to run for the Liberals in the next election even if she loses the leadership. The reply should be a simple yes or no. Bennett has a rehearsed set of lines that appear to say yes. But the more words she uses – other than “yes” – the more she is saying “no”. The fact that Bennett cannot give a simple answer to a simple question is telling.
By contrast, Antle has no problem with his Liberal pedigree. Nor does he have a problem taking a strong position on a controversial issue like Muskrat Falls. Development of the Lower Churchill is great, says Antle, but there are too many questions left unanswered for him to endorse this specific project.
In one fell swoop, Antle has taken the position that covers all the opponents of the project. Antle has also opened the door to lots of people whose support for Muskrat is marginal.
Among the candidates for the Liberal leadership, Antle has now left Bennett with the tarbaby Bennett calls a complex interweaving of business cases. her response to the telegram’s questions about the project are identical to those offered by any Conservative cabinet minister: talk of using the money to lower consumer costs (Ball’s position) is not “what the overall [Conservative government] priorities are. Lowering consumer costs may be one possibility for Bennett, but that isn;t what Bennett - and the other Conservative backers of Muskrat Falls – think the government should focus on.
Those sorts of talking points - word-for-word from Conservative hand-outs - will not do in the next six months what neither Bennett, her friends Kathy Dunderdale, Jerome Kennedy, and Ed Martin, nor the untold hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money they’ve spent have been able to do over the past three years.
Dwight Ball is also in a hard spot on this issue. His plan to spend any income from other sales to lower rates for taxpayers is really just an endorsement of the project in other words. Ball’s policy is an effort to endorse Muskrat Falls - which he does, wholeheartedly, - while appearing not to. That’s one of the fundamental problems Ball has. His cautious approach and his apparent inability to lay down a firm position leads some to believe he lacks a firmness of any conviction. Ball will need to show some steel under the smooth exterior to change those sorts of opinions.
The other Liberal candidates – Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque -are firmly opposed to Muskrat Falls. Dumaresque has as good a handle on the technical issues as anyone. Too many people glibly dismiss Dumaresque based on his past comments. They should watch him again and take a second look. Dumaresque isn’t likely to win the leadership but he may be looking for nothing more than a better position within the party for the future.
Antle and Jim Bennett wind up with the most sensible position, as quoted by the Telegram:
“No one is going to stop a hydro development that’s half-constructed. No one would do that in their right mind, but we can revisit how this thing is financially engineered. We can certainly do that,” Antle said.
“To me, that debate is over,” Jim Bennett said. “We’re far enough in we can’t get out. We have to finish the deal now, and my view is the most responsible thing is for the Liberal party — the Liberal government, hopefully — to manage the fallout from the bad deal that’s Muskrat Falls.”
These are still early days. Lots can happen. Lots can change.
But at this early stage, the leadership will likely resolve down to a choice between Paul Antle and Dwight Ball. Both have strong business backgrounds and present themselves very well. They don’t polarise people and generally appeal to similar types. Antle and Ball are likely to wind up in the situation in this sort of leadership battle where they will be the first choice or the second choice of most. They are also likely to wind up as the second choice of those who support Dumaresque, Jim Bennett, or Cathy Bennett.
Where Cathy Bennett was initially the likely alternate to Ball, Antle has now captured that ground and will likely hold it firmly. Supporters of Antle and Ball will know that Ball will continue as leader in the House until Antle gets a seat. And in the next election, the Liberals will face the election with both Ball and Antle, as well as Dumaresque and Jim Bennett.
The longer questions linger about Cathy Bennett’s attachment to the Liberal party, the more likely it is that she will slip back into the pack struggling to come in third behind Ball and Antle.
People are looking for a change. Candidates who represent change will do well in the Liberal leadership just as they will in the next election.