22 March 2005

Outside the box - The Independents

Here's a reprint of the first column I wrote for The Independent in the fall of 2003. In light of the recent budget and its mantra of fiscal and social responsibility, it seems appropriate to reprint it here.

The Independents

If you listen to some, voters on the Northeast Avalon are always Tory, have always been Tory and will always be Tory. Danny Williams is Premier today because he had such a strong political base in St. John's and the surrounding areas that he could focus his campaign on other districts and turn them to the Tory Tide. Simple, neat and tidy.

And wrong.

What traditional wisdom like that ignores is the fundamental change in the Newfoundland and Labrador electorate that occurred over the past 20 years. The political centre of gravity these days is shaped by the Independents.

They are the voters who do not faithfully vote for the same party time and again. As a group, they are better educated than the average voter. They are more likely to be part of a middle class that simply did not exist here for much of the past century, let alone most of the 50 years or so since Confederation. They are well-traveled and well read, and whether they live in St. John's, Corner Brook, Goose Bay or Shoal Harbour, they are perhaps better described as being urbane rather than urban or rural.

Independents also tend to hold certain core values. They value honesty, integrity and plain speaking. In politicians, they expect accountability - saying what you will do and doing what you said. Substance talks; spin walks.

They are fiscally conservative and socially responsible. Fairness and equity (or its synonym, balance) are much more important than rewarding those who share your views and punishing those that don't. Who you are personally is more important to an Independent than what colour you are.

Don't be surprised if these ideas sound familiar. Liberal government policy between 1989 and 1996 was built around those core values. Voters rewarded the Liberal party with three majority governments - including returning Liberals in St. John's seats in 1989, 1993 and 1996.

Things began to shift only after the Liberals under Brian Tobin showed their choices, their future and their time were actually in the past. The gap between what they said and what actually occurred was enormous. Sure the Liberals won big in 1999, but look more closely at that election. Liberals had to fight for 18 seats, coming close to losing six of them when faced with an opposition that really was not supposed to amount to anything. The undecided vote broke after the debate in '99, but it didn't pick Tobin: undecideds, likely including a large number of Independents, went heavily Tory.

In 2003, the Tory faithful mobilized strongly when they smelled victory, but what Danny Williams captured and held, like Clyde Wells before him, were the Independents. His New Approach is only new in comparison to what voters rejected in 1989 and that returned, briefly, under the second Brian administration.

For Danny Williams to stay in power, he now has to deliver, not on mega-projects and massive job creation, nor on some definition of leadership wearing steel-toed boots and making glitzy announcements. The challenge for Danny is proving he meant what he said about honesty, integrity, living within our means and doing the right thing.

In politics these days, substance talks.

Spin walks.