03 February 2006

Of matching and magic

The lack of candidates for the provincial Liberal leadership is now a subject for some media attention, as witnessed by David Cochrane's report on CBC television on Thursday.

Former leader Roger Grimes offered the view the number of candidates may have more to do with individual circumstances rather than a problem among provincial Liberals.

He may be right in some instances.

In other cases, such as Paul Antle or Siobhan Coady, one can easily conclude from their own comments that their interest was more with federal politics and provincial politics, so it makes sense that they'd prefer to turn back to their own businesses than challenge a relative unknown to lead provincial Liberals.

Still others were likely off-put by the daunting challenge handed to the prospective leader by the Liberal Party leadership. The effect of having the leadership convention - if it occurs - a full year after Roger Grimes stepped down is to give the new leader the task of finding 48 candidates, rehabilitating the party organization and banking the better part of $2.0 million and then fighting an election against an organized, wealthy, popular incumbent political party all within the space of a year or less.

The party executive seems to have assumed the leadership would attract great interest, that the convention would generate huge popular interest and that this interest would be the "bump" to carry the party through the election. This would be known as the "and then magic happens" strategy, which is fine, except that magic only happens in fairy tales.

Part of the reason for the attention to the lack of candidates comes from the assumption that the leadership would be heavily contested or even that there would be more than one person to come forward. While that has occurred in the past, it has been infrequent and there wasn't a guarantee it would happen this time.

What has occurred though is that the one candidate to come forward - Jim Bennett - actually matches with outlook of the caucus and likely much of the party executive. In such a homogeneous world as the one currently inhabited by the Liberal caucus, there really isn't a need for several leaders to come forward all of whom basically represent the same point of view.

There certainly isn't anything to attract someone with genuinely new ideas who would face the challenge of not only getting ready for an electiion but of facing a caucus that opposes most if not all of the new leader's agenda.

Bennett is a proponent of the Ruralist school. He champions the salvation of rural areas of our province through some, unspecified means. His first, and so far only, public policy statement is to call for the nationalization of Fishery Products International (FPI), in whole or in part. That's an old idea to be sure and one which has never worked either here or in the former Soviet Bloc.

Of course, the real reason for government buying FPI is to avoid changing the fishery. The only likely outcome of government buying FPI is that government would pour tens of millions of dollars into the company and keep people working at jobs that are not economically sustainable. However, to Ruralists, economics are meaningless in pursuit of the goal of preserving our unique "rural" way of life at any and all costs.

Bennett fits with the dominant view from the current Liberal caucus. This is the same caucus that while in government supported having Sue Kelland Dyer as a senior policy analyst to champion every nationalist cause imaginable, the same caucus that paid millions to have Vic Young chronicle yet again historic local grievances against "Canada".

This is the same caucus, through interim leader Gerry Reid, that saw the recent federal election results as proof that the wealthy parts of the province (i.e. the Avalon peninsula) voted Conservative while "rural" areas voted Liberal.

This neat little division of our province in "rural" and "urban" areas misses much. Fundamentally, however, it prevents the Liberal Party from developing any policy that would appeal to the province as a whole. It certainly writes off the bulk of the population, which lives on the Avalon peninsula and more specifically in the northeast Avalon in and around St. John's. With it, the party effective is writing off its chances of winning a majority of seats in the next election.

Taken in that light, no one should be surprised that only Jim Bennett has come forward to seek job of being leader of the Liberal Party. He is a perfect match with the caucus and, by extension, with the wider party headshed. Other possible candidates with the same or a similar outlook are otherwise occupied with their lives, much as Roger Grimes noted. Within caucus, there is also no need for any of them to run solely for the sake of running. There is no reason to have a leadership race in which one merely picks from among a group of people who are all just variations on the same theme.

In the meantime, Bennett can carry on as leader with the task of getting ready for the next election, knowing that he speaks to the constituency the party seems to be aiming for.

We will all know soon enough how successful the overall strategy is, how potent the Cult of Ruralism actually is.

And once that test is met perhaps the Liberal Party can come up with a plan that doesn't involve hoping for a leader who graduated from Hogwarts.