09 February 2007

Pay heed to the silent majority

Political science professors often get quoted in media stories.

They are considered experts on politics.

Fair enough assumption.

Too often though, what comes out is nothing more than garden-variety opinion without much analysis.

Like this comment featured in a Canadian Press story on Thursday's by-election sweep by the ruling Progressive Conservatives under Danny Williams:
"Byelections are typically opportunities to send a message to government," [MUN political science prof Michael Temelini] he said in an interview. "There's no message here, other than, 'Keep on going, Danny!' "
By-elections are about a lot of things. It all depends on context, so a comment like the one above doesn't offer any insight.

What Temelini didn't apparently notice was that the turn-out in these by-elections was strikingly low. Canadian Press did and included references to fall-out from the legislature spending scandal.

None of the turn-outs are anything to crow about. The high was Port au Port where 51% of eligible voters showed up at the polls. In Kilbride, a traditional Conservative stronghold, only 33% of voters turned out to cast ballots. That continues a low turn-out trend set in Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi where, as in Port au Port, Danny Williams personally campaigned extensively on behalf of his candidate.

Look closer at the winning side and you see something as well. In Port au Port, Progressive Conservative candidate Tony Cornect took 31% of the eligible vote. That's in a district where the Premier and his entire caucus campaigned hard to convince voters they had to deliver a message to Ottawa and Big Oil with their votes.

In Ferryland and Kilbride, where voters didn't see the same Danny campaign machine in action and didn't get the same messages, the winners got respectively 34% and 26% of the eligible vote.

That hardly sounds like "Go Danny Go!"

The simple fact is that most voters sat on their hands.

In Port au Port where the Danny message was clearly a call to send an unmistakable sign to the foreign demons, more opted to sit quietly on the sidelines than voted for the Danny-boy candidate.

The question to answer is why they did that. Temelini clearly didn't know. Odds are good most of the commentary in the next few days will miss it too.

Perhaps the non-voters just supported Danny so much they didn't feel the need to vote. Highly unlikely. If there had been an election in January 2005, Danny Williams would have found more members on his side than there are seats in the legislature.

Perhaps some felt there was no point in voting since the outcomes was pre-ordained in a race where the Premier is apparently overwhelmingly popular. That's a possibility.

Perhaps some sat on their hands because they are simply disaffected from the political process as a direct result of the ongoing scandal. That's much more likely.

Other factors were also at work as well and taken together with that last likelihood, one can come up with a plausible explanation of the by-election result.

In the two Avalon peninsula ridings, the Liberal campaigns were vigorous on a local level but little was done to launch major attacks on the government as a way of hamstringing cabinet ministers and capitalizing on public discontent.

Neither party took the chance to attack cabinet ministers - like Kathy Dunderdale, for example - whose performance overall has been abysmal and who, shortly before Christmas, was caught in an embarrassing case of misleading the province on a public tendering scandal.

Ditto for transportation minister John Hickey, who sits in cabinet despite being the subject of a criminal investigation over alleged double-billing on his legislature allowances.

In each riding, the candidates fought very local battles. True, sitting members of the House campaigned door-to-door, but the province-wide political messages simply didn't exist.

For voters, especially voters intent on sending Danny Williams a rocket, there wasn't a clear alternative to Williams that they could stand behind. Neither the Liberals nor New Democrats look like a renewed and credible alternative devil to the one they already know. That reaction is all too common in Newfoundland and Labrador, the 1.5 party state.

In past cases where the Opposition has picked up seats, voters wanted to send a message to government. But that's usually been when the incumbents are in trouble and the major opposition party - Liberal or Conservative - looks like a pretty solid alternative. Otherwise, voters stay home and wash their hair or make sure all the spaghetti is lined up straight in the cupboard rather than vote. It's the equivalent of telling a public opinion pollster that they are "undecided"; there's no way to miss the meaning if you pay attention.

What's left on Thursday, then, is a situation where the highly organized, well-funded and aggressive political party - bolstered by incumbency - could identify its hard core supporters and get them to the polls. It isn't rocket science.

The only bright spot for the Liberals now remains Humber Valley where the capable and popular candidate will face mounting pressure over the weekend. As he goes door-to-door, Dwight Ball can simply tell people that Danny doesn't need one more seat to send a message. That job was done. They can instead make their choice based on something else.

Danny Williams did a curious thing in putting a label on the by-election results before they were known. He is already claiming a massive endorsement, of course, but in truth, both Stephen Harper and Big Oil are looking at Williams' victories with a more sophisticated eye than any of the commentary from news media and at least one poli sci prof would bring to bear.

For Harper, Williams' victories are largely irrelevant. Harper likely knows that there is a simple solution to the Equalization battle at hand. That makes Williams' Equalization battle a distraction intended primarily for domestic audiences. The reaction in the Langevin Block will likely be the common one to news from Dannystan: big freakin' deal.

Of course, Williams doesn't matter politically to Stephen Harper anyway since Williams' political influence west of Corner Brook is all but non-existant.

For the oil companies, knowing that Williams couldn't generate a massive groundswell of support is telling. If the by-elections mattered to them at all - and there is no reason to believe any of them pay any serious attention to that sort of thing - the public affairs analysts would tell them that Williams faces difficult times ahead and there is a mood of discontent that affects all current politicians.

Their conclusion would be the same one they already reached: Hebron is dead for at least five years. Hibernia South is on life-support. An emboldened Danny Williams is highly unlikely to come to any deal at all, no matter how sweet the pot gets. They will continue to wait on the energy plan - if it ever comes - or the gas royalty regime. Their interest in these documents has been largely academic since last April. Medium- to long-term spending commitments are already made. By the time they might have an interest in Hebron or Hibernia again, or if there is a significant discovery somewhere else offshore, Danny will be gone and the economic and political environment will be changed.

Danny Williams can claim there are discussions and negotiations with Big Oil.

People who know what's really going on understand that the fibreoptic phone lines from the Confederation Building to the oil companies are blacker than crude.