10 October 2007

Election results: the past in the present


in some respects, yes.

The projections of 43 progressive Conservative seats seemed extraordinarily high, as did the popular vote projections.












At the outset, though, everyone must start with the understanding that while the Tories hold nearly a record share of the popular vote, it came in an election with a near record low turnout of eligible voters. This point cannot be ignored. While our system allows such a result, we should be collectively concerned about why so many of our fellow citizens did not exercise their right to vote. Apathy and complacency have been tossed out as possible reasons, almost exclusively by the Progressive Conservatives and repeated by commentators who spent a lot of time traveling with the campaign. 

Outside of that tiny bubble of opinion, though, there is absolutely no insight into the views of nearly half the population. Some will casually dismiss those who did not vote this time. Others will talk for a while about changing the electoral system to something other than the winner-take-all system currently in place in each district.  Any words spent on reform are basically so much hot air, as will become plain below. Incumbents have no interest in electoral reform that might threaten their pre-eminence.

The Blue

For the Progressive Conservatives, the election reaps the rewards of a classic approach to politics:  with full coffers, spend it while you got it. That approach invariably works and it worked in spades in 2007. 

At least one commentator this evening referred to Danny Williams as an atypical politician.  He is not.  In fact, Danny Williams is a shrewd, capable and extremely aggressive leader in the tradition of Newfoundland politicians.

Williams has been compared to Smallwood and rightly so. Some may take that as a disparaging remark. Some old Tories likely wince at the comparison, but the hallmarks of Smallwoodism  - the cult of personality, the ruthless attack on any dissent, starving of opposition districts and overwhelming domination of cabinet and caucus by a single, single-minded personality - are hallmarks of the Williams approach. One can only stand in awe a politician who understands that and can capitalize on it so effectively.

The Red

For the Liberals, four years of indifference have reaped their own reward. The party is a ruin, with no district organizations in most places and a crushing debt. Whoever steps forward to lead the party will have a daunting task in front of him or her.

The Liberals elected in 2003 never got over the shock of being out of comfortable government jobs. They failed to make the mental adjustment to opposition;  they had not gotten past the simple understanding that their job as the Opposition was to develop a coherent set of alternative policies.

This should be no surprise of course, since the 2003 Liberals had campaigned on policy platforms essentially identical to those introduced by the Progressive Conservatives. Given the choice in 2003 between real Tories - nationalist to the core - and fake Tories, the people opted for the brand-name over the generic.

Try and slip a sheet of paper between the Liberal, New Democrat and Conservative parties on major issues such as the energy corporation, FPI or the province's financial position. Science cannot conceive of something so infinitesimally thin. Liberal Party policies, from the administration of the House of Assembly to the waste management plan to the poverty reduction strategy continued after 2003 or were introduced by the Williams based on the work already done.

One can hardly expect that the three Liberals and the one New Democrat in the legislature after this election will be any different tomorrow than they have been. If there are to be any new ideas on the province's political scene, it will surely have to come from somewhere other than the legislature. The ideas will have to come, as well, from someone other than the ones  - like John Efford or Danny Dumaresque or Walter Noel - suspected by some of eyeing the Liberal leader's job.

With the departure of Roger Grimes, the opposition Liberal caucus never took seriously to the business of organizing themselves as anything beyond a loose association of people scared of the government party, overawed by polls, and desperately afraid of the result which they inevitably received. In his concession speech, Gerry Reid seemed genuinely relieved of the burden he bravely shouldered, and shoulder it he did despite the onslaught of personal attacks waged on him from the Tories from time to time.  But listen to his words and one can see that he - and likely most of his caucus - had been psychologically defeated long before the writ dropped. They were simply going through the motions.

That said, there were a number of Liberal candidates who stood out for their abilities and for their promise. In any other situation, some might have succeeded.  At any time in our province's history, the next crop of politicians for any political party come out of defeated opposition candidates, Liberal or Conservative or New Democrat.  if that is indeed the case this time, we may see some bright spots in the future.

The Orange

The New Democrats attracted some talented people as well, but the party remains localized in St. John's.  The party remains incapable of developing a strategy for growth. Once again, the people of the province have seen its usual pattern of running names on ballots rather than focusing on seats where it might stand a chance of winning. As such the party will be doomed to be a marginal political force at best, no matter what patronizing praise its leader receives from the Premier.

The Future House and the future province

If the recent past is any indication, the legislature will slip increasingly into irrelevance.  The House will sit fewer days.  Bills will be passed with less and less debate. Three of the four opposition members are the same people who allowed the House to run as it has over the past four years, including agreeing in secret to the speedy passage of the Green bill in a manner that made the bill itself a mockery of its author's intentions. The public will know less and will have a weaker ability to discover anything.

With such a large caucus, Danny Williams may well be faced with a dilemma of political management unseen since the 1980s.  Brian Peckford's solution was to buy the co-operation of his caucus by giving them all extra stipends and positions as parliamentary secretaries. With a speaker, deputy speaker, chair of committees and government whip, there are only 39 left to accommodate.  A cabinet of 20 with a matching number of parliamentary secretaries will ensure that all stay nicely in line.  let's see if that is the solution which comes, if not this year, then in a few more.

In the estates, don't worry about the news media becoming the opposition.  Corporate concentration in some cases and political inclination in others will ensure that self-censorship will kill or weaken anything that appears critical long before it hits the page or the airwaves.  As anyone paying attention would have already seen since 2003, anything that does not conform to the official line is , by definition, critical and, therefore, bad.

And in cyberspace, things will likely carry on as usual. Some will view Bond Papers as partisan or personal.  If they do, they merely miss the point. It has always been about policy choices and alternative information.  And whether that goal has been met or not on occasion, that will remain the focus, for as long as it can be sustained.

Our descendents 40 years hence should not be able to look back on this time as we do to a time 40 years ago and wonder why no one pointed out the obvious alternatives to decisions taken in near unanimity.

The past is too much in our present to give anyone any comfort.