14 October 2010

When the status quo is not an option, Newfoundland and Labrador version

A year before the next provincial election and Premier Danny Williams shifted around a couple of bodies in his cabinet.

What is telling about this event is not so much what happened but what the Premier said about it. Aside from the platitudes about the three people who got new jobs, the Premier said the shuffle came as a result of the death of one of his ministers. That’s no doubt quite literally true, but the clear implication is that if Diane Whelan had not contracted cancer last year and, sadly, passed away a few days ago, he’d have left everything exactly as it is.

No change. 

No shuffling. 

No new direction.

Just more of the same.

Take that as confirmation that,as Bond Papers has noted before, we are in a strange pre-election period coupled with a pre-leadership spell. Ordinarily a party and a leader headed for his third term would already be looking at bringing in a new crop of faces around the cabinet table, working out some new ideas and, generally, laying the foundation for the future. Think of it as a sort of political version of Mike Holmes meets Sarah Richardson.

Successful political parties tend to re-invent themselves over time. In Alberta or in Ottawa, the more successful political parties have tended to shift as the public mood has shifted.  Different political challenges require different political styles.  The public likes change periodically,.  They get tired of the same crap over and over. The people themselves tend to wear out. There are a bunch of reasons  for it, but change is important if parties want to stay in power and actually do something while they are at it.

The alternative is that they get punted and the public sticks in another bunch. With the exception of Joe Smallwood, post-Confederation’s successful elected Premiers have tended to stay in office for 10 years or less.  Frank Mores left after seven years in office.  Ditto Clyde Wells.  Brian Peckford went for a decade but, realistically he was worn out after 1985 or 1986.

If the Tories had run a leadership campaign in 1986, they might well have carried on running the province forever.  But for some inexplicable reason, Peckford hung around growing increasingly paranoid or grandiose or whatever that was.  By the time he finally handed off, the party was so split up internally they settled on Tom Rideout.

In 1989, the Tories ran a crop of worn out faces who tried to pretend they represented change. Voters responded accordingly. In St. John’s, the Liberals scored historic victories in the 1989 election. Not post-Confederation historic, but historic electoral success since 1833 kinda stuff.

Failure to change is basically the story behind the Liberal defeat in 2003 as well.  One old Liberal political hand said publicly at the 2001 leadership convention that the party would have to change – to reinvigorate itself – or the voters would change for them.  He was right.

There is still time for the Reform-based Conservative Party currently running the province.  Nothing says the Old Man won’t shuffle his cabinet in the spring.  After all, there are a bunch of cabinet and caucus members looking at hanging up their skates next fall. Spring could still be a good time to put a lick of paint on the old house.  The scouts might have picked up a few local stars at the municipalities convention in St. John’s last week.  We won’t know for sure until happens.

But the trend and the attitudes suggest that what you are seeing today is what you will get to vote for next fall.  Any change will come after 2011.

The only problem is that the province needs some new ideas right now. 

The big news on Wednesday was an announcement by business minister Ross Wiseman that the provincial government will now aim cash handouts specifically to airplane operators.  Now this practice of offering cash hand-outs to businesses has a very long and sorry history in Newfoundland and Labrador. That history  - well known to anyone over the age of 30 in the province - and their own sorry-assed experience  - known to anyone who can read - hasn’t stopped the Reform-based Conservative Party led by Danny Williams from keeping up the practice.

From tossing public cash at any hare-brained scheme imaginable to unsustainable public spending to constantly looking for federal hand-outs, the current administration is an homage to every idea that never worked for this province.

The status quo is not a viable option for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

But the news from the provincial government today, on any front, is that we are doomed to more of the same.

- srbp -