31 January 2011

Strings and all

Frank Moores was the second premier to hold office in Newfoundland and Labrador after Confederation.  He led the Progressive Conservative Party to victory in the 1972 provincial general election, defeating Joe Smallwood and ending Smallwood’s 23 year reign.

That was no mean feat and Moores didn’t do it single-handedly. He led a large group of people who organised themselves in a political party that was distinctly  different from Smallwood’s Liberals.  Until the late 1960s, the Liberal party had no district associations, for example.  Smallwood maintained a hand-picked fixer in every district who handled all the party business.  Smallwood himself picked candidates and until the 1969 convention, there’d been no leadership debate of any kind.

Moores won the Tory leadership at a convention held in May 1970.  A group of influential Conservatives, including Danny Williams’ mother and father spearheaded a drive to get Moores back from Ottawa where he sat as a member of parliament.

Now, in itself, that’s fascinating in light of the political outlooks of provincial Conservatives like Chick Cholock.  Ross Wiseman’s executive assistant wrote an e-mail to Brad Cabana, the Tory leadership hopeful back in late December.  Cholock wrote – you may recall – that “in an ideal world there will not be a leadership challenge.”  As Cholock saw it, a leadership battle “always hurt the party for years.  Any Party at all…”.

In the 1970 leadership convention, the Tories had a handful of candidates.  The list included Herb Kitchen, John Carter, Walter Carter and Hugh Shea.  Moores won handily and there was a minor controversy but for the most part, the party managed to sort out the difficulties and carry on.  Almost a decade later, the party held another leadership convention and managed to avoid any lasting controversy. The Tories stayed in power for another decade.

That hardly sounds like a series of unmitigated disasters, does it?

In the 40 years since Moores’ convention victory, the provincial Conservatives have certainly changed.  They’ve become – in essence – a fairly typical local political party for Newfoundland and Labrador.  Now, as before Confederation, the parties aren’t programmatic. They don’t have ideologies or set agendas.

And, at least as far as the province’s Conservatives have shown over the past few weeks, they certainly aren’t driven by grass-roots members.  They are most certainly not, as Danny Williams described them last year, a Reform-based Conservative party.  The Reformers believed very firmly that political parties ought to be directed by their members.  Policy used to get set at regular conventions.  District organizations picked candidates.  The party constitution laid down clear and unmistakeable rules and people paid attention to the rules.

No one could mistake the difference between that approach to politics compared to the provincial Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Sure the party has a constitution and bunch of people have titles.  But even the rules about something as crucial as membership aren’t clearly spelled out in the party’s fundamental document. And when it comes to deciding what those rules mean, only the insiders get to decide who the insiders can be.

In that sense, you could say that the local Tories aren’t democratic.  Now before anyone goes off the handle, understand that is not the description offered up by your humble e-scribbler.  A Tory supporter posted a comment on Twitter last week that said exactly that:  “a political party is not a democratic institution.”  Open Line host Randy Simms said exactly the same thing last week as well.

While you can disagree about what democracy means exactly, it is rather striking that two politically aware and presumably politically astute people in the province could state that political parties are not democratic organizations.  They weren’t troubled by the idea, apparently.  They didn’t find it odd.  In fact, it would seem that they found it perfectly natural for a political party to be run by an inner cabal accountable only to themselves.

And, as it seems comments online, provincial Conservative supporters seem to think every political party operates this way.  They don’t, but that is another matter.

What’s really striking is the way Frank Moores viewed political parties 40 years ago. You can find this quote in Janice Wells’ recent biography of the former premier:

Political parties are what people make them.  We’ve got to get people involved who don’t even recognise the need that they be involved in their own welfare, their own future, who perhaps after twenty-one [sic] years don’t even realize they have that right, and we have to get our best people involved, our best academics, artists, businessmen, educators.  I want these people to become totally involved in the work that faces us, and to know that they won’t be manipulated like puppets but will have major roles to play in reviving the province.

Political parties are indeed what people make of them.  In some bizarre twist, the people who make up the provincial Conservative Party in the early years of the 21st century have managed to turn Frank Moores’ party into something he most likely wouldn’t recognize.

- srbp -