26 October 2011

Why should anyone care? #nlpoli

We can often see things more clearly when we compare one item  to something that is supposed to be similar to it.  It's one of the simplest ways we can learn. Babies learn to do it at an early age and comparing is at the heart of the old Sesame Street song about One of these things.... 

You can do it with objects, or, as in this post, with political parties and people.

Let's look at the Liberals and the New Democrats in this province. 

This week the New Democrats and their leader Lorraine Michael did a couple of things worth noting.  On the front page of Tuesday's Telegram, underneath a picture of singularly the most incompetent and nakedly-biased Speaker the legislature has had since Confederation (except for the guy who had the job right before him), there's another story about a protest in front of the Confederation Building. There’s a picture of a bunch of people who want the House of Assembly to open this fall for a regular session. 

The guy shown in the picture holding a megaphone has been camped out on the Hill since last week. it’s a great sign of free speech in a province where speaking your mind publicly has been known to get you attacked by friends of the incompetent Speaker.

And right there in front of the crowd listening to the guy with the microphone are NDP leader Lorraine Michael and newly elected Skinner-skinner Gerry Rogers, also a New Democrat member of the legislature.

Basic political issue:  House of Assembly ought to be open so the politicians can debate and discuss important issues.  NDP right there.

One of the issues the NDP would like to discuss is how the provincial government builds ships for the provincial ferry fleet.  The New Democrats would like to see a long-term policy that lays out the plans for maintaining the fleet and building new and replacement ships.  The New Democrats think this could lay the foundation for the shipyards around the province. With some guaranteed local business, the companies could plan for the future and take on steady work from elsewhere.

The ferry contract is an issue on the Burin peninsula, especially in Burin-Placentia West where the Marystown Shipyard just finished building two ferries but can't get started on the third and fourth because of some unspecified problems.  With no other work at the yard, the provincial government work is important.  The New Democrats don't hold that district in the House, although they came close in the recent general election. But the shipyard policy has implications that reach beyond one district.  The policy will affect provincial budgets just as surely as it can affect the smaller shipyards in the province, subcontractors who do work for the shipyards and  - it almost goes without saying - the people who ride the ferries daily in order to live their daily lives.

Compare that to the provincial Liberals.  By virtue of the fact they have one more seat than the Dippers, the Grits are the official opposition party in the legislature.  They get a bigger budget and their leader gets some extra money to have an office and staff comparable to what a cabinet minister would have.

That reflects the importance of the position in our system of government.  The leader of the opposition, after all, should be someone the lieutenant governor is supposed to be able to call on to form an administration in the event the current one fell. People tend to forget that, but it is the way our system is supposed to work.  It is one of the ways we could avoid having elections every five minutes during a minority parliament, but that's another issue.

Last week, the Liberals got together for the first time since the election.  They called the media together for scrum about the House being closed until the spring.

The media - not surprisingly - wanted to talk about the Liberal leadership.  Fill-in leader Kevin Aylward has been invisible since the election.  He didn't win his seat.  People are wondering what Kevin plans to do and how the Liberals plan to handle the House.  The grim-faced gang stood in front of the reports and Yvonne Jones - the person who, in effect, never stopped being Leader of the Opposition, answered questions about the leadership question.

And then they got around to talking about the House.  Scrum over, all but one of them headed back to their districts.  They'll come to town again to be sworn in later this week and then, if the usual pattern holds,  they'll head back to their districts as fast as they can.

In the scrum, one of the reporters asked Jones about prospective leader Dean MacDonald and his support for Muskrat Falls. The caucus is basically holding the leader's job for Dean, when and if he wants it, incidentally. Whether this is the arrangement they cooked up before Jones "stepped back" from the leader's job  - Dean and Yvonne didn't have a lengthy meeting to talk finances - or if it is a post-election plan or even a desperate caucus hope, the job is Dean's.

And on the controversial project, Jones answered that until someone could show the benefits to the province and since Muskrat Falls brought no benefit to Labrador she was opposed to it regardless who was backing it.

The contrast in the two parties could not be any more stark.  On the one hand, you have a party that is active on the local political scene demonstrating their position on an issue and garnering some coverage on their stand in the meantime.  The Dipper leader spoke out about an issue  that doesn't affect her district directly.  The Dippers took a position about shipbuilding based on the wider provincial impact.

Contrast that with the Liberals and Jones' position on Muskrat.  Her opposition to the project is framed not on the numerous policy problems with it but on the absence of apparent benefits to a specific part of the province.  She noted that the project didn't deliver benefits for one particular spot.

In truth, that last bit is the key bit about the post-2003 Liberals.  It's all very local, and very much about individual districts.  And if you take Jones' comments to their logical conclusion, you can see pretty quickly that her opposition would melt away once someone delivers some pork to address her concerns.  String a couple of power lines into Jones' district, talk about making power available for local industry in Labrador and she'll be standing by ready to wave flags and cheer for the mega-debt disaster.

Now to be fair, the NDP is backing Muskrat Falls whole-hog.  Their conditional endorsement  - if it is viable - is so lame as to be laughable.

But look at the difference in how the Liberals tackle an issue and how the NDP does.  For the Liberals, there is no provincial perspective, at all.  Everything starts and ends in the specific districts the party members hold.  Yvonne Jones  - and hence the Liberal Party - won't be speaking about shipbuilding generally because it doesn't bother anyone in her district.  She would talk about one ferry boat, though, because it does affect her district.  Jones will even talk about a wildly, insanely ludicrous idea like the Stunnel because - you guessed it - the end point would be in her district.

And as for everywhere else, who gives a flying frack?

It isn't just Jones who operates this way.

It isn't just Danny Dumaresque.  The only difference between Danny D and the rest of the Liberals running in the last election was that he just said it out loud.

It's all of them.

And that difference between the Liberals and the NDP is why one is on the rise in the province and the other is pretty much irrelevant to the political future of the province.

Liberals these days will talk about all the work that the party needs to do to rebuild.  The party's ersatz Danny-in-Waiting said it last week, too, using the Danny-esque hockey metaphor.

But what the Liberals seem to be missing is that the party is way beyond the point where a few meetings and a couple of warm bodies will put them back on the road to power. 

Even if Dean MacDonald comes back and rolls up his sleeves as passionately as any passionate windbag politician ever did, people in the province will need a reason to get involved with the party.  They will need to have a reason to give money or offer up as candidates or even to take the simple step of giving Liberals a vote in 2015.

Right now, the party has spent eight years telling more and more voters in the province that they aren't interested in anything about them.

53% of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians listed health care as a top concern during the last election.  The Liberals held out fisheries ideas from the 1970s as their major policy statement.


The result is a party that is at a record low in the polls and - despite having one more seat than the NDP - is not a viable alternative to the ruling Conservatives. 

Take a look at the chart, just to make sure the message is plain.  This ain’t 1985, Toto. 

The inevitable message the Liberals have been sending for the past six or seven years is that the Liberal Party doesn't give a rat's ass about anybody outside the few districts they currently hold. 

An active Liberal made a few comments on a post from Monday.  He finished up by asking your humble e-scribbler:

So in your opinion the work starts with making good policy, and then building from there. I don't disagree. As i said, there is lots of work to be done. I'm not one of the Liberals you refer to as waiting for a savior. That is not how I see the Party getting out of this.

Curious on your thoughts: who should be doing the policy work that you see as the first step? Caucus? The leader? The executive? A committee of the board?

The comments from your humble e-scribbler weren’t about  policy, incidentally, but those questions go to the heart of the Liberal problem.

To get at the Liberal problem, you’ve got to get even more basic.  When people say the Liberal Party doesn’t speak to people any more what that means is that the party no longer gives people a reason to support it. 

If they want their party to survive in the future, Liberals have to figure out why anyone should care about the Liberal Party.  It's a simple enough thing to state. The answer isn't implicit in it.  And it goes to the heart of what any political party is about:

Why should anyone care?

People need a reason to get involved with a political party.  Usually it’s the chance to fulfill some personal ambition or to take part in a campaign that will accomplish some sort of bigger purpose. People will need to know that the Liberals are the ticket to something other than political obscurity.  That’s for the political activist types.

For voters, it’s not much different.  Some will want to be part of something, even if it is just the winning side.  Others will latch onto specific people or specific ideas.  And still others will respond to the notion of getting some tax breaks or some such..

But at the very least, the party needs to offer something no one else does.  They’ve got to look like they are going places and that they have the stuff needed to form a government.

Right now, the Liberals have none of that.  They also have no plan to get any of it.  If the Liberals wait around until Dean shows up – and it is a question of if Dean shows up – they will have what they have right now, plus Dean.

What they’ll be missing is what they are missing now:  credibility. 

And they still won’t have the answer to the simple question of why anyone in the province should care about the Liberal Party.

Working out the answer to that question will unlock all the other answers to all the other questions.

Let's see if anyone tries.

- srbp -