08 December 2011

The problem with the Liberal Party #nlpoli

Guest post by Craig Westcott, from his editorial in this week’s Business Post.

If, as its president Judy Morrow has proposed, the Liberal Party puts off holding a leadership convention for two years, it will be making a serious, possibly ruinous mistake.

Like that one lonely turbot once described by then Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin as clinging to the Grand Banks by its fingernails, the Liberals are on the verge of extinction, despite its retention of Opposition status in the House of Assembly.

Tuesday’s CRA poll results confirm that.

For three consecutive quarters the NDP has marched upwards, standing solidly now in second place, its lack of Opposition status only temporary perhaps until the first by-election.

The bald truth is that nothing will get done to rebuild the Liberal Party without a real leader to push it. An interim leader won’t cut it, unless it’s someone of the ability of Bob Rae who is rebuilding the federal party while maintaining interim leader status. But Rae is an exception to the rule. There are no Bob Raes in the Liberal Party of Newfoundland, at least none that are obvious.

At the risk of telling tales out of school, I was shocked when I took the job as communications director for the Official Opposition last fall to learn there was no party apparatus backing the caucus. The fabled Big Red Machine no longer existed in this province. And even if it had existed, with a $700,000 to $800,000 deficit at the banks, there was no money to put gas in to run it.

There was no party membership list, there weren’t even district associations in most districts. Only for the work of long time MHA Roland Butler, who has perhaps the best organizational smarts in the party, there would have been no district associations in place to fight this past fall’s provincial election.

The sad truth was that little to no grassroots rebuilding had been done since the Liberals lost the disastrous campaign of 2007.

For most of the four years between elections, the leader retained interim status. For part of the time, until Morrow was elected party president, the executive headed by Danny Dumeresque was said by some in the party to be more determined to undermine interim leader Yvonne Jones than support her.

It was a mess. The view throughout the party was that as long as Danny Williams was leading the PCs, the Liberals didn’t have a chance of regaining government anyway, a mistaken view to those with knowledge of history. Joey eventually lost the confidence of the people and I believe Williams would have too, only much sooner than the 23 years it took Joey to crash. A more contemporary example, is Vladimir Putin, like Williams a wildly popular, dictatorial egomaniac while in office, who is now losing the confidence of the Russian people. Time brings down all dictators eventually, if death doesn’t get them first.

But I digress.

The problem with the Liberals is both a failure of leadership – on the party executive side as well as within the caucus - and also a matter of unfortunate circumstance.

During the year I spent with the Liberal caucus, it had only four members. The leader, Yvonne Jones, was off for much of that time, taking cancer treatment, though still involved with the running of the Opposition office. Another member, Butler, had his own health issue to face and was unable to participate in as much of the daily hurly burly as he wished. The other two members, Kelvin Parsons and Marshall Dean, had districts at the exact opposite ends of the island from St. John’s: One centred in Port aux Basques, 900 kilometres away, the other on the Great Northern Peninsula, situated even farther. When the House wasn’t sitting, which was often, they had to be in their districts tending to constituency matters. That meant they were unavailable to the television media in St. John’s (though full marks to Kelvin Parsons for beating it back and forth across the TransCanada every week to fill in for Jones and still take care of his constituents. If there was a prize for the hardest working man in politics last year, Parsons would have earned it).

Down the hall, the sole NDP member - the intelligent, earnest and hardworking Lorraine Michael - was in Confederation Building every day to take media calls. No sweat for her in that regard: Her seat was located in the city.

While a number of PC friends of mine have blamed the NDP surge in St. John’s on Danny Williams’ federal ABC campaign, which drove thousands of long time Tories into the Dippers’ camp, Michael deserves as much credit for also showing up for the media every day, especially when nobody from the Liberal office was available.

The situation for the current Liberal caucus is no better, despite the fact it has two more seats than last year. That’s because not one of the Liberal MHAs are from St. John’s or even the Avalon Peninsula. Two are from Labrador and the four others all have seats west of Deer Lake. The NDP, meanwhile, has five members, every one of them in St. John’s. Who do you think is going to win the war for media attention between now and the next general election in 2015?

And yet, the Liberal Party’s problems are not that hard to fix. It could probably write off all that debt by making a simple offer of 10 cents on the dollar to the banks. The debt is getting so old now it has probably been written off by the lenders on their own books already.

The party needs a full time organizer to rebuild and maintain the district associations, the basic battle units in any election.

It needs to take its head out of the water on the fishery and adopt a strategy that makes sense, resisting its outdated, overplayed, knee jerk habit of barking at the processors and shouting out support, but no real answers, for the plant workers and harvesters at all costs. Here’s a news flash gang: The fishery doesn’t decide elections anymore. There are so few people left working in the industry now, their votes can’t sway a campaign. And almost everyone in the industry is sick of being poor. They want change. Offer it to them. The PC government isn’t. That’s how you will win fishery votes.

And realize this: You can’t win the next election without winning St. John’s. So drop this rural/urban divide malarkey and devise some policies that will benefit the Avalon.

Finally, the Liberals have to regain some pride. The Grits have a good story to tell, if only they would tell it. Newfoundland’s current prosperity is due in large part to Liberal Premiers Clyde Wells and Roger Grimes, the guys who negotiated the three energy deals - as well as Voisey’s Bay – that are filling the government’s coffers. The crowd running the show now had nothing to do with any of it. And if Kathy Dunderdale implements this disastrous Muskrat Falls deal, the PC’s will destroy their chances of winning re-election next time around.

So there’s a lot to build for. But nothing will happen without a real leader to drive it. Waiting until 2013 will be too late. Find a leader now and have him or her ready to win a seat in the first by-election that comes up in 2012. Because if you lose that one to the NDP, the Liberal Party is finished.

If you stop writing yourselves off, maybe the rest of the province will too.

- srbp -