04 February 2013

Gerry, Scott, and a Player to Be Named Later #nlpoli

If you believe what you hear on the news, federal members of parliament Gerry Byrne and Scott Simms are both thinking about running to be leader of the provincial Liberal Party.

Byrne’s named had been kicked around before.  In fact, in an earlier version of it, Gerry planned to announce his intentions by the end of January.  Now he has put off his decision until March.

Simms was a new entrant to the speculation race, largely because he hasn’t been in Ottawa very long and is pretty tight with Justin Trudeau and his leadership team.  If Trudeau takes the top federal party job, Simms would stand to play a more important role there than he currently has.

Now lots of people have already raised most of the obvious reasons why these guys will likely stay in Ottawa rather than come back to Newfoundland and Labrador.  They are already salted away in decent jobs in Ottawa, even if it is on the opposition benches. 

Back here, they’d have to hang around – without any income – until someone decided to vacate a seat in the House.  Even then, there’d be no guarantee of a win.  leaving Ottawa at this point just has too many “ifs” in it, any one of which would leave Simms or Byrne or both looking for work in shot order.

There’s another reason against either of these fellows coming back.  You can see it in the MQO poll results released last week.  The Liberals are only party currently that has been on the upswing in the polls over the last six months.  They’ve gone from about 12 percentage points up to 25. 

MQO 12 month
That puts them still just above the peak they’d reached earlier in 2012.  More importantly, though, if you look at where that support is, you’ll find it is pretty much all off the Avalon.  Run the poll results through a seat projection formula and you’ll get a number of Liberal seats…all well off the Avalon.

That’s important because the Liberals can’t even hope to form government without broadening their appeal.  In the 2011 election and since then, the Liberals made it abundantly clear that they are not the least bit interested in any issues that don’t directly affect the districts they currently represent and the handful of others that are just like them.

The provincial Liberal Party of the 21st century is a small regional party that steadfastly represents the most under-populated, most economically vulnerable areas of the province. 

And that’s it.

But it’s a philosophy that can’t last much longer.

After 1996, the Liberals in power swung themselves away from the more populated parts of the province, on the northeast Avalon and started talking up ruralism.  The Conservatives are doing much the same thing. 

It’s an old philosophy with some deep roots. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Joe Smallwood re-drew electoral boundaries so that rural parts of the province were over-represented.  For the next 40 years or so neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives had any vested interest in changing the boundaries.

But over the past couple of decades,  the people leaving rural Newfoundland  - whether for the mainland or for larger centres – is making it harder and harder to justify the old Smallwood-esque seat distribution.

In 2006, some members of the boundaries commission realised they need to cut a seat from the Great Northern Peninsula and add one to the metro St. John’s area.  In the end, the commission redrew pretty well all the districts but they didn’t add the one they should have created and chop the one on the west coast.

The next boundary commission is scheduled for 2016.  The Liberals aren’t likely to win the next election.  Heck, they aren’t likely to form the opposition if the current trends hold.  As a result, they aren’t going to have much say over how the districts get redrawn.  Even if they could, the massive changes in the rural population are such that the 2016 district map will almost inevitably take from the areas where the Liberals are in relatively good shape and add seats to areas where the Liberals just don’t give a toss about.

You can see where this is going.

If you can’t see the picture, imagine we are in the first election under the 2016 seat distribution.  That would be October 2019, unless there’s an election between now and October 2015.

Take a seat off the Great Northern Peninsula and make what remains into one big district that takes in the seats currently held by Jim Bennett of the Liberals and Chris Mitchelmore of the New Democrats. 

Which of those two would win?

It doesn’t matter.

The seat that used to be on the peninsula will be in a part of the province the Liberals abandoned years ago [i.e.metro St. John's].  It’s an area where the NDP currently outstrips the Tories by a margin that a couple of years ago was simply inconceivable.

Even if, by some miracle, Jim Bennett managed to hang on and displace Mitchelmore, the New Democrats would pick up the new seat and a bunch more around it.  Even with their recent down-turn, the New Democrats are in far better shape than the provincial Liberals. If they don’t take government in 2015, they’d certainly have a shot at it in 2019.

The Liberals, meanwhile, will probably be looking for yet another leader.  That would be the one who popped up after Paul, Deal, Gerry, Scott, Siobhan, and a raft of others to be named later gave the job a pass.