If the Conservative Party in Newfoundland and Labrador threw out people who had been a Liberal or a New Democrat before, there wouldn’t be enough people left in it to have a game of cards. Pretty well all the old Tories from the 1970s who rose to any prominence started out life as Liberals.
All good Liberals once.
Lately, you could even add Ross Wiseman to the list of former Liberals who are now Conservatives.
The same is true of every political party in Newfoundland and Labrador since Confederation. A number of prominent Liberals of the last couple of decades used to be Conservatives, at least one of them holding down a cabinet portfolio under the Tories in the 1980s. Some Liberals of the 1990s started out their political careers as New Democrats in the 1970s
New Democrats are no different, really. Trevor Taylor ran for the Dippers in the 2000 federal election, lost and turned right around to run for the Conservatives successfully in 2001. A decade later he was backing the federal Conservatives under Stephen Harper. Locally, there’s George Murphy, the hard-working Liberal who left the party in a snit and who is now an equally hard-working and successful New Democrat member of the House of Assembly.
The history of floor-crossing is so widespread in Newfoundland and Labrador that former Liberal Party leader Bill Rowe devoted an entire 1984 column to what he called “loveable turncoats”. The next year Rowe sought a Conservative nomination in the 1985 general election.
This is not a new feature of local politics. Before 1934, changing political parties or creating new ones with all sorts of convoluted names was a kind of pass-time in Newfoundland. And if you think about voters – not party activists - you wouldn’t be able to name a government in the history of the province that didn’t count for their victory on a decisive number of votes who came from people who had voted for another party before.
That’s one reason why no one should be be amazed, shocked, appalled, or otherwise put off their morning toast from the news that likely Liberal leadership candidate Cathy Bennett gave money to the Conservatives, held a major appointment from them, and – as CBC reported – was someone the Conservatives tried hard to recruit in 2007 to run for them. People change parties all the time in this province.
Another reason is that the information on her donations and so forth is in public. Anyone can find it. CBC might even have the number about $1500 too low in their story.
The question is: so what?
For John Efford, it is a big deal. The CBC story linked above quotes him in his usual colourful way of putting things: “We are looking for real Liberals to take over the future of the Liberal Party.”
But again, the question remains of what a real Liberal – or Conservative, or New Democrat - is and why this matters to voting when local parties and elections have never been divided on an ideological basis. Heck, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians used to split themselves up more strictly along sectarian lines than they ever did along a political spectrum. A Liberal fellow could marry a Tory or a Dipper gal and no one would bat an eyelid unless he was one “religion” and she was another. Think of the number of times a marriage foundered in this province on the basis of whether the kids would be raised in Mom’s New Democrats or Dad’s Conservatives and you’ll get the idea.
What really will matter in the Liberal leadership contest and in the coming general election is which party can successfully appeal to the largest number of voters. Cathy Bennett and a lot more like her will have to defect from the Conservatives not to mention the New Democrats in order to put the Liberals over the top and back in power. The same could be said for the Conservatives or New Democrats. There is no political purity test in these parts.
Along the way, the Liberals will have a huge discussion to determine what it means to be a real Liberal these days. As Roger Grimes put it the other day, one of the reasons why the Liberal party has been so successful for so long in Canada is because the party can welcome all sorts of people with all sorts of beliefs as long as they can work together for a common purpose.
Still, though, John Efford is right to challenge Cathy Bennett. His challenge is the essence of the question she has to answer: why does she want to lead the Liberal Party? All candidates have to answer it.
The answer to his challenge will be formed in the heat of the clash among the various candidates. The crucible in which the party will be shaped for the next election is the leadership race. Whatever comes out the other side and whichever candidate leads the party, the Liberals will almost inevitably be changed from where they are. As a result, they should certainly be well prepared to fight whatever campaign they will face.
The Liberals will also be unique among the three parties in that they will have had an open leadership race to determine the future of the party. The Tories have now deliberately used backroom deals to sort their leadership twice in a row. It will be interesting to see what they do within the next year when Kathy finally packs it in. Even the New Democrats have not had a hot leadership contest. That might change given the party’s new standing in the polls. As it would seem, some wannabes like Ryan Cleary are already lining themselves up in the event Lorraine Michael retires anytime in the next year or so.
In the meantime, the Liberals are in the political forefront and likely will be for the next six months or so. Cathy Bennett’s leadership candidacy has already turned up the heat considerably. Her formal launch next week and the official start of the leadership fight a week from now will ensure that the crucible will soon be glowing brightly before too much longer.
It’s going to be a hot summer.