01 April 2014

Political Parties and Ideology in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli

If you haven’t read it already, flip on over to Drew Brown’s blog coaker’s ghost and check out his post called “much ado about nothing.”

Drew discusses some recent events in local politics and makes two major points:

  • There isn’t much of an ideological difference between the Liberal and Conservative parties in Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Maybe this explains why the activists for the parties tend to fight among themselves so aggressively.

There’s more there  - and Drew is always worth your time - but those are the two points to take up here.

Slide a sheet of paper between them

On the first point, regular readers of this corner will recognise the idea.  There isn’t much of an ideological difference among the political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador. What we are talking about here is the well-known categories that put a Conservative Party on the right of a political spectrum, the New Democrats as a band of socialists on the left, and the Liberals somewhere in the middle.

You don’t to look very hard to find evidence that those distinctions just don’t matter.  Normally,  property rights and individual rights would be a big thing for a Conservative Party.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Conservatives trashed property rights and individual rights in the seizure of hydro-electric assets from three companies in 2008.

You’d also expect a Conservative Party to limit or sell off any state-owned enterprises and to create a business environment where the private sector drove the economy.  Well, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Conservatives created the state-owned energy company in the mid-1970s and turned it into the largely unregulated Crown corporation now known as Nalcor.

On the other end of the theoretical spectrum, you’d have the New Democrats.   In the past decade, the New Democrats have endorsed a Conservative pro-natal policy to pay women to have children as part of a plan to protect a “dying race.”  The NDP has also supported Muskrat Falls, even though the project is based on the idea of forcing people on fixed and low incomes in Newfoundland and Labrador to pay doubly for an energy megaproject and guarantee profits to out-of-province shareholders. And if that weren’t bad enough, the New Democrats also endorse the partial privatization of the province’s electricity grid through the Maritime Link deal with Emera.

Meanwhile, it’s been the Liberals who championed the privatization of Crown corporations at one point in their recent history.  And in a really bizarre move,  the party actually paid for a multi-million Royal commission report that catalogued anti-Confederate grievances.  The fact that most of the grievances are based on myth is irrelevant.  What’s important about that development is that it erased the one persistent ideological difference among the parties in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1949.

You see, after 1949, the political parties didn’t form based on the Canadian parties or even on their Newfoundland counterparts as they existed before 1934. The Confederate forces during the two referenda turned into the Liberals. The anti-Confederates became Progressive Conservatives. The PCs who defeated the Liberals in 1972 were a coalition of old-timey anti-Confederates and a bunch of defectors from the Liberal campaign who were hell-bent on deposing Joe Smallwood.  By the constitutional talks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the PCs had become the champions of Newfoundland nationalism and provincial rights, essentially continuing a variation on the Ottawa versus St. John’s racket from the late 1940s.  By 2003, though, even that difference was pretty much gone as well. 

It’s a power thing.

Just as there is a lack of ideological difference among the province’s political parties, there’s also a lot of partisan bickering going on these days.

However,  you can put aside the idea that local partisans are bickering just because there are few real differences among them.  First of all, there isn’t a similar correlation in other places.  For example,  there’s a big ideological gulf between Republicans and Democrats in the United States and the partisan bickering couldn’t get any more vicious there than it is at the national level. Closer to home, you get some sharp partisan bickering at the federal level in Canada and – yes, you got it – there is an ideological distinction among the major federal parties.

Second,  you did get some sharp partisan bickering in Newfoundland and Labrador when the national constitutional debates were loudest and, hence, when the local ideological difference was sharpest.  Basically, there’s no connection between political sniping and the absence of ideological distinctions among parties.

To get an understanding of the local bickering lately,  you’d probably have more success by looking at the source.  For the most part, it comes from Conservatives. 

Then you have to look at the targets.  They don’t just attack Liberals and New Democrats.  They’ve gone after anyone who speaks out publicly with an idea that doesn’t fit with the Conservative agenda.  Some senior who writes a letter to the local paper could expect a phone call from the Premier asking him to shut up.  A lawyer in central Newfoundland could expect to be branded as a traitor. 



John Efford.

Stephen Harper.

Fabian Manning. 

Anyone potential threat, no matter how small.

Any alternative point of view would get attacked.

It wasn’t partisan.


It’s about power.

And in politics, it’s all about power.