15 September 2014

Insider baseball, again #nlpoli

Paul Davis delivered one of the shortest victory speeches Saturday night of any person elected to lead a party in power.

Davis said very little but what he said might reveal much:

This weekend we started down a path, a path to rebuild the PC Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, and I ask all of you to work with us as we work together and continue on that path to rebuild our party for the future and prepare for 2015. [via The Telegram]

Davis wasn’t alone in saying that. Rebuilding the party in order to defeat the Liberals was a common theme.

After a while, though, it seemed a bit…well… odd.  After all, Davis was the leader of the party in power, with a majority of seats in the legislature.  Sure, the party is in second place in the opinion polls but that’s not the same as the result of an actual election.

The most astute observation about Paul Davis’ victory speech on Saturday came, not surprisingly, from labradore.  “The ‘rebuilding’ language,” he tweeted,” is that of a party which is already in opposition.”  Their heads are already there even if they are still the party in power. That’s a pretty telling indication of the party psychology.

That attitude of being in opposition already is consistent with the party obsession with polling numbers.  One of Paul Davis’ repeated messages was about poll results, specifically with the “satisfaction” numbers from the CRA poll. He talked about it a lot. Paul Davis talked about polls and re-capturing the top spot in the polls that it seemed like he talked about them than about his philosophy of government, where he thought the province was, where it needed to go, or even what specific ideas he would be implementing. 

The leader of a party in power tends to talk about all the things he wants wants to do.  The leader holds power, after all and can do stuff.  He doesn’t usually obsess openly and in public about the need to save the party’s political ass or, in the way Davis and his colleagues sounded, like they had to fight to take power from The Other Guys.

Kathy Dunderdale didn’t go on and on about polls but she spent four years as Premier without ever articulating any objectives of her own, other than collecting a paycheque or just keeping her crew in power.  She never really shared her views about the province and its future.  She talked a lot about someone else’s agenda, right up to the time she quit.

Now the Conservatives have Davis.  He talks about polls.  He talks about listening.   When he wasn’t talking about polls, Davis was talking about how he and his caucus would be listening. There’ll be lots of listening from Premier Davis. "We need to reconnect with the population," Davis said [from CBC]. "This is about listening to what is on their minds, and then responding to what their priorities are …”.

This is not a new idea.  Jerome Kennedy, one of Davis’ staunch supporters described what a politician must do back in 2012 when the Conservatives were suffering through the Bill 29 aftermath and struggling to get Muskrat Falls formally approved: “You have to show as a politician that you are flexible and open to listening to what the people are saying.” 

When Tom Marshall took over as Premier, one of the things he wanted to assure voters is that the Conservatives are listening.  Indeed, it is an idea so power for Conservatives that one of them even mentioned listening when he crossed the floor to sit with the Liberals.  “I believe that our government has lost its way,”  Paul Lane said in January, “and has indeed forgotten to listen to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The Conservatives have been doing lots of listening lately, if you believe what they tell you. They have been listening more than Frasier Crane ever dreamed possible. 

Someone should ask Paul why he thinks listening is important. It might stump.  He might even have a rehearsed talking point on it. If you listen to them, you can understand how Conservatives put all this together. They are down in the polls. They need to get to the top again. Something led Paul and friends to think that the reason people turned on them is because the Conservatives are not listening. So Paul and his friends vow to become the best listeners anywhere.

The listening is not about doing things for people, though.  It is about getting getting the party back on top.  In other words,  the listening is motivated by Conservative party interests.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Parties are supposed to connect their agenda with what people are interested in.

The problem with the Conservatives right now is that they are pretty obviously interested in their own interest.  People can tell.  They can tell because the Conservatives just spent eight or nine months not speaking to the province as a whole.  They focused inward.  Totally focused inward.  They did it in the first kick at the leadership.  In fact, Frank Coleman said flatly that he wasn’t interested in talking to people outside the party.  The party president said that, too.  People get that message very clearly.

And when they got into the leadership do-over, the Conservatives also focused almost exclusively inward. They never paid much attention to anyone outside the party, even as a secondary audience. People got the message that they were spectators and that’s the way they’ve gotten used to dealing with Conservatives.  People who are interested in what people have to say – in listening – don’t spend eight months with the backs turned to the people they supposedly want to listen to. 

The Conservative convention this past weekend was similarly organized as an inward-looking affair.  All the talk about the need to defeat the evil Liberals is purely a Conservative thing.  Nothing in how the convention went along,  how the candidates spoke,  what they spoke about, or indeed anything else sent a message outside the party.  The attacks on Dwight Ball and the Liberals may have played well to the hard core Conservatives in the room  but no one else likely paid any attention. 

This isn’t rocket science but it seems to have escaped the army of communications directors the Conservatives have around them and it’s escaped them for four or five years now.  Conservatives looking for a bounce coming out of the convention likely won’t see one that has any legs, if they see one at all. The convention was insider baseball.

If you want to find yet more inconsistencies within the Conservative Party,  look no further than the candidates themselves.  A number of people noted that the split among the three candidates put most of the older members of caucus behind John Ottenheimer with the new crowd behind Kent and Davis. This is not just an split between the people who will be retiring and those who will be staying.  It’s also a split between the people with roots in the party that pre-date Danny Williams and those who came along afterward.

Ottenheimer was the guy calling for a significant change in the party’s direction.  His supporters,  like former cabinet minister Bill Marshall,  told NTV about the need for the people in the party to remember its history, among other things. He’s right. This is the party that introduced freedom of information legislation and other progressive reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact you might be astonished to know that tells you how far the current party is from its traditions.

But what people like Bill Marshall were really getting at, what they really brought to the convention was a sense that the party needed to re-orient itself significantly. They also brought the sensitivity and the experience of a much longer time in politics than Davis and Kent and their supporters.  Those old Conservatives,  the Progressive kind, understand the sorts of changes a party needs to make in order to stay in power. 

That doesn’t fit with what you expect.  The old guys want change.  The newer guys want to keep things the way they are even though the way things are just isn’t working. It may be counter-intuitive, but when it comes to the provincial Conservatives,  their choice of Paul Davis as the new leader seems to have kept them much as they were.