It took one more ballot than expected but Paul Davis is the new leader of the provincial Conservative Party and the Premier-designate of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Conservatives spent a lot of time talking about the value of the leadership in rebuilding the party. A majority of the delegates didn’t vote for that, though. Paul Davis was the candidate who talked the least about substantive change in the party’s direction as government. At the convention, very few of the Conservatives themselves talked about change beyond getting the public to vote for them again. That was Davis’ core message.
If you go back to the Abacus poll released during the campaign, you can see the results of the vote mirrored in the results. Davis was the choice of a plurality of the respondents and had the support of a higher percentage of those who had voted Conservative in 2011. Of the three candidates, all were the second choice behind the Liberal’s Dwight Ball as the choice for Premier. The key thing for Conservatives would be that Davis was closer to Ball than either of the other two.
More of the Same
One of the most telling parts of Davis’ comments after taking over the leadership was the number of times he repeated the satisfaction numbers from recent Corporate Research Associates polling. That’s a delusion, of course: there’s no connection between “satisfaction” with government and who those people would vote for in an election.
Davis also talked about “re-connecting” with the public and “listening.” Those have been essentially the same themes the Conservatives have been pushing since the Bill 29 disaster in 2012. They’ve been doing all that – supposedly – since then and thus far, it hasn’t produced any significant improvement in the public’s level of support for the Conservative Party. Their current second place standing in the polls owes more to the collapse of the New Democratic Party than a fundamental shift in support back toward the Conservatives.
If Davis wants to keep doing more of the same things he and his colleagues have been doing, then Ball and the Liberals will be the first ones to cheer him on. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, after all. The Liberals would love nothing more than the Conservatives to stick to the same track.
Priorities and Problems
What Davis needs to do is change the organizational ability of the party. That’s one of their major weaknesses. If he can pull together a good election crew and build the party’s campaign apparatus, the Conservatives might have a shot at the next election. They’ll be tested long before that. They have three by-elections to get through before Christmas. It doesn’t matter if they face them one at a time or do them all the same day. The Conservatives still face the same fundamental problems they’ve had in by-elections since 2011. Odds are decidedly against them winning a couple of them and they may well lose all three. There’s no question, though, that Davis has to face those by-elections and getting the party fit to fight has got to be Davis’ top priority.
His other top priority will be holding the party together. The vote at the convention was split almost exactly even. Davis was only one vote ahead of John Ottenheimer on the second ballot. After “satisfaction,” Conservatives spent the most time on the weekend insisting to every reporter around that the party was one big happy family, that they had disputes and got over them, and would emerge from the convention more united than ever.
They said it only slightly more often than Steve Kent insisted that he didn’t have a plan to go to Davis on the second ballot and no one believed Kent after he repeated it the second time. Some people made the observation before the convention that Ottenheimer had more of the “Establishment” while Davis/Kent had more of the newer Conservatives.
That might be the case: it might not. The point is that there is a division within the party that has to be addressed. Davis is now the leader. He has to find staff. He has to pick a cabinet that rewards Kent and some of Kent’s key supporters. Davis will have to see if Ottenheimer wants a role in the new cabinet. Ottenheimer will have a claim on a choice cabinet portfolio if he wants it and Davis will also have to give a seat or two to Ottenheimer’s people. There are also plum spots in the party and among the political staff that will have to get farmed out. It’s all part of the game.
Some people might like to talk about the primacy of keeping the party together. That’s a nice theory, but the reality of power and rewards are at the heart of all this. The CBC panel had an interesting turn while waiting for the third ballot results that illustrates the issue. Asked about the prospect of a legal challenge by Davis people, one of the panellists replied “I hope not. That would divide the party.” or words to that effect. Keith Hutchings very quickly pointed out that for people who had campaigned for six months and who felt they had a rightful claim to power, they’d pursue the challenge. In other words, power trumped niceness.
Hutchings was right. The thing about division is that the wounds will quickly heal once there is a clear winner. The problem with the current Conservative situation is that it could wind up like the Liberals in 2001. Division wasn’t the issue. Roger Grimes won, without a doubt. The problem Grimes had was that he owed everyone something. he had so many favours to repay and so many feathers to keep smooth that he couldn’t tell someone exactly how things would be. He had to bargain, negotiate, and tolerate all sorts of things.
As we think about the issue of division, we shouldn’t forget that leadership fights quite obviously scare the living shit out of the provincial Conservatives. It scares them so much they avoided one in 2001, worked a deal among themselves to avoid one in 2010, and even worked a deal among themselves in 2014 all in order to avoid a leadership fight. Time will tell if all that talk about unity was true or if it was merely another way of Conservatives desperately trying to convince themselves that everything will be okay.
That is the problem noted in the post last week about keeping everyone on the ship. The problem for Davis won’t be division, it’s unity. The Conservatives were united in the glory days of Williams only because he had all the political power. He didn’t have clear control at first. But by the end of 2006, once he’d gotten rid of Manning, Byrne had imploded, and Sullivan had quit, Williams had no one with the political influence or the stones to confront him. Williams chased after his polling popularity as much to keep his caucus in check as it was to stroke his own ego or keep the Liberals and New Democrats down.
Davis, like Grimes, doesn’t have that luxury. He has to keep everyone happy. He has to keep them on the ship. That imperative will only increase if the Conservatives lose the three by-elections. And it will become an even more serious problem if, as we might expect, some of the caucus decide to Johnson him between now and next fall.
Be careful what you wish for
Davis has the job he wanted but it may prove to be a job he didn’t expect to have. Aside from his political problems internally, Davis has other serious problems. Not the least of these is the ongoing problem with the Muskrat Falls project. The costs keep growing and the rationale for the project keeps changing. There’s apparently been a dramatic drop in jobs in the province. housing starts are down sharply. Oil prices are falling. That may be temporary but the provincial government is so dependent on oil money and spending so far beyond its means that Davis and his new cabinet may have to do the right thing rather than the political things they have been able to do to buy re-election with the public’s own money.
On the upside, Davis does have some experienced political people around him. They have good connections to the federal Conservatives and that may help the Conservatives sort out some of their organizational issues. It might also help with the very real problems of finding candidates. In his very short victory speech, Davis said that was his first priority for the party. Fabian Manning is talking about coming back. There are rumours that local businessman Jerry Byrne will try for the seat in Trinity-Bay de Verde. If that’s real, then Davis might well appoint him to cabinet before the by-election in order to give Byrne a leg-up.
It could also be the start of a change for the Conservatives.