10 September 2014

Ragging the puck #nlpoli

The Conservatives will have a new leader this weekend. 

Tom Marshall will resign as Premier not long after and the new guy will take over. Terry French announced last week that he will resign from cabinet and leave politics “later this month.”  That fits too, because the new premier will need to swear in a new cabinet.

And at some point we’ll have an election

So when will that election happen?

Good question.

All of the Conservative candidates have said there won’t be a snap election, presumably meaning this fall.  They’ve talked about “next year”.  The boys aren’t dumb.  They know that if they went to the polls now, they’d have trouble finding a telephone booth small enough to hold the caucus left after all the votes were counted.  it would make Kim Campbell’s result look like a landslide.

So they will play for time. 

They will go as long as they possibly can.

To use a hockey metaphor, they will rag the puck.

Their goal is not necessarily to win.  The Conservatives will hang onto power as long as they can.  Best case scenario, the polls rebound and they have a shot at winning the next election.  Worst case, they get to pork out at public expense until their mandate dries up. There are plenty of contracts to let, appointments to make, and buildings left to name before the Conservatives are done. hanging onto power is what every party in power in the same situation has done and always will do. 

The provincial Conservatives just have a particularly repugnant sense of omnipotence,  arrogance, and entitlement. Naming a courthouse after an active, campaigning politician like Danny Williams is just the latest in a long string of noses rooting through the public trough. They aren’t any better than anyone else has ever been but in lots of ways they are far worse. 

The only hard, brick, political wall those snouts will run up against is the one in the constitution:  five years.  They can stay in office that long.  The Conservatives will stay there too unless something dramatic happens.

That doesn’t mean the Conservatives have thought of that yet. Their heads aren’t that far down the road. They are still stuck in the mindset that the election has to be in October 2015.  After all, that’s what their changes to the House of Assembly Act from 2004 require.  You can see that thinking if you look at what they’ve been doing for the last year or so.

Back in September 2013,  the Telegram’s Russell Wangersky had the audacity to suggest Kathy Dunderdale should resign.  He was right – she should have packed it in -  even if his reason  - the optics were bad for the Conservatives – was a bit thin

The real problem for the Conservatives was what having her quit would mean.   Had Kathy announced she would pack it in September 2013,  the Tories would have gone through the normal leadership process of a campaign, election, and swearing-in – before the third anniversary of the 2011 election.  There was no way they could avoid another of the little changes they made to the rules about elections. 

That’s a point your humble e-scribbler made at the time (September 2013)  when the quarterly CRA poll showed the Conservatives were in third place.  The assumption in the post was that she would do as previous Premiers had done and stay around until the party found a new leader.   Even if Kathy packed it in as Danny did and leave an interim,  the party wouldn’t normally need more than three or four months to hold a leadership contest.  The Tories would still wind up going to the polls sometime in 2014,  using the House of Assembly Act rules. The latest they could conceivably have squeezed it out would have been early 2015.

The key idea from the post, though, was that if Kathy left before October 2014,  the Conservatives would only get 12 months before they had to call an election using their own rules. twelve months wasn’t enough to dig themselves out of the enormous political crater they’d dug for themselves. Rumours were circulating last September that Kathy was going to leave in October.  The Tories would need more than 12 months to get themselves sorted out so quitting soon wasn’t a good option.  They needed more time. 

“A more cautious – perhaps more likely – approach,”  SRBP wrote in 2013, “would be to tough it out for as long as they can.  If the Tories can survive politically with Kathy Dunderdale in the figurehead position until October 2014, they won’t need to go the polls legally until the next scheduled general election anyway.  If the Tory backrooms crowd think time heals all wounds, they will play for time.  It’s the one ally the Tories have.”

They’d still have a year under a new leader to change the polls around but bear in mind that under the scenario described in that post,  the Conservatives would have had upwards of another year before that to sort themselves out and turn the polls in an upward direction.

Look what actually happened.  Kathy left in late January instead of October and appointed Tom Marshall as her replacement until the party had a leadership election.  That way they would avoid their own 12 month rule.  They set the leadership selection date for early July, an unprecedented six months later. Once it became clear Frank Coleman would take the leadership,  he started proposing a date for the swearing in that was an even more astonishing  - and equally unprecedented  - four or five months further down the road again. 

Note the time frame we’d now be in:  October, 2014. The only reason the people behind Coleman were looking at that late a hand-over was the house of Assembly Act rules about a new Premier.  Just so everyone is clear on it, those rules give three conditions that affect whether the installation of a new premier would affect the date of an election.  The Conservatives introduced fixed election dates in the 2004 changes to the House of Assembly . They also added a condition on what happens when there is a new premier in between those fixed dates.

Your humble e-scribbler noted in January 2014 that the “new premier” clause has some pretty clear language in it.  We had to have two things to trigger the 12 month clock.  The new premier has to be:

  1. “elected by the party”, and
  2. sworn in to office.

Strictly speaking, there’s a third trigger, namely that the swearing in and election of leader have to happen before the third anniversary of the previous general election. That would be October 11, 2014, incidentally.

Tom Marshall wasn’t elected leader by any stretch of anyone’s imagination – Kathy appointed him – so the clock didn’t start ticking when he took office in January 2014.  Coleman’s election in July would have flipped the first trigger.  If he was sworn in as one might usually expect – in July or August 2014 – then that would start the clock ticking.  The latest the election would then come would have been maybe August 2014.  That didn’t offer enough time. Coleman talked about later in the fall,  like September or even October. That would have put them on track for something closer to the original fixed date.

As it turned out, Coleman imploded and they had to go through the exercise again.  Check out the timelines.  We are still talking about have a new premier elected and sworn in some time around September or October 2014.  The election would come sometime between September 13 and October 13, 2015.

There are a couple of things that could trigger an earlier election. The most important one would be a dramatic reversal of the polls.  If the Conservatives thought they could win an election, they’d drop the writ in a heartbeat.  The next most important trigger for an election before September-October 2015 would be the loss of a confidence vote in the House.  For that to happen, you’d need to get the Conservative majority down to the point in Friday’s post where a couple of disgruntled Conservatives with a dose of the political flu could stay at home. 

Neither of those scenarios is more likely than the other.  We’ll probably see the Conservatives focus on holding everyone on the ship.  They’ll do what they can to change.  They might even find a couple of new faces to bring in from the outside.  Mostly, though, they’ll just bide their time and see what happens.  They may not seem to have a lot at the moment, but the Conservatives do have one thing to play with:  time.

They’ll rag the puck as long as the can, if for no reason other than in the Leaf-fans-hope against all hope that something spectacular just might happen.