07 November 2014

Cycling through Newfoundland Politics #nlpoli

A couple of recent posts included the invented word “stragedy”.  As some of you figured out, it’s a deliberate combination of strategy and tragedy that reflects the strategic tragedy and the tragic strategy that the provincial Conservatives have been following lately.

That’s what it is, really:  a tragedy.  A political party that only a few years ago was untouchable in any respect is now teetering along on the brink, presumably, of political annihilation.

You’ll hear more and more people talking about this turn of political events as being a cycle.  The Conservatives now are in the same place the Liberals were just before 2003.  Whenever the next election comes, the Liberals will win, just like the Conservatives did in 2003. 

The people who hold this view look at the string of by-election victories point to the victories as proof of the cycle.  And as the Liberals mount up the victories,  other people are persuaded that there must be some truth to the story.

It’s inevitable.

That’s all wonderful, except that it isn’t inevitable, really.

What that view of cycles reveals is more about the people and the local political culture than the actual fact of things. You see,  public opinion changes over time. We know that because there has been decades of research and experience here and elsewhere in the world. 

People can and very often do change their minds about things. The issue in politics is how the politicians respond to those changes.  They can accept them and change their own behaviour.  They can try to persuade people to change their minds.  Or they can ignore public opinion.

What the provincial Conservatives have done is ignore public opinion. 

They’ve refused to change.

They’ve kept things the same.

And the the result is hardly surprising.

Staying the Conservative Course

Over the past few weeks, your humble e-scribbler has been talking about what Paul Davis and the Conservatives would likely do or should be doing if they wanted to start shifting their polling results.  In almost every instance,  they did exactly the opposite.

Take opening the House of Assembly this fall as a good case in point.  They don’t have too many winning options, admittedly.  Just look at it this way:  if they didn’t open the House, they’d get a couple of days of bad press and then people would be into Christmas.  In the meantime, Davis and his cabinet could be working feverishly to get ready with some sort of great announcement in the spring after a Throne Speech.  The strategic plus from this approach is that you minimise the damage while setting up for a bigger event later on;  short term pain for hopefully a longer term gain.

Instead they are going to open the House.  The Conservatives will avoid the criticism in the short –term.  But they will be handing the Liberals a couple of weeks of more to hammer away at them in full view of the news media.  Every day there could be a question for the justice minister…oh, wait,  she doesn’t have a seat in the House.  Then there will be all the questions about government over-spending.  And the dead kids.  And whatever else comes up.

Don’t forget that Corporate Research Associates is back in the field this month.  It’s already started off badly for the Conservatives. Before the month is out, they will have two more by-elections over.  There will be one more Liberal across the floor from them and before the session  is over, the Conservatives might face one or two more.  That should all be a mighty boost for the Conservatives’ own psychology, let alone what it will do to their supporters. And all that bad news and hard times for Davis and his followers will be reflected in the CRA poll.

You see the point about choices and results and how nothing is inevitable.

In some respects, it’s the flip of what SRBP used to talk about in 2007. People insisted the Conservatives were invincible.  There was no way the Liberals could shift them.  And of course, there wasn’t, as long as the Liberals were disorganized,  actively co-operated with the Conservative agenda just like the NDP did under Jack Harris and Lorraine Michael, and generally just sat around and let things happen.  They seemed to take the view that the other guys would eventually lose.

Events in 2011 showed just how much opportunity there can be in politics, if you are ready for it.  The Conservatives had one of the worst election responses from voters in their history.  The only reason they won the majority of seats was that the other two parties  - especially the Liberals – were completely unprepared to fight an election.  They’d simply fallen apart.

The NDP Blip

The New Democrats profited from the Conservative weakness but almost certainly by accident.  You can tell it was accidental because they didn’t do anything to capitalise on their good fortune with five seats in the House of Assembly.  Then came the split in the party, when the people interested in building the party and winning an election packed up and left after a racket with the group around Lorraine Michael.  They just wanted to keep Lorraine in the leader’s job.  They’ve been hugely successful at it.

As the by-election on Wednesday showed, though, the party leadership – Lorraine and her acolytes – were solely interested with keeping Lorraine as the centre of some sort of low rent personality cult.  The party has otherwise fallen to pieces.  Not surprisingly, there are more rumblings of discontent within the ranks of New Democratic Party supporters.  Lorraine will inevitably blame the party’s latest problems on Dale Kirby. 

The Slow and Steady Liberals

Meanwhile, over in the Liberal camp things are looking good these days.  The party has managed to put together an organization that is capable of winning elections. They can identify supporters and get them to the polls with admirable success. They’ve won four by-elections in a row from the Conservatives. Two of them have been in the Conservatives’ base of metro St. John’s. 

Those two have had the closest results of all, but they show that the party is well on its way to forming the next government.  After all, the Liberals has gone head to head with the Conservatives in two seats where the Conservative base is relatively strong and where the Conservatives have been able to get scores of workers – many on full government salary -  into the field.  And still, the Liberals pulled it off.

The Liberals didn’t win single-handedly.  They had help.  In Conception Bay South,  they had a bit of help from Paul Davis’ decision to put Judy Manning in cabinet and to completely frig up anything to do with that decision after he’d made it. The most recent MQO poll for NTV showed that about 60% of respondents didn’t like the Judy Manning decision. 

With a number like that, you know that at least some of the people who disagree with Davis’ decision are Conservatives.  Aside from anything else, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that the Manning decision alienated enough people from the Conservative Party to make the difference between victory and defeat in the by-election.   After all, the Conservatives obliterated their opposition in the 2011 general election.  The loss this week is a pretty dramatic change.

Still, though, the Liberals didn’t completely flip position with the Conservatives. That’s important.  The Liberal organization was enough to win, but the near exact split of the votes cast suggests that the Liberals were missing something. 

Maybe what’s missing is the firm definition of what the party stands for under Dwight Ball.  We are not talking “policy” here.  The demand for the Liberals to release their policy platform is a weak effort by the Conservatives and their supporters to get at the Liberals in a way they can;t otherwise. The implication in the Conservative call is that the Liberals could slide into power without fighting an election.  That’s nonsense, of course, and the Conservative complaint is just an expression of their frustration at losing popular support.  They are afraid.

But just because the Conservatives are frightened that they will lose power doesn’t mean they aren’t pointing to a potential weakness for the Liberals. Winning any battle – including a political struggle – requires a willingness to close with the enemy and defeat him decisively.  What that means in political terms is that, at some point,  you have to confront your opponent assertively and advocate strongly for your own point of view. 

You do have to define yourself, not in areas of policy, but in terms of values.  People don’t pay attention to details.  But they do want to be sure that their leaders look like leaders and have a defined world view they can support.  That’s where the Liberals are still lacking.  Dwight Ball has done a fairly good job of presenting himself.  People who have met him or who have heard him speak at a luncheon or dinner usually come away impressed.

What’s been missing, though, is the direct confrontation with the Conservatives.  Ball has been running “Meet Dwight” ads.  They pop up online at VOCM, for example.  But basically, they are in nuisance spots. They turn up in places where people click them closed or turn off the sound until they are done.  As nicely produced as they are,  those ads are like all ads;  they are scripted and contrived.  People understand that they are designed to make people look a certain way.

What people want to see is the real person, in action.  The Liberals won’t be able to win by running some nice ads and by generally staying silent.  They will have to start pointing firmly at Conservative failures not as failures, but in order to assert how they will be different.  Here is the value,  the Liberals need to say:  here is the way the Conservatives are failing. 

As long as they avoid that sharp contrast, the Liberals will be missing a key ingredient of ultimate success. It’s the element that draws people to them firmly and weakens their opponents.  The Liberals might win a general election with a good organization.  But the problem is they won’t win decisively that way.  An indecisive win, even with a majority of seats after the next election, can cause all sorts of problems as the government tries to deal with the big decisions every government has to face.

There’s nothing really cyclical about public opinion.  There’s nothing inevitable about any election.  What happens at the polls is about choices made not just by voters but by parties as well.