04 November 2014

More political stragedy #nlpoli

Paul Davis started out as Premier talking about his plan to run a national competition to find a communications director for his office.

There’s been no mention of Davis’ missing communications director as he and his office blunder through the Manning mess.  Then suddenly, on Monday, the talk of a national competition was gone.  Davis appointed one of the departmental communications directors to the job.  Davis also announced a bit of old news, namely that he’d hired Peter Morris from the university to handle something called “strategic communications” in his office and Donna Ivey to handle the media inquiries.

Whatever Morris has been doing, clearly it had nothing to do with strategic communications.  The political disaster doing business as unelected cabinet minister Judy Manning has been proof of that. What you’ve probably got there, as much as anything else, is the current fashion to label everything as “strategic” even when it isn’t.

Davis’ new communications director is Heather MacLean. if she wants to make any big changes,  MacLean’s got a tough job ahead of her.  After all, Davis and his crowd have been ploughing ahead without much sign that they want to change anything.  Inertia is the biggest political enemy the Conservatives have but the Conservatives just like the sameness of it all.

Some of you may recall that Davis was the leadership candidate most committed to keeping things pretty much as they are.  It’s not surprising, then, that when time came to find a director, Davis found one who has been with the Conservatives since the beginning.

That communications news wasn’t the only shift on Monday.

Trinity-Bay de Verde and Humber East

Davis called the two by-elections he has avoided calling until now.  Trinity-Bay de Verde has been empty since Charlene Johnson quit politics and left the country.  Her father was the only one who expressed any interest in running for the Conservatives and, as it seems, they waited to call the nomination to see if someone else – anyone else – would turn up.  The rumoured candidate, Jerry Byrne, bailed on the whole venture so the Conservatives were left with Charlene’s dad.

As it worked out, Davis wound up calling the by-election in Conception Bay South first, even though it was the second seat vacated by a cabinet minister who decided it was time to leave politics. Davis set the date for the vote in CBS around the time he had to call Trinity-Bay de Verde. It looked like Davis was going with CBS first so he could win one close to his own seat.

Along with the long-delayed Trinity-Bay de Verde vote, Davis also called the by-election in Humber East.  That’s the seat held by former Premier Tom Marshall.  If you recall, Marshall had been moaning about wanting to get out of politics for months.  When he finally had the chance to go,  Marshall didn’t.  In fact, he stayed around so long your humble e-scribbler, among others, figured Tom was going to be hanging around until the spring so that the Conservatives could avoid fighting few others.

Well, no, as it turned out.  Tom started campaigning with his former executive assistant last week and then quit on Monday. The timing of the two by-elections seems to be part of a plan by the Conservatives to give themselves a fighting chance to win at least one by-election of the two. They’ll probably be putting their greatest effort into Humber East, which is likely their best shot at winning a seat. 

Less Machiavelli, please

It’s tempting to think that the Conservatives are trying to split the Liberals’ resources between the eastern part of the province and the western.  It’s a tempting thought, but don’t forget that the same split of resources applies to the Conservatives as well.  That might hurt the Conservatives more than the Liberals.

Remember that the Liberals have a campaign organization that has shown itself to be considerably more flexible and scalable than the Conservative one.  They put a lot of store in early voter identification, followed by repeated voter contact.  The Liberals have already been campaigning hard in CBS and in Trinity-Bay de Verde doing exactly that.  They’ve also been doing work in Humber East as well.  Whatever the Conservatives are doing,  they are going to be as taxed as anyone fighting a two-district war as anyone.  Given that they are also late getting into the game, they are actually working from an organizational disadvantage.

In the end,  all of this may be less part of some great Machiavellian strategy than just a series of individual decisions.  They called CBS to give more time to find a better candidate in Trinity. Over in another corner, they asked Tom to hold off on his resignation for a while until they got things sorted out.  So he did.

They couldn’t talk Jerry Byrne into running and no one else wanted the seat, they wound up with Charlene’s dad in a by-election they had to call before the CBS vote.  Meanwhile, the Liberals were already campaigning and the Conservatives just had to go with what they had  if they wanted a shot at all. 

Since there was no advantage in delaying any longer, they also sorted it out with Tom and called two by-elections for the same day.  The Conservatives didn’t have the resources to fight three by-elections on the same day.  This way, they fought one and then fought two.  It gets the by-elections over, if nothing else.  If in the process they pick up one,  then it might possibly stop the appearance that the Conservative ship is foundering and the water is slowly lapping over the gunwales.

Special Ballot Voting

The one thing that is noticeable about Humber East and CBS is that the Conservatives called the by-elections so quickly, there’s been no period of advanced special balloting as allowed in the Elections Act.  Make no mistake, the 2007 special ballot rules insanely provide for voting for a political party up to 30 days before the election is called.  Not voting day.  Before the election is even called.   The whole thing needs to be swept away for the monstrosity it is, but for the time being, it is the law.

In practice, there’s no way of knowing when the government will call an election so, logically,  there’s no way of knowing when 30 days before that is. The elections office has arbitrarily decided that they will start handing out special ballots 30 days before the last possible day a by-election could be called.  Don’t worry if that sounds convoluted.  You don’t really need to follow all the permutations.  Just know that the elections office has arbitrarily chosen a date.  They’ll argue black and blue they haven’t made anything up – your humble e-scribbler has had the conversation with the elections office via Twitter – but the truth is they just arbitrarily picked a date.

Anyway,  there has been a period when people could vote in a by-election in advance of the actual campaign. In some elections those special ballots have played an important role in determining the outcome.  A well-organized campaign can ensure voters who know they won’t be around on voting day can still cast a ballot.

Except in CBS and Humber East.

Because the Conservatives called the elections before the date the elections office started special balloting, they have actually cut off a bunch of people from voting. Organized campaigns, like say the Liberals, haven’t been able to get some of their voters’ choices in the ballot box.  That could just be a coincidence. It could be part of a tactical move.  These days,  it is getting harder and harder to tell.