For its last editorial of 2014, the Telegram decided to discuss the fate of the province’s New Democrats.
A quick summary: things were good for the Dippers. Now things are not so good. This isn’t just a local thing. It’s happening nationally. Lorraine Michael has said in year-end interviews she likely won’t be around for long after the next election.
Lorraine has been wonderful, the editorial says. It good that she’s going to leave. After all , why “would Michael want to obscure her legacy by presiding over such lean times?”
Talk about ending on a wrong note.
Michael has hinted she’s quitting politics after the next election. In her year-end interview with NTV, Michael talked vaguely about the need for the party to address “who we are as a party, succession planning” and other issues. Succession planning. In an open, democratic party, “succession planning” means you hold a leadership convention and ordinary voters get to pick the winner. Apparently Lorraine has something else in mind, but the implication that she will quit politics after the next election is pretty clear.
The editorial also noted the party’s abysmal performance in a string of by-elections since 2011. That bit is true as well. But the party’s collapse in the polls is a direct result of decisions Lorraine Michael made as leader. You really need to start with the 2011 election to understand Lorraine Michael’s real political legacy.
Profiting from Others’ Misfortune
The provincial New Democratic Party won four seats in the 2011 election as a direct result of the erosion of public support for the provincial Conservatives. They won the fifth seat - in the Straits-White Bay North - because of the hard work of the candidate, personally.
The party worked effectively to identify its vote in metro and get it to the polls. They had organizational help from the national party. That’s normal for Canadian political parties. Some of the help, like the idea about taxing oil companies, displayed a fundamental ignorance about the province. But overall, the NDP managed to take advantage of an opportunity that was right in front of them.
The result was its best showing in a provincial election, ever. What’s more, the bulk of the party’s new seats came at the expense of the Conservatives in the Conservative party base in metro St. John’s. It was the major political story of the election and just about everyone - from conventional media to the pollsters - missed it completely.
What many assumed afterward – your humble e-scribbler included – was that the party was doing behind the scenes what any political party would do. That is, we assumed that Lorraine Michael and her team were recruiting, fundraising, and building up a cadre of political workers so that they could fight for power in the next election.
After 2011, public support for the NDP grew as the Conservatives bled support. The public was looking for an alternative. The Liberals were disorganized and struggling. People settled on Michael and the NDP. Such was the perception that in 2012 the Liberals organized and ran the filibuster against Bill 29 in the House. Yet, public support went to the NDP, despite the fact that the caucus performance during the filibuster in the House revealed they were inexperienced and, in many respects, amateurish.
Polls taken throughout 2012 confirmed the trending away from the Conservatives and to the NDP. In one pol immediately after the spring 2012 sitting of the House, the New Democrats were in the lead. If there’d been an election with those results, Lorraine Michael would have been premier.
The caucus revolt in late 2013 revealed a fundamental problem within the New Democratic Party. Lorraine Michael skilfully split her internal opposition away from the weaker members of caucus and thereby held onto power.
But the real split in the party was clearly between those who were frustrated at the lack of development within the party under Lorraine Michael and her acolytes. Dale Kirby and many others within the party a lower public profile were frustrated that Michael and her cronies had done nothing to capitalise on success at the polls. The party was doing nothing, they argued, to turn popular support into votes at the polls, where it mattered.
Ultimately, the dissidents left the caucus and the party. Most went to the Liberals. Michael and her supporters had no trouble winning a contrived leadership review the following spring. Your humble e-scribbler and pretty well every other political watcher now realised that previous assumptions about the party were just wrong.
All the same, Michael and her supporters had time to do all the things they had neglected to do before the crisis. As every subsequent by-election showed, though, they didn’t bother to do anything necessary to build a viable political party. They had no candidates. They had no money. They had no organization.
Their best performance was in Virginia Waters where they capitalised on a relatively popular candidate. But in another metro by-election, as with all the other by-elections, the New Democrats were irrelevant to the outcome.
A typical New Democratic Party leader
The New Democratic Party collapse since 2011 is the direct result of Lorraine Michael’s leadership. The Telegram considers her an outstanding political leader but that appears to be based on nothing more than the fact she doesn’t raise her voice.
By any substantive measure of political impact, Lorraine Michael has been typical of New Democratic Party leaders. They enjoy being in the job but either know nothing of or care nothing about building the party into a viable political alternative to the other two parties in the province.
From Bad to Worse
Lorraine made two key comments in her year-end interviews.
First, she acknowledged that her tenure as leader will be finished after the next election. Second, Michael said tin her CBC year-end that the party’s main goal in the next election will be to hold on to the seats the party has already.
That second goal just got a whole lot harder thanks to Michael’s comments. Lorraine Michael confirmed that anyone seriously interested in change in government will have to look somewhere other than the New Democrats for that change. Lorraine Michael has taken the NDP out of contention. What’s more, Michael has undermined her own position in Signal Hill Quidi Vidi. Why would voters cast a ballot for Lorraine Michael and the New Democrats in 2015 knowing that she plans to quit in 2016 and that the party is disorganized?
After the next election, the New Democratic Party will have a leadership review. As it looks now, the people running the party will back Ryan Cleary to replace Lorraine Michael. He won’t be following in Jack Harris’ footsteps, though, with a seat in the House of Assembly to use as a platform. The New Democrats will be wiped out in the next election.
Ryan will be like the second coming of Cle Newhook. He will lead the party in the political void into which Lorraine Michael has led the provincial New Democrats. .