02 December 2015

The Narrative War #nlpoli

The day after a massive Liberal victory in the general election,  CBC’s David Cochrane posted an analysis piece on the new administration.  CBC distributed it nationally.

Cochrane described Dwight Ball as a man “unlikely” to be Premier:

Four campaigns. Two losses. Two wins.  By a combined 75 votes.

Cochrane’s account leaves out relevant context.  When it comes to describing how the Liberals won,  Cochrane focuses not on anything the Liberals did but rather a string of Tory blunders that  - according to Cochrane  - made it easy for the Liberals to win the election essentially by accident.

And now, as Cochrane’s story goes, Ball The Unlikely will have to face enormous financial problems using a plan that Cochrane claims “was greeted with enormous skepticism in the final week of the campaign.”

In the supper hours news, Cochrane then reported on information leaked to him by someone with access to highly confidential government  information.  Their purpose  - quite obviously – was to maximise the the damage to the new administration before it even had a chance to take office.  The information fit quite neatly with Cochrane’s ongoing narrative and so, he naturally, had no hesitation in using it. 

Cochrane isn’t alone, though.  Telegram editorials have been selectively critical of the Liberal’s campaign platform.  Telegram editor Russell Wangersky’s Tuesday column  follows a similarly critical line on Ball and the Liberals.  Wangersky also added an interesting aside, in light of the leak Cochrane used.  Wangersky  noted that Ball’s cabinet would be undoubtedly be “looked on with considerable dread by some among the senior civil service, including some who no doubt believe their new political masters aren’t exactly equipped for the task.”

A MUN math prof who worked on the NDP campaign wrote a blatantly biased critique of the Liberal platform.  That one actually went province-wide, thanks to CBC Radio’s On the Go and the Telegram’s editorial page.  It’s the one that started the idea that the Liberal economic plan was based on magic.

Balance and fairness wasn’t an issue. The truth, of course, is that all the parties advanced platforms based on the same sorts of assumptions.  The Liberals were neither any better nor any the worse than the others. 

What’s remarkable is that the Liberals alone received the criticism.  And when Cochrane used the passive voice to describe “enormous criticism” what he was really talking about was that relatively limited amount that we’ve listed above and maybe a few more items.

What made it seem enormous by Cochrane’s estimation is that all of the people in his circles were saying the same thing. By another measure of “enormous”, though,  a genuinely enormous group of people voted for the very politicians and the very same platform that Cochrane and a handful of others easily dismissed.

Old prejudices die hard

To be clear, this isn’t a matter of partisan bias per se. Nor is it a bias across left-right ideological bias. What the parties and the other purveyors of the anti-Ball critique share is another set of social and political set of beliefs. It’s still an ideology though and out of it comes the biased narrative we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks.

The roots of the narrative are found in the pre-1934 attitudes of the elites in Newfoundland toward the rest of their countrymen.  The folks who actually ran the country into the ground told the Amulree commissioners that the ordinary Newfoundlanders – the baymen – were generally unfit to run their own affairs. As such,  the country would be better off with a commission made up of the better classes from England and Newfoundland.

That’s the same attitude you see in the view that Confederation was the result of stupid or greedy baymen who were hoodwinked into voting to join Canada   That paternalistic view transferred to post-Confederation politics.  The Liberals grew out of the Confederates.  They were predominately a rural party with more Protestants than not.  The Conservatives grew by default out of the old anti-Confederates who were predominantly from the east coast and St. John’s elites as well Irish Roman Catholics.

About 20 years later, those beliefs morphed into 1970s neo-nationalists.  That ideology remains, as Jim Overton noted in the 1970s and early 1980s, as little more than the a modern expression of the province’s old elite attitudes coupled with those of a new middle class that emerged after Confederation.


What we have seen over the last couple of weeks, in other words, is not a matter of historic fact or unbiased commentary but an ideological assertion by believers in some variation of the townie ideology that descends from a very long lineage..

In its modern version, townies  - “nationalists” is really the wrong word - believe that politics in Newfoundland can only be practised properly by strongman leaders.  Ball does not fit that model, so therefore he must be illegitimate. The fact that Ball has successfully rebuilt the Liberals and defeated the supreme expression of townie-ism reinforces the need for townie-ists to diminish Ball and the Liberals. 

The Liberal emphasis on a strong, constructive relationship with the federal government is an affront to the townie belief that the province’s central political issue is the constant war between “us” and “them.”  The strongman is essential to defend “us” so this aspect of the Liberal approach is an even stronger to the townie agenda.

The classic townie view of politics is paternalistic and patronising.  As such, it is impossible for voters to make valid choices for anything but the strongman leader.  You can see this in the arguments advanced over the past three weeks that  seek to dismiss the notion that the Liberals have won the election by anything other than accident, default, or, in the Davis version, by lying.

Townie ideology also manifests itself in things like accents.  Fabian Manning,  Loyola Hearn, and Loyola Sullivan have never been the victims of the sorts of personal attacks levelled at John Efford,  Dwight Ball, and Yvonne Jones for the way they speak English.  In the townie narrative,  certain accents and dialects are indications of low intelligence, low social status, and an unfitness for office. 

Think about if for a second and you will notice the prevalence of certain kinds of arguments being used against the Liberals exclusively even though similar criticisms could be made of other political parties.   You will also note very quickly the selective way some people will poke fun at Ball but never at other politicians with accents.  It isn’t an accident.  The criticisms, jokes, and attacks reflect shared attitudes among certain groups against other groups.

The Other Half of the Equation

The fact that some people, including some reporters and certain politicians alike, are relying on essentially biased views to assess the Liberals and the recent election isn’t surprising. We’ve seen it before.  

In the current expression of the dominant townie ideology, though, its proponents have had an unwitting ally.  Dwight Ball and the Liberals went through the recent general election without doing one of the key things political parties do in an election campaign.  They did present an organized media program that generated news coverage to introduce their campaign, explain its elements, and to defend their position against attacks.

Take the issue of the Liberal platform and supposed lack of detail as a good example. The Liberal platform is built on something that Ball talked about during his victory speech:  “listening” and “doing things differently.”  The Liberal platform was built, in other words,  on the idea of how the Liberals would make decisions not on what decisions they would make.

The problem the Liberals had all through the campaign is that no one explained that simple point.  The Liberals left it to others to explain their campaign and that is always deadly.   The result is the sort of obviously biased commentary we have seen.  Unfortunately that is all that voters received.

When the Conservatives,  New Democrats and others  intensified their criticism of the Liberals in the last week of the campaign,  Ball and the Liberals remained silent.   They did as little as possible to explain the Liberal perspective and rebut the criticism.  The result – predictably – was that people only heard the anti-Liberal narrative regardless of what source it came from.  That is the one that took hold.

The result is that the Liberals effectively abandoned the field in metro St. John’s in the crucial last week of the campaign. The Liberals likely never could have won all the seats, but their strategic decision to avoid any conflict made it easier for the NDP and Conservatives to retain some seats. Liberal silence implied consent.

The other result on polling day was that, while the Liberals won a big seat count, they did so with a smaller share of eligible vote than the Conservatives did in 2011. Turnout was also slightly lower than it was in 2011.

Any administration that wants to govern successfully needs strong popular support.  To the Conservatives,  the Liberals don’t look as strong as they could be.  And since Ball and the Liberals were so weak- in their response to obviously slanted criticism from the media and the political parties,  those same critics will only be emboldened in their efforts.

Rather than stories about the transition to a new administration, the news the day after the election included yet more of the biased narrative.  One cannot help but look at the budget information and wonder who leaked the highly confidential information and why they did so at this time. 

The Liberals are in a struggle to define their administration.  They could win the Battle of the Narrative.  The first thing the Liberals would  have to realize was there was a battle in the first place, let alone that this is one they must fight and win.