13 July 2016

Being there #nlpoli

Thursday is July 14.

Bastille Day.

It's also another anniversary.

Dwight Ball has been in office seven months.

In the latest edition of The Overcastpublisher Chad Pelley asks "What do we do if Dwight Ball resigns?"

That's a  reminder of where we are in this province.  A mere seven months into his first term, after winning a comfortably-large majority government,  people are demanding that Dwight Ball resign.  In the most recent poll Ball's personal popularity is south of 20%.  His party is in the same neighbourhood as is the level of satisfaction with his administration.

There is no precedent since 1949.   No precedent for the dramatic drop in a Premier's public support. No precedent for the calls that Ball resign.

And certainly no precedent for an article with that title that isn't panicked at the prospect the Premier might resign.

"The budget lacked vision,"  Pelley wrote,"untrustworthiness emerged on top of broken campaign promises, and there’s a sense he lacks the visionary leadership we need right now."  There you have the three reasons most people would likely cite if you asked them why they didn't like Ball or why they thought he should resign.

"Tough times call for tough decisions, most of us get that, but when government enacts the simplest, least innovative, and most extreme measures to recuperate money, and when they do so without proposing a promising economic plan for the future (beyond crossing fingers oil will bounce back) – people are going to despair and rage. Their bank accounts, their quality of life, and the vitality of their province are put in jeopardy by blind austerity."

The thing is, though, that Dwight Ball was absolutely convinced the budget and his budget message was precisely what the public wanted.   Appropriately enough,  the cover illustration for The Overcast this month is a Kevin Tobin cartoon. In it, Ball looks old and tired.  His arms are raised in a shrug, as if he doesn't know what's going on or doesn't care.

There isn't an easy or obvious explanation for how Ball and his team could have been so wildly mistaken. It appears that Ball and his people believed that the Liberal victory in November 2015 was primarily an endorsement of Dwight Ball himself.  There's no objective evidence that might have sustained such a belief that Ball was akin to Danny Williams in the popular imagination except for a misreading of poll results.

On the other hand, there is a plausible explanation for why people changed their mind so quickly about Ball himself.  In Turmoil as usual, his book on politics over the past three years,  James McLeod described Ball's style as "empty calories." People wanted change. For Ball,  McLeod wrote, it was better "to be just a blank canvas and let the voters project onto you whatever they want you to be." Ball's "standard campaign speech was full of rhetorical empty phrases that sounded good and filled you up, but didn't really mean anything [concrete]."

From a political perspective, from a public relations perspective, you can see the weakness inherent in that approach.  Politicians must connect themselves with voters' hopes, aspirations, and desires.  They must define themselves. This is not merely a business of making up a story people want to hear. People must believe that the definition is real.  It must be credible.  The definition must include statements of values so that people can understand how a politician will arrive at decisions.  If those values are not identical to those of a voter,  then voter must at least be able to respect them.  The definition must include firm commitments.  People will expect to see the politician deliver them.

But when a politician allows voters to project his or her own expectations on the politician,  he has set himself up for failure.  He cannot know precisely what voters expect and so, almost inevitably, he will begin to do things the voters do not like.  In Ball's case, the disconnection between who he is and what people expected proved to be much more substantial. He isn't a chameleon at all. Ball has very firm ideas about things.

Ball believes very firmly in stubbornly doing what he has decided to do.  He is consistent. It is an obsession of his. That is why he stuck to his promise on the sales tax increase he had made in early 2015 for months after  Ball and the people of the province knew the government's financial state was far worse. Faced with such a circumstance,  a chameleon would have changed direction to ensure he aligned with the public. Ball refused to change.  He was proud of his consistency even as it put him at odds with public opinion. And then, in the budget,  Ball changed positions again.

People wanted a change.  They were willing to vote for the Liberals even if Ball remained something of an enigma. At least Ball said things that sounded right.  As McLeod recounts from the victory speech he delivered at the end of the Liberal leadership campaign,  Ball said:  "People want democracy restored;  they want honesty, accountability, integrity."

The Empty Calories  strategy was inherently dishonest, though. It lacked integrity and as we already noted, it was the antithesis of accountability.  That seemed to sit close to the surface such that as the truth about the province's financial mess emerged, people very quickly accused Ball of lying to them. While it might have been just an easy claim at the outset,   a series of events seemed to confirm that Ball didn't always tell people the whole story.  The best example is the Ed Martin resignation.  Even though it is clear from the documentary record that Ball knew of Martin's severance payment and did nothing to prevent it, Ball bent himself in knots to avoid admitting he had approved the severance payment.

Last June, the Liberals dropped seven points in three months.  We put it down to the fact that Dwight Ball had spent six months making a string of gaffes for one thing  For another,  SRBP put the drop down to the "fact that the Liberals haven’t done anything else. They have ignored the strategic, political need to build a case for people to vote for the Liberals beyond just 'we are not them over there.'

"All the small ball crap they’ve been getting on with simply doesn’t resonate with people.  That’s because none of it has been on issues the public are genuinely concerned about as vote-driving issues.

"And when the Liberals have talked about important things,  like some health-related policies,  they haven’t done anything to make the world aware of it.  Well, that is outside the world of people who went to expensive fundraising dinners.  Nothing on the website.  No follow-up information of any kind.

"That’s made it easy for the media and others to raise doubts about the Liberal preparedness. Those sorts of things seem to have stuck in people’s minds. Things like the Liberal promise to roll back a proposed hike in the provincial sales tax gained them exactly nothing.

As it seems,  voters were never strongly attached to the Liberals.  They had plenty of doubts.  Events of the past seven months have brought those doubts to the surface and turned them into real problems for the Liberals.  How strange it is that Dwight Ball can appear on province-wide television last weekend and appear serene in the midst of it all as if public opinion did not matter to a politician. 

Without popular support,  Ball and the Liberals will have a great deal of time doing anything to make a substantive change in the government's financial situation. Public anger has already cost the Liberals dearly. Ball will have a very hard time coming to grips with the government's financial problems having burned up all his political capital both with the public at large and within his own caucus over things like libraries, Ed Martin, and a few million dollars. 

Public opinion matters in a democracy.  Honesty, accountability, and integrity are not just words.  And life, like politics, is not a state of mind.