21 October 2019

Regional Parties from another Region #nlpoli

The 2019 federal election in Newfoundland and Labrador is the tale of one of the most uncompetitive elections in recent memory.

The advance poll numbers make the point.

Newfoundland and Labrador
Number of Electors
Coast of Bays–Central–Notre Dame
Long Range Mountains
St. John's East
St. John's South–Mount Pearl

Nationally, turn-out in the advance polls set a record.  That continued a trend over the past two elections that saw an increase in the number voters casting ballots earlier than the official polling day.   Not so in Newfoundland and Labrador. Elections Canada provided more opportunities to vote in advance so that could have produced higher turn-out across the province. But it didn’t.

All but one of the races in Newfoundland and Labrador saw fewer than 10% of eligible voters turn out in the advance polls.  The one race presumed to be highly competitive – St. John’s East – saw a turn-out of 11%, which is the same advance poll turn-out  in that same riding in 2015. In other ridings in the province, the turn-out was the same or lower than 2015.

St. John’s East may return Jack Harris as the member of parliament after rejecting him in 2015.  They may not.  The race is close but whether or not they return Harris to Ottawa, the real story in that riding is that the provincial New Democrats could not find another candidate except this 32-year veteran of provincial and federal politics.  There was no competition for the nomination. 

Nor was there a competition for the NDP nomination in any of the other federal ridings.  The party only found candidates in some ridings after the election had started and the ones they found were classic NDP name-on-ballot types.  They were students and long-time party activists. They won’t win.

That’s significant because less than a decade ago, the party held two federal seats in Newfoundland and Labrador and five seats provincially.  Yet here the NDP is now struggling to mount more than one decent campaign and with a candidate who is decidedly worn at the edges from over-use.

Aside from the Liberals, every party in the current federal election is running token campaigns with inexperienced candidates and very little money.  They will barely register on the public consciousness on any level except for the controversies nationally.

The parties and the candidates are – in every sense of the term – disconnected from the ridings and people in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Mad Max Alliance has one candidate with any profile.  Other candidates include a guy who lives in Halifax. The Greens have only one candidate with any public profile.  The candidate in the hotly contested St. John’s East was not even campaigning full-time for the first period of the campaign.

In Avalon, the NDP candidate is a champion of electric trains and Indigenous housing in a riding with a relatively small Indigenous population. She has her personal issues to trumpet but is fundamentally at odds with the party platform and, more interestingly, her colleague the former member of parliament. In fact, she is diametrically opposed to the position on offshore oil taken by Jack Harris.

The NDP campaign is at war with itself, in other words, in addition to being disconnected from the province.  Thus, the potential for any cross-over benefit among the campaigns is effectively lost.

The Conservatives, the one party that should be in a better position, are in fact as bad as the rest of the pipsqueak campaigns or much worse.  The party candidate in Avalon issued a statement promoting economic growth in Alberta.  This is not any ordinary gaffe.  It reflects the extent to which the Conservative Party in its current form is really just another regional party dominated by Alberta and Saskatchewan interests and with a decidedly Alberta perspective on many issues. 

The major party on the right wasn’t always like that.  The old Progressive Conservative Party was a centre-right coalition in much the same way the Liberals were a coalition on the centre-left.  Their ability to compete and win national elections was based on their ability to appeal to different populations in different parts of the country.  Brian Mulroney was the last Conservative prime minister who came to power based on a genuinely national coalition.

That coalition ended with the mis-named Untie the Right Movement.  It fractured in the immediate aftermath of the Progressive Conservative defeat in 1993.  The western right wing broke off and formed the Reform Party with Preston Manning as its leader.  The Quebec wing of the Mulroney became the Bloc Quebecois.  And the PC Party itself tottered along until Manning and the Reform Party absorbed it and now control it.

The result is a regional party representing two provinces in western Canada, with some limited appeal in Ontario and New Brunswick.   The NDP has shrunk from national pretensions to being a party of British Columbia, with some potential in Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Jack Harris is the exception to NDP political fortunes in Newfoundland and Labrador that proves the rule. The Green Party poaches most of the ideological and geographic territory of the NDP and is similarly constrained.  The Mad Max Alliance is nothing more than a preposterous ego exercise that could only attract the enmity and time of another egotist of comparable and comparably risible proportions.

The Liberal Party, by contrast, is competitive or dominates in seven of 10 provinces and has experienced periods of success in the other three.  This does not mean that the Liberal Party is doing very well.  In Newfoundland and Labrador,  the lack of competition for voter support means the party has grown bloated and lazy.  The platform plank in favour of the Stunnel – essential a Muskrat Falls-style boondoggle – shows the extent to which federal politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador are unable to describe the province’s interests at the national Canadian level.

That is the other element of this decline of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador at the federal level.  Since the parties have no meaningful connection to the province or understanding of local issues and concerns, they tend to pander to whatever is the provincial flavour of the moment. That is why the five parties have almost identical “Newfoundland and Labrador” blocks in their plank and have been this way since the early 2000s.

There are three notorious examples of this tendency.  The first was the 2004 general election when two provincial candidates sided with the provincial government in the demand for a permanent, Equalization-type transfer to the province based on specious and in some cases false arguments. The second was the loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls.  The third is the current demand for a provincial bailout of the Muskrat Falls project.

This might be worthwhile if the provincial political scene was healthy but it has been desperately sick for the past 15 years or more.  Today, it is highly dysfunctional.  And that combination – dysfunctional provincial politics and a raft of regional parties in a fragmented federal political system - is what we have when the province faces unprecedented financial problems.