Don’t look now, but there’s another provincial political party leadership race happening this spring. What an exciting time in Newfoundland and Labrador’s political history! As long as we ignore all the other bad stuff, I mean.
The New Democrats are slated to pick a new leader not long after this paper goes to print. Like the Progressive Conservative contest going on at the same time, it’s been a pretty low-key affair. Notwithstanding Wayne Ronald Bennett attempting to run for leader on a platform of “getting mad about Zionism on VOCM,” it’s been mostly quiet on the leftern front.
Unlike the Tories, the NDP contest seems to be less about who will most enthusiastically manage the province’s transition into a neo-Dickensian horrorshow than in whether or not the party of Noble Losers can finally capitalize on the fact that a solid 35% of the province would rather saw through their thighs with a rusty spork than vote for the major parties.
Also unlike the Tories, the NDP candidates seem to be talking about real ideas instead of fantasizing about how to make our judges Kings.
Alison Coffin is an economist at Memorial University who contributed a chapter to last year’s Democracy Cookbook about how to reform the budgeting process by “taking politics out of budgeting.” The province currently budgets for a year at a time, more or less disconnected from measuring the outcomes of the spending; Coffin’s proposal is to bring in multi-year budgeting directly linked to policy outcomes so we can better plan and spend provincial money. She’s a technocrat with a heart of gold, which is a nice change for a province where most economists’ first instinct is to fire small children into the Sun to save on stickers at the Janeway.
Gerry Rogers, meanwhile, is Gerry Rogers. As an MHA she has the advantage of not only sitting in the House of Assembly already, but also in being one of the few MHAs to ever accomplish actual policy change independent of running a Cabinet portfolio. In addition to pushing for committees on pay equity and LGBTQ2S rights, Rogers was the driving force behind the All-Party Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, whose 54 recommendations last spring now form the framework for system reform. If she could call all that from the back seat of a third party, imagine what she’d do in the driver’s seat.
I’m not a Dipper, but if I was I’d lean more towards Gerry Rogers. She’s got enough experience in the House to know about the many shortcomings of our democratic system and enough experience in making that broken machinery work. To me, this seems like valuable expertise for a leader whose first job will be to remake the NDP from a social justice social club into a Government In Waiting. But between the two, either would be a good choice for leader.
Whatever the outcome of the race, the work remains the same. Both candidates are acutely aware of the need for organizational reform within the party itself, which is a glimmer of self-awareness neither the Liberals or Tories seem to grasp.
Maybe this is a silver lining from the party’s self-immolation back in 2013. They have been forced to worry about the rotting carpentry inside provincial party politics for a lot longer than either of the governing parties. Whether or not the party can be salvaged is another question – it will take a lot of work to transform the NDP from a busted jalopy up on cinder blocks into a vehicle for mass democratic social change.
You’ll know this is happening if the party manages to tap into all the motivated young people who stormed St. John’s City Hall last September. If the NDP can’t capture the energy and imagination of engaged, progressive-minded people desperate for something new at a time of record dissatisfaction with “politics as usual,” then we’ll know we can write the party off (again) as another flash in the pan that will evaporate before it can accomplish anything.
It will be a while before they are ready to break into the rural parts of the province, but the lion’s share of the St. John’s Metro – and maybe, finally, Official Opposition – is within the party’s grasp.
That’s a big ‘If,” and you rarely reap the optimism you sow in the soil of Newfoundland’s social democracy. But maybe the proverbial iron is finally hot enough to strike – or, maybe, the NDP will finally get a leader who recognizes that you make it hot by striking.