Drew Brown on November 2014 in Politics

Drew Brown on the instantly legendary triple by-election Tory losses and its implciations

They should christen November “sexual harassment awareness month” in Canada. I feel like we’ve earned it.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, November should be “byelection awareness month” because three in one month seems like a lot. It probably feels like more to the provincial Tories right now. Writing about electoral contests exclusively in violent metaphors is a bad habit but “brutalized” really is the only description that fits. They are now the proud proprietors of seven consecutive byelection losses – two seats held by former premiers and five by prominent cabinet ministers. For those of you playing the home game, this is a new provincial record in losing (the NDP notwithstanding).

The CBS byelection on November 5th was a nail-biter, but the Liberals managed to squeak through in what had been a Tory stronghold. In Tuesday’s doubler-header, the Liberals again trounced the government in Trinity-Bay de Verde by more than two-to-one, while in Humber East – the seat most recently occupied by loveable interim premier Tom Marshall – they were still able to put the smackdown on the Tories by more than 800 votes.

Officially, I’m required by Political Science Law to put a disclaimer here that “anything can happen” in the run-up to the next election. But realistically, there is no coming back from this for the Progressive Conservatives.

Part of this is clearly organizational. As a blended party, the NL Liberals have access to the technical infrastructure and skilled volunteers of their federal cousins. They have also been building momentum for a while in byelection after byelection as the government continues to flop around like a landed fish – and in politics, momentum means money. The business class have been consistently moving their investments from the blue team to the red, and after a seventh straight win you can expect this trend to accelerate. Meanwhile, the local Tories are comparatively isolated from Stephen Harper’s big blue juggernaut, which means they’re mostly left working with the same campaign machinery they used to slay Smallwood forty years ago. With seven repeated blows to the face (and the ego), most committed young up-and-comers will likely head for greener federal pastures. And while every political party can always drag out a few young zealots to man the Masada, many volunteers are probably ready to just lay down and die for a while.

It’s difficult to even imagine what options the Tories have left to stave off annihilation in 2015. Getting rid of an unpopular leader didn’t work. Funnelling money and construction equipment into assorted districts didn’t work. Bringing in a new premier so apparently committed to gender equity he violated the conventions of good governance didn’t work either. Their last, best hope at this point is to run on a solidly crowd-pleasing election budget, but given the dismal oil projections it’s unlikely they’ll even get to try that. There’s also a distinct chance that, no matter what they do or say, most of the electorate won’t care anyway. So the question is no longer whether the Tories can win the next election, but just how badly they can expect to lose.

If I were Paul Davis – and man, let me tell you, I am so glad that I’m not – I would forget about the next election. I would start thinking about a transition plan, a way to survive the party’s coming exile in the wilderness and start rebuilding for the next-next election. I would also scorch the earth on my way out. Overturn Bill 29 and make government so tediously, painfully transparent that cabinet won’t meet in the daylight for fear of getting sunstroke. Tie the government’s hands behind its back by bringing in so much legislative reform that even a handful of opposition MHAs will have a real bite to them. Make this lame duck premiership count and really liberalize the place – there is no better way to undermine your opponents than by giving them exactly what they ostensibly want.

I say ‘ostensibly’ here because I don’t really know what the Liberals want, besides the levers of state power. “It’s time for a change,” I guess. They have told us that the Tories are simultaneously spending too much and not nearly enough. Only one of those things can be true. I have a hunch that Dwight Ball’s Liberals will come in as the party of austerity (if only to clean up the last decade’s mess) but a hunch is all I’ve got. Since there is really nothing new to say about the Tories – for the last 10+ months, everyone has been writing the same column about how much they blow – now may be a good time to start turning our attention towards their replacements.

The Liberals are going to win. There is no doubt the party is well organized and driven to win the next election. They will probably drive a truck through the next election, actually. In the nominations that are left to be settled we will see people coming out of the woodwork to run for them. Many will be excellent, upstanding citizens looking to take a crack at policymaking after twelve years of Tory monopoly. Others will be hacks and yahoos hoping to ride the red surge over the sunkers and into a cushy pension – that is, exactly what you can expect when any political party is set to make an irresistible sweep.

Don’t get me wrong. The Tories deserve everything that’s coming to them. They’re arrogant, out of touch, intellectually bankrupt, and chronically fatigued. Worst of all, this is how they look to the voters. Seven botched byelections in a row don’t lie. The tide is obviously turning and people are ready to clean house. The writing is on the wall in fifty-foot neon letters. There is nothing new to write about the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador save its epitaph.

But if this is a foregone conclusion, then in the months ahead of the next election, it may be a good idea to interrogate the party set to take over the estate. Are they going to squander the inheritance? Are their rabid young partisans any less obnoxious or detached from reality? How will life under the incoming west-coast millionaire be different from life under the last west-coast millionaire? Now would be a good time to start taking a long, hard look at the party poised to take the reins.

It’s one thing to win elections. It’s another to form a government.

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