Red Dawn: The Definitive Explanation for What Just Happened in the Newfoundland and Labrador Election
Does anyone actually know what's behind the Big Red Door with a Liberal majority now that Canada's last Tory government has gone tits up?
Here's a joke for you. Once upon a time—1933 to be precise, as the Dominion of Newfoundland is in its death throes—a well-known St. John's lawyer is giving a keynote speech to the Canadian Bar Association. The meeting opens with a rousing performance of "O Canada."
"That's the difference between our countries," he quips as they finish. "In Canada, you can earnestly sing 'we stand on guard for thee.' Back home, we have to sing 'God guard thee, Newfoundland' because nobody else is up to the job."
This is a gem you can bust out for any provincial election, but it's especially relevant now. We've just wrapped up one of the most vacuous election campaigns in recent memory at a moment when Newfoundland and Labrador is bracing for a fiscal, economic, social, and demographic storm. Dwight Ball has led the Liberal party to one of the largest majorities in Newfoundland history by demolishing one of its most unpopular governments. We're either in for A Stronger Tomorrow or A Stranger Tomorrow and it's not totally clear which is which.
Unlike the last two elections in this country—the upset in Alberta or the marathon federal slog to depose Stephen Harper—there was very little drama or excitement. The only uncertainty involved was the size of the Liberal blowout and, thankfully for the province's fragile democracy, we avoided a complete sweep of all 40 seats. But the election has basically been a foregone conclusion since January 2014.
The real suspense now is figuring out what the fuck we've just done.
How did we get here?
Like most things in 21st century Newfoundland and Labrador, the story starts with everyone's favourite real estate mogul/local oligarch, Danny Williams. When he abruptly bailed on his premiership in 2010, he left a power vacuum at the heart of the Progressive Conservative party. The entire edifice of party politics in Newfoundland is built around a bargain-basement führerprinzip, and without its strongman at the centre, the party couldn't generate any new forward momentum.
But coasting worked fine enough in the last election for Williams' chosen successor, Kathy Dunderdale. She lead the Tories to a third majority government, helped in no small part by the fact that the Liberals were a complete trainwreck after eight years under Danny, while the NDP were still a non-factor. The Liberals managed to cling to official opposition status despite picking up less than 20 percent of the popular vote (which was actually less than the NDP got—isn't our electoral system fun?!), and the province got a semi-functional opposition for the first time in almost half a decade.
(Full disclosure: I was a Liberal candidate in both the 2007 and 2011 provincial elections, and my behaviour in the latter landed me on Wikipedia under "Controversies.")
At root, the problem is that the Tories were fully aware they were the only game in town, and they let it go to their heads.
Dunderdale's government inherited its mandate, resources, and organization from Williams. It also inherited all his arrogance and none of his charm. The government's first act in office was to shutter the House of Assembly until well into 2012, openly declaring that debate in the legislature was largely a waste of time. Dunderdale also nixed a meeting with the family of Burton Winters, a teenager who perished that winter, potentially as a result of a mishandled search and rescue operation. Not a particularly endearing start.
Then came the Muskrat Falls Affray. In a nutshell, Muskrat Falls is a hydroelectric project in central Labrador that will pump electricity across the Strait of Belle Isle into the island's electricity grid, then further down across the Cabot Strait into Nova Scotia so that electricity can be sold to other North American markets.
But gentle Mother of God. Given the tone of provincial discourse, you'd assume it was a religious war. If we could harness the outrage generated on Twitter alone, we could power the whole eastern seaboard until the end of days.
It would take too long to recapitulate the entire ordeal here. But the long and short of it is that the government decided on a plan before the 2011 election, commissioned a slew of studies to back up their position, and told everyone who disagreed with them (including a joint federal-provincial environmental review panel, the province's Public Utilities Board, Innu elders, energy market analysts, and the lead singer of The Irish Descendants) to go fuck themselves. They marginalized regulatory oversight more or less out of spite, and now we're stuck with a questionable resource mega-project that's growing slowly and steadily behind schedule and over budget.
Then there was Bill 29. Bill 29 was the government's attempt to dramatically restrict the public's access to information. Among other things, the law vastly expanded the scope of cabinet secrecy and gave the government the ability to ignore any requests it deemed "frivolous and vexatious." Virtually everyone who wasn't a Tory MHA at the time described it as regressive garbage. The opposition attempted to filibuster the law but the government—perhaps feeling that such criticism was itself frivolous and vexatious—invoked closure and shut down debate.
Between these two things—the government shutting down valid debate over a very (politically, economically, emotionally) fraught mega-project while at the same time vastly expanding its power to restrict public access to information—the Progressive Conservatives reached a tipping point. By the time the 2013 budget dropped and lawyers all over the province flipped the fuck out, everything was too far gone.
After "Dunderdale Boo Hiss" showed up on a roadside sign in CBS, everything the premier touched suddenly turned to shit.
This came to a head in January 2014. Despite knowing full well that the province's infrastructure was well past its best-before date, the island's power grid failed spectacularly during a completely predictable winter storm—an event immortalized as #DarkNL. Thousands of people were stranded without power for days and it precipitated several medical emergencies and at least one death.
The power failure was one thing, but the failure of power was another. Dunderdale was silent for days as the situation wore on, and most of her first public appearance was spent arguing with the media over the technical definition of the word "crisis." The rest was a marketing pitch for Muskrat Falls electricity.
It turned out to be one condescending communications disaster too many. People lost their shit and in the ensuing clusterfuck, Paul Lane—the Tories' most hyper-partisan, poll-rigging troll—jumped ship to the Liberals after a sudden jolt of conscience and/or opportunism. The writing was on the wall. Dunderdale resigned in disgrace and the PCs got their chance at renewal.
Naturally, they immediately fucked it up.
THINGS FALL APART
The Tories called a leadership race that spring, and every sitting MHA balked at the job offer. The establishment aggressively promoted Frank Coleman, a grocery-store magnate from the west coast with no political experience, as the appointed successor. They went out of their way to squeeze out his competition, foul-mouthed fishmonger Bill Barry and erstwhile Newfoundland separatist Wayne Bennett.
The coronation proceeded as planned until the summer, when Coleman abruptly decided he didn't actually want the worst job in the province and instead that he'd prefer to fuck off from politics forever. Presumably, this was completely unrelated to accusations that one of his companies, Humber Valley Paving, was involved in a conflict of interest. This prompted the party to call yet another leadership race for the premiership nobody wanted, and that's how Paul Davis got stuck with the job.
Not that it mattered. They could have elected the Pope and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference to public opinion. Davis immediately appointed an unelected cabinet minister who refused to run in any of the multiple by-elections on the go—for some weird reason, Tories kept resigning. He passed a very poorly conceived redistricting plan (cutting the House of Assembly from 48 to 40 seats) that has not only further battered local democracy but also vastly amplified the size of the red tide that just drowned most of his party. He also presided over an extremely sketchy incident last Easter in which a disabled activist was shot and killed by a member of his security detail after someone in the premier's office misread a tweet.
The only unequivocally good thing to result from his tenure is new Access to Information reforms, which basically came out of a judicial review committee forcing the government to go back on its own garbage legislation. When the best part of your record in office is undoing your own laws, it's probably a good sign that you're fucked.
THE LAST MAN STANDING
This election was decided almost two years ago and it's less about the Liberal party building a triumphant machine than it is about being the only sensible-looking alternative as the government steadily imploded. As you can imagine, outside the garden-variety surrealism of Newfoundland and Labrador politics, this made for a pretty boring campaign.
Given the political landscape, most of the election was eaten up with candidate drama and anxiety over the exact size of the Liberal landslide. And this year, for once, it was the Tories and not the Liberals who were bogged down in candidate catastrophes.
This started before the writ even dropped when freshly-defeated NDP MP Ryan Cleary torched every bridge he built over the last four years by becoming a provincial PC candidate less than a fortnight after losing the federal election. A legend in his own mind, Cleary felt compelled to run for the Tories in a bid to stem the Liberal tide. Instead, this grand crusade ended with him frantically shouting at a poster of Dwight Ball in a darkened bus stop and coming in more than 40 points behind Liberal Cathy Bennett.
Meanwhile, local guru Tina Olivero came into the campaign with a mission to spread peace, love, and positive vibes to the legions of haters lurking behind the keyboards of #nlpoli. Naturally, being spiritually empowered by universal joy proved no match for the sheer strength of Newfoundland pessimism. The unwashed masses were unprepared for her liberating message that "self-awareness" can help cure cancer and (possibly) epilepsy. Inevitably, she was overwhelmed by our small-minded negativity, like questions about her documented hyperexploitation of a Filipina nanny, and not even an intercessionary prayer to Our Lady of Oprah could salvage her campaign.
The Liberals ran a candidate in Mount Pearl who lost his job hosting Open Line after an on-air racist meltdown, but this never stirred up as much smoke as the other two. Political momentum works miracles, I guess.
Which brings us to the other great debate of the provincial election: how big would the Liberal majority be? Would they take all the seats, or just the vast majority of them? This was a legitimate concern, since it's been difficult to pin down where the Liberals actually stand on a lot of issues. Dwight Ball used to be for public service cuts, until he was against them. They also waited until the day before advance polling to actually release their platform, which I can only hope is a preview of the brilliant cynical audacity we can expect over the next four to 12 years.
Various analysts have tried to figure out what the Liberal economic plan actually is. By the party's own account, they will commission a slew of panels, committees, and studies to come up with a plan at a later date. No one is entirely sure how their economic projections are supposed to work, and their expectations of revenue growth from "economic diversification" are Smallwoodian in scope (even if they don't share in the grand, delirious vision that building random factories everywhere will solve all of Newfoundland's problems).
To say that there are questions about what a Liberal government will actually look like in practice is an understatement. But the problem is that none of the other parties have a single leg to stand on when they raised any of these concerns. After four years of almost non-stop fuck-ups, the Tories have absolutely zero credibility when they point out holes and problems in the Liberal plan. No one could trust a goddamn word out of the premier's mouth. It may very well be that Dwight Ball will cock everything up and blow up the island or whatever but there is no way he could possibly do any worse than the detritus of the Dunderdale bloc.
As for the NDP, God bless them for trying, but they barely survived themselves for the last four years. They had their strongest showing ever in 2011, but after a botched leadership coup in 2013, a two-year slide into irrelevancy, and a demoralizing federal collapse, there was very little poor Earle McCurdy could do. No one believed the party was capable of accomplishing anything in its current state. Which was a damn shame, because of the three leaders he was the only one who actually seemed like he bothered to study policy briefs instead of talking points, even if he did have all the personal magnetism of a wilting fungus.
But what are you gonna do? Newfoundlanders and Labradorians love to back a winner. Got to get on the government side if you want your roads paved.
GOD GUARD THEE, NEWFOUNDLAND
Despite the fact that so much of the airwaves were tied up in the horse race and spectacle of a tedious campaign, this was probably one of the most pivotal elections of our generation. Newfoundland and Labrador is at a crossroads. By Paul Davis' own admission, we are staring down a crisis.
A lot of things are falling the fuck apart. As the oil slump drags on, the economic future looks pretty grim. There is a good chance we will slide back into "have not" status again with little to show for our decade of relative prosperity except for St. John's semi-gentrified downtown core and a drug abuse epidemic. We need new hospitals, schools, and prisons, and we need new approaches to mental and physical healthcare, education, and justice. We also need a government that will actively start giving a shit about climate change. If there is anything positive to come out of this otherwise bullshit election, it's that these issues actually appeared on the public radar.
On top of all this, we desperately need democratic and institutional reform. The House of Assembly has no parliamentary committees to speak of and provincial governments, no matter what the stripe, will always end up balls deep in arbitrary power, patronage, and graft if you give them enough time.
It's easy to be cynical about the incoming government, but they have made some legitimate promises. They're going to call public inquiries into the province's search and rescue services, the shooting of Don Dunphy, and whatever sketchy shit went down with Humber Valley Paving. They're at least nominally committed to legislative reform, and if Justin Trudeau is serious about fixing democracy at the federal level, it will also put pressure on Dwight Ball to follow suit. And the Liberals are emphatic about tearing down the archaic Waterford Hospital and finally giving the province a 21st century mental health hospital, even if no one has any idea how they're actually going to do it.
But most of these plans are just reactions to the heat of the moment. There is a real danger that the Liberals will repeat the same cyclical problems that have plagued Newfoundlad since we got responsible government in 1855. The central problem of the province's politics is that no one can think further than five minutes into the future, except for that rare Great Statesman who can see to the next election.
People treat the Newfoundland state like it's the Edmonton Oilers. Everything is a problem of management. If the team is underperforming, we bring in a new set of managers, swapping blue for red and red for blue, back and forth forever, in the fevered hope that Wayne Gretzky or Connor McDavid will show up and solve all our problems so we never have to deal with the complicated problems of building institutions or a functional civic culture. But all this approach will get you is a cozy spot at the bottom of the league.
If there is one positive lesson to draw from the dying days of Tory rule, it's that the government can be scared into obedience if they're legitimately worried they'll be voted out. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are enough PC and NDP members left in the House to at least put up the pretense of accountability. These won't be as dark as the Danny years—praise the risen Christ.
It's been more than two decades since the cod moratorium and the accelerated grind of the mainland brain drain. The oil boom might be over. We have nothing else now but to hope that Dwight Ball and his Liberals will be the government that finally breaks the chain and rights the ship of state.
But the ghost of Amulree is calling, b'ys. How much faith do you have that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can govern ourselves?
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.