The Fog of Avalon: Inside Canada’s Most Bizarre Electoral Race
The frontrunner is accused of sexual harassment. The Liberal camp is split. The Conservatives turfed their best chance possibly over a Mike Duffy joke. Oh, Newfoundland.
An 11-week election campaign is definitely its own circle of Hell. I was bored by week three, and at week seven yearn for the cool embrace of death.
Given the mountain of bullshit involved, it's easy to forget that a contest like the 2015 federal election comes along once in a generation. For the first time in history, the NDP is a serious contender to form the government in Ottawa (even if they have to sell their soul to get there). Halfway through the marathon, there's still no clear sense who will come out on top. As far as elections go, unless you were in Alberta last spring, it doesn't get any more dramatic than this.
Of course, because this is a parliamentary election and not a presidential one, the high personal drama between Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau is largely a red herring. The national campaign matters, but the election will really be fought and won in each of the 338 ridings across the country.
Some of these races will be extremely boring. Some will be tight, bloody battlegrounds that'll be kingmakers on October 19. Others might just be legendary faceoffs—like in Edmonton Centre, where the former head of the city's Chamber of Commerce is facing off against the head of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Front-row tickets to the class struggle: fuck yes.
But the race to watch in 2015 isn't actually all that crucial to the national outcome. It's the race to watch because it's such a fucking gongshow.
The riding of Avalon, on the east coast of Newfoundland, is in the middle of its own generational election. Former Liberal MP Scott "alleged sexual harassment" Andrews is running for re-election as an Independent against his old party. The Conservatives sabotaged their own star candidate before the nomination even closed as part of a nine-year-old war with the island. Union warhorse Jeannie Baldwin is hoping to make a breakthrough for the NDP in the riding against her scattered opponents. And LGBTQ activist Jennifer McCreath is making waves as the first openly trans person to appear on a federal ballot.
It's a clusterfuck. And while there are a lot of moving pieces, there's a good chance Andrews could win this election. In a political system where Independents are rarely able to run the electoral gauntlet, let alone while dogged by allegations of frotteurism, this would be no mean feat.
Running from the coast of Placentia Bay to Paradise on the edge of greater St. John's, the riding of Avalon is the only political region in the province to straddle the many solitudes of Newfoundland life. Bay and town, Liberal Protestant North and Conservative Catholic South, proud Confederates and Republican holdouts; behold the thrumming heart of the old Newfoundland cosmopolitanism.
The riding itself is young. It was drawn up in 2003, cobbled together out of Bonavista-Trinity-Conception and St. John's East and West. More than many other ridings in the province, Bonavista-Trinity-Conception liked to send strong, fighting Newfoundlanders to Ottawa—including a couple of premiers. Frank Moores did a stint there in the late 1960s before he rode home to slay Joe Smallwood, and it briefly hosted Brian Tobin when he abruptly quit as premier to make a play for Jean Chrétien's job. John Efford, the baymen's champion, held the post when it became Avalon in 2003 and was re-elected handily in 2004. Even when it went Conservative in 2006, part of Fabian Manning's appeal was an aura of fearless independence. He was banished from the provincial Progressive Conservative caucus in 2005 when he stood up for crab fishers in his district against Danny Williams' planned production quotas, and he rode that grassroots support into federal office.
But Manning strayed too far from that reputation in Ottawa and it cost him. Part of what brought him down was a notorious video of Manning applauding the prime minister about the 2007 budget that "shafted" Newfoundland and Labrador. (Although the two Senate appointments he got for losing back-to-back federal elections probably helped ease the pain.)
Regardless of partisan stripe, Avalon loves a pit bull. Not so much a lap dog.
A CAREER POLITICIAN ON THE RUN AGAIN
Scott Andrews grew up inside the Liberal party. His father was a big time Liberal back in Joey's day, and Andrews has been living and breathing the thick fog of provincial Liberalism as long as he's been alive. He got involved with the Young Liberals after Clyde Wells took over the ailing province in 1989; by the time Tobin came around, he was YL President. He worked in the provincial opposition office for a spell after Williams banished the party to the wilderness in 2003, and before he made the leap to federal politics, he served as the provincial party's Executive Director.
Andrews always had his fingers in Liberal business. There has never been a moment in the last 20 years where he wasn't involved in party affairs. And you don't spend that long working in the party apparatus without learning a thing or two about playing the game.
When Andrews first ran for town council in Conception Bay South, he got more votes than any other councillor in the history of the town. From the outside looking in, Andrews was a model parliamentarian, quietly checking career accomplishments off a list. Before his suspension from caucus, he was the Liberal party's critic for ethics.
Careful to avoid Manning's mistake, he publicly dissented from Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in 2009, voting against the party's support of another federal budget that cut transfer payments to his province. He's also the only MP from Newfoundland and Labrador ever to get a Private Member's Bill passed into law. Bill C-464, "Zachary's Law," makes it easier for the courts to justify denying bail to people accused of serious crimes in order to protect their children.
Getting tough on criminals to save the children! If you knew nothing about the man (whose personal resemblance to This Hour Has 22 Minutes' Jerry Boyle is uncanny) and only saw his record, you'd think he was the island's Family Values politician.
In an age less sensitive to rape culture, Andrews may have been able to coast along as a Liberal backbencher, steadily greasing reception rooms and the gears of his electoral machine, for as long as he wanted. But he fell afoul of the post-Ghomeshi sea change, and his career ground to a halt last November when Justin Trudeau abruptly suspended him from caucus pending an investigation into sexual harassment allegations from an unnamed NDP MP.
There are no official details, but the Canadian Press reported at the time that Andrews allegedly followed his colleague home, forced his way through her door, pinned her against a wall and ground his crotch against her. She asked him to leave and he did, but he allegedly called her a "cockteaser" (among other things) after the event. We also don't know what findings were contained in the investigation's final report last March. But whatever it was proved enough for Trudeau to boot Andrews from the party. (To be clear though, Andrews has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.)
For his part, Andrews accepted Trudeau's decision, neither confirming nor denying the allegations. But he shirked all responsibility for any wrongdoing by chalking up the incident(s) to a woman misinterpreting his "jovial Newfoundland friendliness." Fair enough—let it never be said that Newfoundlanders aren't a friendly bunch. But most of us still manage to avoid accidentally getting accused of being a gross piece of shit.
Despite this rebuke from the party to which he devoted his life, Andrews refused to resign. Then, after a few months of radio silence, he issued a mass mail-out to the riding blasting Trudeau for denying him his "Charter rights, innocent until proven guilty, natural justice or the right to face my accuser." This missive also doubled as a straw poll, asking his constituents whether or not they'd support him in a bid for re-election as an Independent. The response must have been good, because Andrews tossed his figurative fedora into the ring shortly after the writ dropped in August, bringing along his wife Susan as campaign manager.
This is less shocking that it appears at first sight. Say what you will about the man—and there's clearly a lot to say—but Andrews isn't stupid. He's made a living playing the game, and playing it well. He wouldn't be running if he didn't think he had a pretty good shot of going back to Ottawa.
And by looking around the riding at the competition, he's probably right.
THE LIBERALS ARE SEEING RED
Ken McDonald is not worried about Scott Andrews. The Liberal candidate appears positively jolly in his many campaign photos on Twitter, having a laugh while hammering in campaign signs or shooting the shit with people on their porches. He's especially chummy with his provincial counterparts, bumming around the St. John's Regatta or playing through a few rounds of golf at party fundraisers in the capital. And so he should be: the NL Liberals are expected to sweep the House of Assembly in November's election, and McDonald intends to ride that wave as far as possible.
(Nevermind that this local support is less a genuine enthusiasm for the Liberal party than it is a burning disdain for the governing Progressive Conservatives, but the fickle tastes of the provincial electorate is a story for another day.)
Splitting the Liberal vote doesn't bother McDonald. "I am convinced that the party trend will be stronger than it will be for the individual as an Independent," he told CBC back in May (he also apparently said this to Andrews' face). This is a pretty reasonable assumption. His riding has a strong Liberal tradition—before Fabian Manning's two-year interregnum, the last time Avalon/Bonavista-Trinity-Conception elected a Tory was Morrissey Johnson for a single term in 1984. Before that, it was Frank Moores in '68. And the province has never sent an Independent to Ottawa.
But Andrews is no ordinary Independent. He is a lifetime Liberal organizer and, until his recent expulsion, he was a major player in local party politics. In the provincial leadership race in 2013, Andrews helped bring tax-evader Paul Antle to a close finish against eventual winner Dwight Ball. This was after Andrews joined the campaign a few months late; had he been in on the ground floor of the campaign, it's possible that Antle would now be the province's incoming premier.
No one in polite company will admit it, but Andrews was a powerful force in regional Liberal politics. Despite all appearances, the man is like an outport Frank Underwood, a local political chessmaster. As an organizer, Andrews took a direct hand in working and talking with volunteers. He built a lot of personal loyalty with a lot of Liberals in Avalon over the past seven years.
In a Newfoundland campaign, working in the nuts and bolts of the operation alongside ordinary people is a tremendous advantage. This kind of insider knowledge is what makes or breaks a campaign, and Andrews arguably has more inside knowledge of the riding and how to campaign there than the rest of his opponents combined.
The Liberal riding association in Avalon is accordingly filled with Andrews loyalists. This puts McDonald in a bind. If he comes out attacking Andrews too harshly, he risks alienating sympathizers in his ranks and driving them to his opponent. But it's also hard to see how he can win by ignoring one of his biggest competitors, especially given that Andrews is going to be slamming Trudeau and the Liberals every chance he gets.
The real question for both campaigns is whether or not this split among the staffers also holds among the base. But unlike his opponent, Andrews is now free to fraternize with former partisan enemies. He's been spotted glad-handing at more than one provincial Tory event. Free agency in politics can cut both ways.
Ken McDonald is a great candidate on paper. But so was Michael Ignatieff. Counting on the strength of the Liberal brand against all comers has been the grave of more than one aspiring MP.
THE TORIES SING THE BLUES
Speaking of graves: the other side of this story is that the Conservative Party in Newfoundland is dead. The governing party have largely written the place off since shortly after their first victory in 2006. You can't really blame them. It's been a pretty rough ride for Stephen Harper.
The story is long, but not complicated. In late 2004, premier Danny Williams threw a temper tantrum over the possibility that the province's sudden oil wealth might mean we'd get less money from our equalization payments, so he tugged at our soft-nationalist heartstrings by pulling the Canadian flag down from every government building in the province. Prime Minister Paul Martin caved like a cheap set of bleachers, and Williams ascended his throne as the Newfoundlandic god-king foretold in ancient prophecy.
After the final collapse of Martin's government triggered the 2006 election, Harper wrote to Williams with a promise to uphold this sweet federal bargain. But Ontario had fallen on hard times of its own and its voters were more than a little miffed about Newfoundland's generous deal. And because Ontario is infinitely more valuable in the calculus of federal politics, Harper wasted no time in breaking his promise to the Rock. Williams was outraged, and ordered his subjects to vote Anything But Conservative in the next election. The provincial PC party went as far as to register "ABC" as a third party with Elections Canada and drop over $80,000 on trashing the federal government.
It didn't make much difference nationally, but it worked at home. Five years after Williams' retirement, the Conservative party is still banished from the banks of Newfoundland. (Labrador elected Peter Penashue in 2011, but he resigned in 2013 over illegitimate campaign donations and lost the subsequent by-election. He's running again this year.)
But despite these rocky conditions, Tories have always found fertile soil in Avalon. Fabian Manning may have been annihilated by Andrews in 2008 thanks to Williams' ABC campaign, but he made a respectable comeback in his 2011 rematch and, had the 2013 boundary changes been in place at the time, he actually would have won by almost 2000 votes. The riding—particularly along the Southern Shore—has deep Tory roots, and it was never out of the question that they could draw another strong showing, especially in 2015. With Andrews disgraced and the Liberal camp divided, a strong candidate could have delivered this seat.
The Tories had that candidate in Ches Crosbie. Son of legendary firebrand John Crosbie and an accomplished lawyer in his own right, Crosbie had the name, profile, and oligarchic blood that could have won the day. But instead, the CPC's greenlight committee inexplicably canned the guy.
No one is really sure what happened. The official story is that Crosbie was disqualified because he briefly appeared as "King Harper" in a mock-Shakespeare play at a fundraiser where he delivered a one-line reference to the Duffy trial. Others speculated that it was because Crosbie's law firm is representing residential school survivors in a class action suit against the federal government, and that the case is still before the courts—although Crosbie himself says this is not the case. For his part, after calling the Conservative party down to the dirt, John Crosbie suggested the whole thing is part ofa conspiracy orchestrated by Senator David Wells in a bid to consolidate his grasp on the province's patronage system. (Wells denies this.)
Most likely, the real reason is that the feds were worried Ches' apple didn't fall far enough from John's tree. The Conservatives would rather lose the seat than deal with a loose cannon like a Crosbie in their caucus, ranting and roaring out of turn. ("For ten years or however long the present prime minister's been there, only one voice carries and that's his, but it wasn't like that when I was a minister," John Crosbie recently reminisced with iPolitics.)
Party leaders in this country don't want MPs who take their craft as parliamentarians too seriously. They just want people who can manage the voters back home and then show up to vote how they're told. This is the only account that can explain Peter Penashue or Piss Cup Guy being greenlighted for the Conservatives while Ches Crosbie was told to fuck off.
Whatever actually happened, not only did the Conservatives torpedo their best shot at winning a seat in Newfoundland and Labrador, but they managed to alienate one of the province's truly great Tory dynasties. Instead, they have drafted Lorraine Barnett from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to put her name on the ballot, fall on her sword, and give body to the fiction that the party hasn't abandoned the riding.
"The allegations against Mr. Andrews are disturbing and I really don't think he's laid his cards on the table, I don't think he's come clean to people," Barnett told CBC.
She is one of four women running against Andrews in this election.
Barnett is hoping that the divisions in the Liberal party will work in her favour. This is unlikely. Not only is Andrews positioned to capture a large swathe of the Liberal vote, but there is a good chance he can cut into the traditional Tory vote too. There are more than a few conservatives in the riding who are pissed off about what happened to Crosbie and who've warmed to the cut of Andrews' jib now that he's cursing that punk Trudeau. And there's definitely a sizeable chunk of people who believe he really did get a raw deal from the Social Justice Warriors in the Liberal and NDP caucuses who they see as too eager to pervert due process in their sexual harassment witch hunt.
It may be that Andrews is ultimately brought down by the disturbing allegations against him. But that challenge is not going to come from the right.
ORANGE YOU GLAD YOU DIDN'T VOTE SCOTT ANDREWS? (NOT SORRY)
The NDP in this race is a wildcard. More than the other two major parties, the NDP stands to gain the most from national polling trends (for now). And as the former Atlantic Regional VP of the Public Service Alliance Canada union, Jeannie Baldwin has the street cred to be a star candidate for the social democrats. But it's hard to say at the outset whether the party has a shot.
Historically, the NDP have never been a contender, either before or since the riding became Avalon. In 2011, as Jack Layton's Orange Wave surged across the country, the NDP in Avalon actually lost votes compared to their showing in 2008. Despite an overwhelmingly working-class character, rural Newfoundland and Labrador has never really warmed up to the federal (or provincial) New Democrats.
But the makeup of the riding has changed a lot since the last election. A fifth of the old St. John's East riding, the sprawling suburbs of Conception Bay South and Paradise, have been shuffled into Avalon. St. John's East elected Jack Harris in 2008 and 2011 by some of the largest margins in the country, and they look poised to do so again in 2015. It goes without saying that Harris will be a shoe-in for cabinet if Mulcair forms the government. Had these areas been part of Avalon in the last election, the NDP would have doubled their vote.
Part of voting (or not voting) NDP in this country seems to boil down to psychology. The party's surge federally is thanks in no small part to Rachel Notley's stunning victory in Alberta last spring. Suddenly a taboo seems to have been lifted and people across Canada feel like it's safe to cast their vote for a Dipper. Given that the new parts of Avalon have voted NDP before and the sky didn't fall, they'd probably be okay with doing it again.
But it's hard to say how many of Harris' votes will carry over in the new riding. After more than 25 years of political service, Harris has become a Newfoundland statesman, larger than any one party or region. The other St. John's NDP MP, anti-Confederate (this means something else in Newfoundland) journalist Ryan Cleary, won by a significantly smaller margin in the last election despite being tailor-made for the St. John's/Mount Pearl champagne socialist demographic.
While they have a beachhead established in Paradise and CBS, the party will have to work hard to maintain it without Harris' name recognition. Baldwin's campaign will have to build up and out from the St. John's suburbs. The provincial party will be little help, since they're busy recovering from self-inflicted burn wounds and struggling to avoid irrelevancy in November's provincial election. If anything, they'll be focusing most of their campaigning in St. John's. Plus, the NL NDP tanked in the last two provincial by-elections held in the riding (Carbonear-Harbour Grace in 2013 and Conception Bay South in 2014), so maybe some distance might do the federal campaign a bit of good.
That's not to count Baldwin out. As a major regional figure in one of the country's more powerful labour unions, she certainly has the professional background to organize the shit out of a political campaign. She outgunned Jenny Wright for the NDP nomination by a large margin, and Wright (the executive director of the St. John's Status of Women Council and organizer of the province's first SlutWalk, whose victory would've been the most emotionally satisfying way to see Scott Andrews eat shit) was no slacker.
Baldwin will have a solid machine behind her, staffed with union battleaxes and, depending on how the Liberal vote splits in the denser parts of CBS, there may be enough of a window for her to squeeze through to victory. But she has a limited profile outside the labour movement, and beyond the St. John's suburbs, the strength of the NDP vote gets pretty questionable.
But there is wisdom in the crowd. If it looks like Tom Mulcair is poised to form government in the runup to election day, the riding might be willing to get in on the ground floor of a brand new day in Ottawa.
They'd be hard pressed to find a better way to stick it to both the Liberals (past and present) and the Tories than that.
IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Krista Byrne-Puumala is a great Green candidate. She's young and obviously vibrant. She ran a renewable energy company that installed solar panels in Ontario and interned as the Environmental Coordinator for the city of Mount Pearl for six months. She's active in promoting food sustainability in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is an issue the province desperately needs to tackle.
A TRANS RIGHTS TRAILBLAZER TAKING ON ALL COMERS
If you lived in or around St. John's in the summer of 2009 and don't remember the iconic cover The Scope (RIP) ran about Jennifer McCreath, you're a fucking scrub. The shot of McCreath in a bikini, rising out of the icy waters at Topsail Beach like a boss, is a historic piece of provincial photojournalism. She ran five marathons in 2009 shortly after reassignment surgery, and won gold at the World Outgames in Denmark that July, becoming "the first formally recognized transsexual in world history to run a marathon."
McCreath doesn't fuck around, and this general aura of fearlessness is part of the reason why she's the first openly transgender candidate in Canadian history to appear on a federal ballot. (Second, if you count Québec NDP candidate Micheline Montreuil, but the party dropped her from its roster in 2007 before an election was called.)
Born in Nova Scotia before moving to Toronto as a child, she came to St. John's in 2007 to take a job as a senior policy analyst with the provincial government. She opted to begin her transition in Newfoundland, putting trans issues on the public radar eight years ago through a series of interviews with local broadcaster NTV.
Transitioning isn't easy—especially when you're a public figure in a pretty close-knit place. But McCreath found Newfoundland pleasant and welcoming, telling The Scope in 2009 that:
"In Newfoundland, I would say in general, people are open and accepting of diversity. Even if there's not necessarily a lot of diversity... People here often can understand what it feels like to be different... People can appreciate someone who's a little different who's struggling to gain societal acceptance. They know I'm still a human being."
Since then, she has been a prominent figure in local activism. She was a founding member of St. John's Pride Inc. (she broke with them in 2012 over their handling of trans issues, but reconciled in 2014), founder of the East Coast Trans Alliance, and she even ran for deputy mayor of St. John's in 2013.
Now she's running for Strength in Democracy, the young brainchild of disaffected NDP MP Jean-François Larose and one-time Bloc Québecois leadership hopeful Jean-François Fortin. Strength in Democracy (known as Forces et Democratie in Québec) is basically a metastasized Bloc. Rather than outright separatism, they want a decentralized federalism, empowered and engaged citizenship, and better regional representation in Ottawa. Not unlike Preston Manning's Reform Party, they are a rebellious upstart looking to help Canadians throw off the straitjacket of heavily-scripted, leader-driven party discipline that has come to dominate the House of Commons. Unlike Preston Manning's Reform Party, they're a protest party in search of a base.
But that said, it's not outrageous that a pro-region protest party in the vein of the BQ would strike a chord on the east coast. Take away the overt references to French-Canadian nationalism, and 'sovereignty' as a general political concept has always made intuitive sense to Newfoundlanders. Like Québec, we have a fierce sense of nationalist alienation (and unlike Québec, an independent Newfoundland state is still—just barely—within living memory). We know what it's like to feel like the bastards upalong don't actually give a shit about giving you a raw deal.
Whether these feelings are legitimate or not is beside the point. They exist, and as the Danny Williams saga demonstrates, they drive more of our politics than many people would care to admit. And in this vein, McCreath is the perfect fit. It's hard to argue that anyone is better suited to kick down the doors of the House of Commons and demand they start respecting our distinct society than Newfoundland and Labrador's original trans rights trailblazer.
But calling it an uphill battle is an understatement. Fringe parties often fare worse than Independents in elections, and at the moment there is no ready source of Newfoundland nationalist ressentiment for McCreath's campaign to exploit. And while McCreath has more immediate name recognition than most of the other candidates, she can't hold a candle to Andrews in the riding. The man has spent the better part of seven years insinuating himself into his constituents' lives through a religious devotion to birthday card mailouts and pancake breakfasts.
And there's definitely more than one unenlightened enclave in Avalon that isn't ready to make some Come-From-Away their MP. Being trans is fine, but being a Mainlander? God preserve you, my friend.
Protest parties are a long shot, but they can offer a valuable service—they can give a voice to independent-minded voters while still offering the organization, however fragile, of a political party. This might be especially useful in Avalon, where anyone wanting to flip the bird to the major parties isn't stuck relying on Mr. Alleged Sexual Harassment to be their mouthpiece.
THE TIDE ROLLS OUT
Avalon is on track to make history. They're either about to elect their first NDP MP and start breaking the rural ice for the S.S. Social Democracy, or they're about to re-elect a maverick MP with a chip on his shoulder about party (and—allegedly—personal) discipline.
In the grand scheme of things, the stakes are not that high. The outcome of the race in Avalon is unlikely to have any big impact on government in Ottawa. Even if we get a minority government, it's unlikely that its life will rest in the hands of an east coast backbencher.
But just because the Ultimate Fate of Canada doesn't hang in the balance, there are other reasons to care about what happens in this riding. For one, the sheer absurdity of the showdown makes it the most colourful race in Canada right now. It's not every day that a high-profile Canadian sex scandal intersects with a decade-long Conservative family feud, the breakthrough of an NDP government, and the political face of a province's trans community. If the CBC had any money left, they could probably turn this into a killer TV miniseries with one of those Doyles.
It's impossible to say, this far away from voting day, what will actually happen. All things being equal, this should be a contest between the Liberals and the NDP over a place Stephen Harper left for dead nearly a decade ago. But here instead we have a dark horse candidate who has a real shot at upsetting the usual dynamics of Canadian politics in the worst possible way. It may very well be that Scott Andrews has a preternatural gift for electioneering. But if he really is reaffirmed to office on October 19th, someone is going to need to sit down with the riding and have a long, uncomfortable conversation about sexual harassment on Parliament Hill.
There's a lot going on here, and if you love the Rock like I do, it's going to be a nail-biter to see how it all goes down. All I know is that if there's an all-candidates debate between here and the polling booth, I'm making the rules for the drinking game.
And you'd better believe there's going to be a hell of a lot of Screech.
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