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Thousands of NL Liberals debate policy, leadership in telephone town hall

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The Liberals may be down in the polls, but some last-minute organizing by former Humber West Liberal candidate Mark Watton brought them surging to the front lines of technological, participatory democracy on Saturday.

Watton organized a ‘telephone town hall’ whereby Liberal members – or any of the general public, for that matter – could register to participate in a public forum with candidates who have been nominated to head the party in the wake of Yvonne Jones’ decision to step down as party leader. By the end of the forum, organizers reported that a total of 3422 people had participated. An associated Twitter feed was also active throughout the event.

Only four of the candidates were available to participate – Kevin Aylward, Danny Dumaresque, Ryan Lane and Rodney Martin. Bern Coffey and Charles Murphy were unavailable. Brad Cabana – who recently ran unsuccessfully for the Progressive Conservative leadership – had left the province due to a family emergency and was in transit back. He sent a short letter which Watton read out.

“I’d like to wish all my fellow Liberals the very best,” it read in part. “My wish is we as a family don’t look at the past…but at the present.”

But the forum was as much about providing an opportunity for Liberals and the public to weigh in on policy matters, ask questions, and make general comments. The telephone town hall technology was also used to poll listeners on a variety of questions, such as what listeners considered important factors in determining how they vote; what sort of social media technology they prefer to use; and, at the end, which of the seven leadership candidates they would vote for if they had the chance.

“The young crowds are still going and they’re not gonna come back. What about the young folks? What’s gonna happen to the outports?”

There was no shortage of questions.

Neville, phoning from Bonavista, asked candidates “What do we see in the future for the outports?”

It became a persistent theme.

“The young crowds are still going and they’re not gonna come back. What about the young folks? What’s gonna happen to the outports?”

Some listeners who got on the line interjected with brief endorsements for particular candidates. But by and large, it was an opportunity for listeners to air their thoughts on the needs of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians going into the upcoming election. Candidates were given several opportunities to deliver 90-second responses after batches of questions had been asked.

“The future of rural Newfoundland and Labrador is a major issue,” said Aylward. “The present government has attempted to do a review or restructuring of the fishery and have not been successful at all. We want to concentrate very aggressively on developing a policy that will work in the rural areas of the province.”

“I’m not a new face and I can’t claim to be an attractive one…But I’ve got years of experience.” (Danny Dumaresque)

Dumaresque – a leading contender – echoed the sentiment.

“I certainly understand where people are coming from with the fishery…I understand that there’s a future for the fishery, I understand that it can only happen if we invest money into aquaculture.”

“I’m not a new face and I can’t claim to be an attractive one,” he added. “But I’ve got years of experience.”

Ryan Lane – one of the younger faces running for the leadership – said it was vital to build capacity in rural communities. He proposed the creation of a new act to encapsulate fishery policy and enshrine the role of the fishery in the province’s heritage.

When asked about economic development for rural Newfoundland and Labrador, Martin emphasized the importance of tourism and aquaculture.

Rebuilding a battered party

Several listeners expressed the bitter disappointment Liberals have experienced seeing their party’s share of the popular vote shrink dramatically since Danny Williams’ arrival on the scene.

“I was a member of the party, I retired 8 years ago and for some reason everything seemed to die,” said one caller.”I would like to see some new blood.”

“We witnessed the party implode with the last leadership race,” said another. “We saw an implosion of the party due to lack of discipline, lack of order, lack of respect for process, lack of leadership as well. To go to the other extreme now where the current governing party is a dictatorship…I’d like to know how the next leadership candidate will find a balance between these two extremes…but not create dictatorship in the process.”

“I want to see candidates focusing on the issues, not just on ‘I want to be premier’.”

“We’ve got too much of a focus on the big leader,” said another caller. “What we need to do as a party is we need to be swinging mud and laying bricks. I’m not hearing much from candidates on what their plans are to increase membership, to haul back people who have left, to increase youth…I want to see candidates focusing on the issues, not just on ‘I want to be premier’.”

The growing seniors’ crisis

One of the dominant issues throughout the forum was the plight of seniors in the province. The Liberals recently released a policy platform around seniors’ needs, but clearly listeners felt there’s more that needs to be done.

“How will our new leader go about getting a fair deal for our pensioners, pensioners who have been forgotten by our government and are being dealt with in a very severe way financially?” asked Marjory. “While costs go up, pensioners get nothing. What will a new leader do and how hard will they work to improve the lives of our seniors?”

Watton interjected to ask whether she meant public servant pensioners, or seniors generally.

“Both,” she replied. “I think there’s room for improvement for both plans.”

Other callers were even more irate.

“Thousands of dollars have been poured into this election, and there are seniors who are suffering!” declared one, with a tone of rebuke.

Mary, from Humber West, spoke eloquently on behalf of her fellow seniors.

“I’m thinking about the seniors, being a senior myself. I’m thinking about the food banks. Seniors can’t go to the food banks because they have no transportation. I’m thinking when I walk to the mall, I see people almost froze there, who can’t walk home…it’s really not fair. It’s very sad. My wish would be that somebody in the Liberal party – our new leader – would be able to appreciate that. I know we need our youth, and there are a lot of poor youth, but we all got to get together and try and make it better for all those people that need it.”

“The disrespect we hear for our seniors is ridiculous. I’m in favour of a guaranteed annual income for seniors…[to] make sure nobody’s freezing to death in their own house.” (Rodney Martin)

Leadership candidates all rallied in support of seniors. Dumaresque voiced his commitment to creating a guaranteed annual income for seniors.

“Rather than investing money in NALCOR…I will take those royalties and I will make it so that every senior will be able to go to sleep with a good temperature in the house and not worry that they won’t be able to pay their heat and their light bill…I will fight to bring in a guaranteed annual income.”

Martin agreed. “The disrespect we hear for our seniors is ridiculous. I’m in favour of a guaranteed annual income for seniors….we need to target money toward our seniors wherever possible, and make sure nobody’s freezing to death in their own house.”

Lane encouraged tax cuts for seniors and all low-income persons, but emphasized that the party needs to start doing more than complaining.

“We have to be out front with our own policy, not just poke holes at the other parties’ policies.”

Liam, a caller from Grand Bank, echoed Lane’s concern about party policy.

“I think the main priority of the Liberals is to distinguish ourselves from the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives….We have to show that we’re socially progressive and fiscally responsible. In what way will you present the Liberal party as a moderate centrist alternative?” he asked candidates.

Wide range of issues raised

A patchwork of other issues arose throughout the hour-and-a-half long session as well. Some listeners were disgruntled about employer labour practices in the province.

“Unfortunately in our major employers in our province there is very little opportunity for democratization in the workplace,” said one. “Things are very heavy-handed and top-down and authoritarian…we need opportunities for participation from our workers in the workplace.”

Sue Kelland-Dyer, executive director of the Council of Independent Community Pharmacy Owners, brought the ongoing pharmacist dispute to the forum.

“What will you do to ensure and protect that the collaborative care practice between doctor, pharmacist and patient will survive in rural communities?” she asked. “So we may treat what is an aging population as well as attract young families into our areas?”

“We have to be out front with our own policy, not just poke holes at other parties’ policies.” (Ryan Lane)

And at least one caller was concerned about the arts.

“I really want the Liberal party to let me know what it’s going to do to help the growth of the arts, and cultural tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador. I’d appreciate hearing what you intend to do, and what you intend to do better than the current government is doing, for support for the arts.”

Attacks on Muskrat Falls

Muskrat Falls came in for varying degrees of bashing by each of the candidates.

“It’s scary,” said Aylward. “We’re talking about billions of dollars here…given the debtload and the global debt crisis, it’s not the way to go.” He said he would develop a plan to renegotiate the deal.

Dumaresque was more blunt.

“My policy is clear: I have seen enough. I will kill this deal. I will not allow electricity rates to go through the roof, I will not allow our futures to be mortgaged on a deal which is not necessary.”

“It’s scary. We’re talking about billions of dollars here.” (Kevin Aylward)

Aylward and Lane endorsed the idea of creating a legacy fund, to invest surplus natural resource revenue rather than spending it all as it comes in.

“I fully would support and endorse as a leader a legacy fund, a heritage fund being set with a directed percentage of offshore oil revenues directed toward our future,” said Aylward. “I’ve already been looking at models…we need a legacy fund for our future.”

“I support the idea of the legacy fund, it makes perfectly good sense,” said Lane.

Dumaresque didn’t address the question, while Martin felt it wouldn’t be feasible.

“We are no Norway,” he said. “We only have a small percentage of the oil being produced that Norway does, so we’re in no position to have a legacy fund.”

In his closing remarks, Aylward proposed the idea of a referendum on Gull Island.

“I would propose having a referendum…putting a proposal forward that we as a people and a government can go forward on Gull Island,” he said.

“Labrador is an economic breadbasket for Newfoundland and we have to treat it properly. If we put forward the idea of a referendum…that’s a way to bring it back to the people and let them have their say.”

Dumaresque delivered a very personal appeal for support.

“Today my family, I’m saying to you…I have been here faithfully through the thick and thin…I am prepared as I have never been prepared before to take the Tories on on the fishery…I want to be a candidate for this party because I love this party, and I love this province. I believe it’s only the Liberals that can offer the socially progressive and fiscally responsible policies to govern this province fairly and justly. I want this job more than anything.”

“During the federal election, when she was just out of treatment, she went door-knocking with me despite her doctor’s advice.” (Mark Watton, on Yvonne Jones’ leadership and commitment)

Lane presented himself as a new start for the party.

“Chances are you’ve never heard of me. I’ve been among the silent majority of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have been watching the political scene…we cannot concentrate on simply pointing fingers at the current governing party…we must start anew. We cannot head into the upcoming election carrying all the baggage of the past. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador are crying out for a leader who understands that we don’t all drive shiny new cars and have million dollar homes…that some of us don’t even have clean drinking water.”

Martin closed with only a few words, saying he was open to the idea of a plebiscite on Muskrat Falls.

“The courage to change is what we need,” he said in closing.

Watton the real winner

Watton was pleased with the high turnout on such short notice.

“It’s above and beyond what we expected, given that we only had two days to set this up,” he said, before signing off. “It’s going to be a tough decision for them, we’ve attracted seven high caliber candidates in this race…I don’t know if ever a political party managed to get 3400 people on the phone on such short notice.”

He also clued up with a brief tribute to Yvonne Jones’ leadership and commitment.

“During the federal election, when she was just out of treatment, she went door-knocking with me despite her doctor’s advice,” he recalled.

Andrew Parsons, Liberal candidate for Burgeo-La Poile, made one of the final comments and voiced what was no doubt a common feeling among participants.

“Whoever we choose, we as Liberals must stand behind them for the good of the party. We all know what’s happened in the past, we’ve been torn apart…we have to band together…this won’t be accomplished unless we’re all on board. We’ve got a great opportunity here and I hope we can exploit it.”

The 21 members of the Liberal Party’s provincial board will select one of the candidates as party leader on Sunday.

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