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Election Round-up: This is it!

in Featured/Journalism/NL Election 2011 by

Well, we’re at the final stretch, with Election Day on Tuesday October 11. The past week has seen largely an intensification of battles over previous weeks’ issues, with the three parties pulling out all the stops (St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and other notables stepping up for the PCs, NDP MP Olivia Chow and other notables swinging in to support the NDP, and the Liberals…well, keeping on keeping on). But let’s take a look at one of the interesting issues that arose this week, and then try to sum things up.

Polls apart

Election campaigns are as much psychological as they are strategic. The successful parties are those who, when things look rough, manage to keep their cool and not fall apart at the seams. This is the scenario the Liberals have been facing throughout the election, and as things come down to the wire signs of panic are starting to seep through. The latest kerfuffle involves the Liberals’ response to opinion polls showing them trailing in last place, behind the NDP and PCs. Instead of hitting the pavement and trucking on stoically, last week Liberal leader Kevin Aylward questioned the credibility of the polls themselves, based on the fact MQO Research is a branch of M5 Communications which has benefited from lucrative contracts with the PC Government and which also donated $30,000 to their election campaign.

Now let’s unpack this a little, because it’s important on several levels. First of all, bad move for the Liberals. Regardless of whether there’s credibility to their challenge or not, it just looks bad to spend time denouncing a polling company. Reeks of bad sportsmanship, and a little bit of desperation. The virtuous thing to do would have been to politely ignore the poll and keep on campaigning, harder than ever (although, in the Liberals’ defense, does anybody remember when doomed Conservative candidates in St. John’s did the exact same thing two federal elections ago? It was just as silly and desperate when the PCs denounced the reliability of the polls as when the Liberals did it).

But that being said, there’s something to their frustration as well. Geoff Meeker provided a strong defense of the polling firms in his Meeker on Media column in The Telegram. And essentially, I agree with him: I think it unlikely the polling firms would have skewed a poll just because of their ongoing contracts with the PCs. This is too small a province to do something like that and not get caught, sooner or later. There’s no evidence to suggest they did and any such claims are pretty far-fetched.

It’s not illegal, or technically wrong, and nor does it cast doubt on their results. But it just looks darn bad.

But by the same token, MQO and M5 deserve some criticism as well. Some very strong criticism, in fact. Polling plays an immensely powerful role in today’s democracy. It has an incredible power to shape and direct public opinion. Polling companies have a moral obligation to conduct themselves responsibly. And even if they did not engage in any conflict of interest – and I don’t think they did – they have the responsibility to avoid any possibility of the appearance of conflict of interest. And whatever way you look at it, donating $30,000 to a party whose performance you are empirically evaluating in public opinion does Not. Look. Good.

It’s not illegal, or technically wrong, and nor does it cast doubt on their results. But it just looks darn bad. Of course individuals and companies can donate to whomever they want. But when you play a valuable public role shaping public opinion, you have a responsibility to think of how your actions might be viewed. Take the media. CBC reporters are barely allowed to accept complimentary coffees and sandwiches when they’re covering a day-long event, lest it be construed as influencing their coverage. The idea that a CBC journalist’s reporting might be influenced by a $10 roast beef sandwich is patently ridiculous: their egos are far too big to be influenced by that sort of thing, anyhow. But they have firm policies around complimentary gifts and food, and about what sort of public support they’re permitted to give parties or politicians, because they hold a role of important public responsibility and they must be so far above the pale when it comes to conflict of interest that one would not have the slightest grounds to accuse them of it. Public polling firms need to be held to the same account. Political donations from firms that engage in opinion polling (or have subsidiaries who do) ought to be forbidden, and there ought to be greater transparency and scrutiny of the contracts they hold with governments or any parties which their polling touches on. Stronger regulatory laws governing the conduct of polling firms would not be a bad idea. After all, the CBC doesn’t endorse parties in the election. That’s why many of us trust their coverage more than we trust coverage by newspapers whose publishers do endorse or financially support particular parties.

So while Liberal claims of skewed polling are far-fetched, hopefully the issue will lead to stronger scrutiny around what is legitimate activity for a firm that is engaged in polling, and what is not.

Summing it all up

This past week has seen a range of political punditry as the experienced journalists, the political hacks, the mainland celebrity stumpers and the bloggers all issue their final analyses of the provincial election. I’d like to highlight a couple. First off, Greg Locke, Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald correspondent in Newfoundland and Labrador, issued a deceptively titled analysis called “Campaign fails to spark much interest” which, after a paragraph saying how boring the election was, proceeds to outline how exciting the NDP performance has been, and how they have proven to be the most active, energetic, and organized party in this campaign. Local blogger Newfoundland Political Junkie shares some degree of admiration for this election’s unprecedented show of NDP organization and energy. Still, Newfoundland Political Junkie says, it’s no Orange surge because the most the party is likely to win is some seats in St. John’s. The rest of the province is too entrenched in traditional voting patterns, and the site declares this election “a bust” and “a yawning election”. Finally, CBC’s Doug Letto published an extremely important cautionary editorial titled “Oil, wealth and caution at the finish line”. Much like theindependent.ca argued weeks ago, he points out that what has made this election different from previous ones is that oil wealth has left all three parties creating visions of how to spend new revenue (rather than fighting over how to cutback in the face of our traditionally shrinking economy). But then he goes on to provide an incisive critique of how these platforms are all based on a tacit assumption of ongoing stability and growth from one of the world’s most volatile resources: oil. He highlights how dangerous putting our trust in a single resource has been in the past, and how it remains more dangerous than ever today (he should know: he’s researched and published excellent material on this subject before).

So let’s put it all together. Assuming the PC’s win a majority government, the NDP comes in a strong (and, for this province, record-breaking) second, and the Liberals continue to disintegrate, what can we learn from this election?

Yet why is it that as rural Newfoundland’s economy continues to disintegrate…the party most associated with ‘change’ – the NDP – appears to be making their greatest headway in the St. John’s region instead?

One of the big questions is hinted at by Locke’s article. The Liberals were on to something with their focus on rural Newfoundland. Yet why is it that as rural Newfoundland’s economy continues to disintegrate, with continued massive unemployment and labour turmoil, the party most associated with ‘change’ – the NDP – appears to be making their greatest headway in the St. John’s region instead? Why is the region that is suffering the most – the rural community base – apparently poised to return MHA’s from the two parties which have implemented the various policies that have resulted in this state of affairs?

I think part of the answer is evident from the PC’s line on why the NDP are doing so well. This past week the PCs have made a strong point of saying publicly that the reason for NDP success is not because the NDP are organized or coherent, but because the Liberals are going through a [temporary] period of disorganization and incoherency. In other words, they’re trying to downplay the long-term viability of the NDP in this province…and they sound almost frightened in the way they’re going about it.

And they’re doing it for a reason. The fact that the region which is benefiting the most from the new oil wealth – the Avalon – appears poised to deliver strong support to the NDP, is a warning sign about a public opinion which may already be undergoing a seismic shift. People in St. John’s are clearly not content with how the ‘oil wealth’ has been shared – with the rise in rental and housing costs, the lack of significant improvements to social programs (besides post-secondary education), and the general long-term vision of the government. If, at what appears to be our time of greatest plenty, urban voters on the Avalon are turning away from the government which brought us to this point, then there is some significant dissatisfaction with that government.

Rural Newfoundland is slow to rise to the call of change, but once aroused, it is an inexorable force…

And what of rural Newfoundland and Labrador? The mistake many pundits make is in conceptualizing this election as a one-off event. History doesn’t happen in 4-year increments. If you ask me, nobody should be permitted to practice journalism without a strong training in history; otherwise you succumb too easily to the immediacy and the excitement of the present, without taking that step back to consider how this present moment fits in with larger (and ongoing) historical patterns. Rural Newfoundland has always been slow to change. This conservatism is one of its strengths: one of the reasons our culture is as strong as it is. But the inherent conservatism of our culture is not grounded in ideology or politics, but rather in the pragmatic strength and determination which has enabled us to survive against so many hardships and difficulties. Rural Newfoundland is slow to rise to the call of change, but once aroused, it is an inexorable force which can – and has – accomplished things that were previously undreamt of: this very place is a testament to that. The Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) was an unheard of idea when William Coaker began organizing shortly after the turn of the last century, but in the space of about six years he built it – idealistic goals and all – from literally nothing into a political party capable of holding the balance of power in the Newfoundland legislature, one of the few and most powerful labour parties in North American history. If the FPU hadn’t made the fatal decision to support conscription during World War I (a decision angrily opposed by much of outport Newfoundland) they might even have formed a future government. The Confederation debate provides another example of how rural Newfoundland, once roused, is capable of committing Newfoundland and Labrador to extraordinary and unexpected political turns.

The strong performance of NDP candidates in rural Newfoundland might not be a futile gesture, as Newfoundland Political Junkie suggests. It just might chronicle a rural Newfoundland which is beginning to rouse itself toward a political rebirth as radical as these previous ones. Most of the Liberal candidates who are doing well are ones who, by the looks of it, might almost seem more comfortable as NDP candidates if they hadn’t felt compelled to run for a more traditional party; and after the NDP’s remarkable performance this election maybe other parties’ candidates will reconsider their options next election. The story of the election IS the NDP surge, and if the NDP is smart, it will approach this experience not as a single election, but as the first of a one-two punch to mobilize a sea change in political attitudes in Newfoundland and Labrador. This election may be surprising: next election could be shocking.

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