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E-Day: Last minute thoughts on Newfoundland’s election

in NL Election 2011/Through the Fog by

Today marks the end of the 2011 provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s an election that will be remembered for the last-minute leadership change by the Liberals, a surge in NDP popularity, and the true end of the Danny Williams era. On the one hand Newfoundland and Labrador is going to be only the second province in Canadian history to select a woman as its Premier; but on the other hand its choices were between a woman who less than a year ago said she had no interest in the job, a man who was selected arbitrarily at the last minute to lead his party, and the historically third-place party.

Today Newfoundlanders are going to make their choices based on either a party leader, a party platform, a political ideology, the local candidates, or their gut feeling. If you’re like most people, it’s likely a combination of all of the above. If you fit in that category, you may want to remind yourself of the events of the past 5 weeks (see Hans Rollmann’s weekly reviews), take a look again at the party platforms, or confirm your gut feeling.

But political ideologies sometimes don’t represent the logical choice; local candidates may not correlate with the gut feeling; the platform might sound good, but the leader delivering it might not. And so the decision is clouded. To clear things up, I always go back to the party platform – What specifics piqued my interests? What was my overall impression? And almost equally important – how effective was the party and its leader communicating those plans? If a party can’t properly promote and defend its own plans, I can’t be confident in its ability to implement them.

Today, for each party I dig into their policy documents and share what struck me on a personal level as one of their good ideas, what I believe to be bad policy, my overall thoughts on their platforms, which of their promotional strategies made me take notice, and my general feeling of their campaigns.

The Progressive Conservatives

A Good idea: BUYNL. The Tories plan to set up an online resource which displays all of the products and services made right here in Newfoundland. The purpose of the database will be to not only promote abroad all that is done here, but also to provide entrepreneurs and businesses here at home with better knowledge and an asset which can be used to develop partnerships. As a small business owner myself, I can already see some great potential here to strengthen the local business community.

A Bad idea: the degree of information provided. Kudos to the PCs for providing a very detailed outline of their plans for Newfoundland and Labrador, but this may be overkill – the PC “Blue Book” is 76 pages long. From a voter point of view it’s great to see that our probable winner today has some incredibly specific objectives, but from a political point of view I can’t help but think the PCs have made an error here. This document gives opposition parties an awful lot to chew on over the next four years to hold the government to account. Realistically the PCs could have relaxed a little bit on this front – and besides, who’s going to sit down and read a 76-page document anyways?

Overall thoughts: On the other hand, the “Blue Book” is not just horribly specific but it is also laden with very positive messaging. Ironically, it is the incumbent Conservative government that has provided the electorate with the most inspiring read. Other than a blip on the radar with their home care policy and their necessary defense of the Muskrat Falls project, the document is squeaky clean and represents minor and incremental improvements across the board. “Steady as she goes” is the message, and it’s conveyed well.

On the campaign trail: Kathy Dunderdale and her PC team did what they had to do – they avoided becoming viewed as complacent after 8 years in government, avoided controversy and scandal, and presented themselves as really the only reasonable choice. The team, despite two terms in power and a change in leadership, was a surprisingly united bunch with no indication of rivalry or cracks in the armour.

How I noticed them: The PCs were active in advertising – online advertising. It seemed every website I visited in the past two weeks featured Dunderdale’s mug and the PC pitch. The party was ahead of the curve on this one, and as a result had a giant market to themselves to spread their brand. There were reports, however, that they were annoying voters with excessive phone calls throughout the campaign.

The Liberals

A Good idea: The Liberals plan to revamp the road infrastructure activities of the government to a model that will make more sense. See all the construction out there on the roads in the middle of October? The Liberals want to make the tendering process more efficient to get those crews out much earlier in the Summer. They also plan to map out the province’s roads in an online database (GIS) so that we can all see the state of our roads, their histories, and even their snow-clearing status from the comfort of home. Makes sense to me.

A Bad idea: The Liberals have been clear that they want to halt the development of Muskrat Falls until a full new review on the project can occur; in their platform they even call on Nalcor to immediately re-open negotiations with Quebec to fully develop the Lower Churchill – not just Muskrat. This has been a center-piece of the Liberal message, however it failed to take into account that the majority of Newfoundlanders support the project. As a result the Liberals faced an uphill battle from day one on this issue.

Overall thoughts: The Liberal party presented a detailed policy platform, and the only one that provided a comprehensive fisheries strategy for the province. For that they can be commended – yet their plan is too confusing for the average reader. Their incredibly specific action-items are sometimes lost on the reader. “A new Liberal government will work with its Federal counterpart to amend section 119 of the Atlantic Accord Act in order to allow independent auditing of the C-NLOPB…” For somebody not interested in the oil industry, what does this even mean? The policy document is full of these types of details, diluting the Liberal message.

On the campaign trail: For the second straight election, the Liberal focus seemed to be solely on rural Newfoundland. An election strategy that ignores where half the population of the province is bananas. Of course NDP popularity is surging in the metro region; the Liberals have given voters on the Northeast Avalon no other choice when it comes to voting against the PCs. Also the incredibly negative campaigning against the PCs – one of the most popular and arguably successful Newfoundland governments of all time – doesn’t hit home with voters who handed the PCs all but 3 seats in the last election and don’t have a pressing reason not to do so again. More on the Liberal strategy tomorrow.

How I noticed them: The Liberals were leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of their own online presence. Their website was modern, attractive, and even featured video updates on YouTube from Kevin Aylward himself.

The New Democratic Party

A Good idea: Portions of the NDP plans for ‘renewing democracy’ make a lot of sense to me. Specifically, the idea of legislating a minimum number of days a year that our House of Assembly sits over the course of a year; there have been some laughably short sessions in recent years. Also, the idea to add “civics” to the high school curriculum is valuable. The idea that even the top students graduate high school without the necessary tools to participate in our democracy is unfortunate.

A Bad idea: The NDP’s plan to pay for its promises by applying a new tax to the oil industry cost the party its credibility. Not only is the plan unrealistic as it would involve reneging on legally binding agreements our province already has negotiated in good faith, and not only would it take many many years and likely lots of public money to accomplish, it would also poison the working relationship with an industry we rely heavily on at present time. This was lazy policy work by the NDP team attempting to make up financially for its election promises, and irresponsible at that.

Overall thoughts: The NDP platform was straight to the point. This simplicity makes the document attractive to voters, and (as opposed to the PCs or Liberals) does give a clear indication of what the party’s priorities are and what its general approach to governance would be. The only danger is that its simplicity is sometimes misleading; for example the one-liner “Address shortage of specialists in the province” sounds nice, but that is a very complex issue that is grossly misrepresented with a promise to “address” it. There has to be a happy medium between what the PCs and the NDP offered us.

On the campaign trail: By being more aggressive than usual in their criticisms of government policy, the NDP have done an excellent job of filling the political void left open by the Liberals. Their base of supporters, energized and growing as a result of the Spring federal election results, have pushed to continue the party’s momentum which has evidently shown in the polls. However, on some levels the movement still appears to be a one-woman show. Where Lorraine Michael criticizes the PCs for sending their Finance Minister to an economic debate rather than its leader, perhaps she could have considered giving one of her top candidates more exposure too, which would have helped to reveal the party’s true depth.

How I noticed them: – The NDP told me “It’s Time” with digital signs throughout the city, and the party got considerable free promotion from The Scope when it unanimously endorsed each of the 8 NDP candidates in St. John’s. However the strength of the party was most evident through its online social network; rare was it to find overt support for the PCs or Liberals on Facebook or Twitter – but it was a constant stream for the NDP. This is an indication of the almost-exclusive popularity and connection the party has with a younger generation.

Conclusion

In the end, the 2011 election won’t be about the PCs. Despite the change in leadership, they have simply given the electorate no reason to turn their backs on them in significant numbers. This election will be about the battle for second place. Can the Liberals at least maintain the status quo.. or will the NDP make history?

For me the excitement in Newfoundland politics begins tomorrow. How will the Liberals clean up their mess? Will the NDP, with growing support and ambition, still believe that Lorraine Michael will get them to the next level? How long can the PCs maintain the united front?

Stay tuned.

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