The 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador general election is a very strange beast. The province finds itself in the throes of existential crisis at the same as it is mired in a full-blown political depression. Nominations have finally closed for all parties, but only the governing Liberals are running a full slate of 40 candidates. The Tories are a close second with 39, while the NDP trail a distant third with 14 candidates. There are nine people running unaffiliated. As far as provincial politics goes, you could be forgiven for feeling like things are starting to circle the drain.
But then there is the other weird feature of the 2019 NL election: there is a new option on the ballot. In November 2018, former NL Progressive Conservative party president Graydon Pelley announced that he was resigning from the Tories to form a new entity called the NL Alliance.
The Alliance is, quite literally, the party to end all parties. Their main plank—or ‘guiding principle‘—is a demand for truly radical electoral reform: the abolition of parties, minimizing corporate and union donations, switching to a ranked preferential ballot, and directly electing candidates to the office of the premier. The party fixates on the province’s ‘fiscal crisis’ and the need to slash spending, but steadfastly promises to protect front line workers from further job or resource cuts. They advocate for an “abuse-free society” and denounce “the horrendous atrocities committed through colonialism and the resulting social, economic, and cultural issues that various Aboriginal groups throughout the province presently face.”
All these guiding principles are presented less as hard-and-fast policy promises than open discussions the Alliance wants to force all MHAs to have in the legislature. Their nine candidates are united less by shared commitment to a party line than a desire to use this machine they’ve built to smash the bonds of narrow partisan thinking they contend has led Newfoundland and Labrador down the road to ruin. Certainly, among the candidates they are fielding, “community activist” seems to be the common thread holding everyone together. It is an assembly of engaged citizens who feel alienated from the political system as it exists. So they are attempting to build their own kind of ‘politics without politics.’
The Alliance has been very busy since that first announcement in November. They got off to a bit of a rough start—much of Pelley’s early media tour was explaining to people that he’s not homophobic—but seemed to find their groove in the new year. The party assembled the 1000 signatures needed for ratification by Elections NL in early March, and it was granted official party status on April 12, mere days before Premier Dwight Ball called a snap election. Now, with nine candidates fielded in districts across the island, Pelley is hoping to upend the last 70 years of provincial party politics.
This is a big dream that raises quite a few questions. What is the NL Alliance actually hoping to accomplish? How do they plan to accomplish it? And last but not least: who is Graydon Pelley, and why is he doing this?
The Independent caught up with Pelley a few months ago to hear more about Newfoundland and Labrador’s erstwhile anti-party revolution. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
[This interview took place on 26 January 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.]
Drew Brown (The Indy): Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background. You’re from Deer Lake, right?
Graydon Pelley (NL Alliance): Well, I’m living in Deer Lake, originally from Notre Dame Bay, Lewisporte area. A little town down from Lewisporte called Little Burnt Bay. That’s where I came from. But my Dad was a minister so we travelled across the province into various places. The one place we stayed the most was on the Northern Peninsula in Griquet. And then of course, I went to Alberta and worked awhile, came back. Decided to go to university and become a teacher. Met my wife and the rest is history. I’m doing lots of things since, and keeping life exciting.
[Since this interview took place, Pelley announced he is running in the district of Mount Scio, in St. John’s. He is in the process of moving to the district.]
That’s the main thing. So, you became president of the PCs in 2016. What was your engagement with politics before that? Let’s talk a bit about your political career.
Well, I’ve been involved with politics for a long time. Let me tell you: my first ever encounter with politics was back probably in grade five or six and I was living on the Northern Peninsula. You wouldn’t remember this but I remember climbing up the sliding board and on top of the sliding board I put up the big round horns for Joey Smallwood at an outdoor rally. So that was my first encounter. And I remember standing by my dad that day when Joey Smallwood was giving a speech and my dad looked at me and said, “What do you think of this?” and I said, “You know what Dad? Someday I want to do what he’s doing.”
I’ve been involved with politics ever since and interested in it, and as I got into my teen years and adult years I got involved with many campaigns. Campaigning door to door, involved in the office with different positions and so on, but I’ve always had a keen interest in politics. You know, provincially, municipally, internationally, and I’ve always followed politics up through and came to a point where I wanted to be more active and more involved. So here I am. It all led up to this.
So were you always involved with the PCs?
Pretty much, pretty much. But I did have a little while where I helped Liberal candidates along the way when I was younger. But for the most part it was the PC party.
What was the point you realized that the PCs were not necessarily suited to what you want in politics? What was your moment on the ‘road to Damascus’ when you realized the party system wasn’t going to work?
Well, I got involved with the PC party to the extent to where I became a candidate. [Pelley ran against Dwight Ball in Humber-Gros Morne during the 2015 election.] It was about helping people. And the more I got involved, the more I was drawn into the day to day operations, especially where I became president of the party. The more I studied the system and looked at the way things were done at the executive level, and of course looking at the caucus level, I began to become more and more unsettled. It showed me that it’s not really about people. It’s about maintaining parties, it’s about building the parties, and I began to feel like I was doing one thing but feeling something else, in my heart, sort of conflicted.
I remember some of the decisions that were made when I was president. I would say to my wife, “I’m not feeling I’m going in the direction I want to go in helping people, or being open and transparent with people.” So after another few things I came home one day and said “you know what? I don’t think this is going to work for me.”
I began to share my frustrations and my questions and she looked at me and said, “You’re better than this. You have different motives so you got to make a decision. You can’t be doing something halfheartedly,” and you know what? That’s right. If I can’t put everything I’ve got into it, then maybe I need to re-evaluate my position. Then I started talk to more people across the province, family members and close friends, both inside and outside the political parties and all parties, and we began to have the same discussions and say, “look, it’s not working.”
I felt that I honestly thought and I felt that when I got involved at the party level that we could change it from the inside. But the longer I stayed there the more I realized that was not going to happen. So on October 30th, I officially informed the leader and the executive that I would be resigning, immediately. Then I wanted to let the public know because after that I was still getting calls and emails from people asking questions about the party, functions, and I was wondering why it was not put out there that the president had resigned. So that’s the reason I did and make it public myself.
I waited until the Windsor Lake by-election was done before announcing because we felt we should do that. We were being courteous. But after that, there were people calling me about events that were happening. So I felt the public needed to know that. I waited and waited for it to happen from the party’s side, but it didn’t. So I made the announcement myself.
Yeah. There were questions as to why make an announcement before you had a party apparatus or some movement set up. That does make sense.
Absolutely. It wasn’t something that I just one day said, “I’m going to do this.” I wanted to go out there and be real.
So tell me a bit more about why specifically you don’t think the party system could be reformed. Why is it we need to do away with it completely? What is the problem with changing it? Is ‘the party’ dysfunctional?
See, number one, parties are dysfunctional because everyone within the party doesn’t get to share and say the opinions of their voice. We have an adversarial system and we make decisions based on who is wearing what colour tie. “You’re in the other party so I can’t agree with you.” We’ve seen it from all parties. We’ve seen it in the House of Assembly where there may have been a motion put forth that makes total sense, but because they’re from the government, the opposition won’t agree with it, even though it’s perfectly fine and perfectly great. That has to stop.
We have to have more of the collaboration process. Right now, when you vote for a person in your district, you vote for that person because you feel they’re the best representative for your views and your district—only to find when your member goes in there, unless they’re in Cabinet, they’re a backbencher. And that’s exactly what they are. They are put on the backbenches and told “we’ll call you if we need you but don’t say anything or speak on the issues openly and publicly, for certain don’t share your own opinions, especially if it’s slightly against what the party stands for.”
I understand that, but I still think we’re adults and we should be able to represent the views of our people. We should be able to say, “here’s what my constituents feel,” without saying, “well, am I going to take the chance of being asked to stay in the back bench or asked to leave the caucus, or walk across the floor and be independent, join another group” or whatever. So that has to change.
Newfoundland and Labrador is very underdeveloped democratically. We didn’t set the place up properly, as far as I’m concerned. But more broadly, Canada overall is infamous for parties being extremely rigid. Even if you compare other parliamentary systems to Canada, we are especially known for backbenchers and even cabinet ministers bowing to party discipline. Where traditionally, like in the UK, you see a bit more flexibility with dissenting party members. Disagreeing with their cabinet, that sort of thing.
So we have 40 members in the House of Assembly. Say we have 25 in government, and then from that now it’s 14 of those making all the decisions because they are in Cabinet. We’ve heard from the inquiry of Muskrat Falls, that cabinet ministers admitted they didn’t understand what was going on with Muskrat Falls. So now we’re even breaking the cabinet into different groups, whereby you have a few core people that are making the decisions and the rest of the people are not aware. So how dysfunctional is that? How disjointed is that?
Ideally, everyone in Cabinet is making the decisions collectively, right? You get your top people in Cabinet and they have those frank, difficult discussions they need to have behind closed doors for confidentiality reasons, whatever, and then they all decide together on the best policy and then they all wear it. Cabinet is collectively responsible for governing. But increasingly what we see, what actually happens in the premier’s office or prime minister’s office is that their staffers decide what is happening and Cabinet is supposed to just ratify it.
Even in that process we’ve seen so many after admitting they weren’t aware of what went on, and then admit to standing in the House of Assembly and voting in favour of something that they haven’t seen the details on. Obviously this is not about the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s absolutely wrong on so many levels.
People ask us: “how are you going to make decisions, how are you going to get work done?” Well, you know what? We’re going to get the work done through collaboration and decisions through consensus so that the people that are in the know can make an educated decision.
Part of a lot of what you’ve been talking about though seems… anti-cabinet? Cabinet is an indispensable institution in our system. Even in places that we would call non-partisan, like Nunavut—Nunavut is a good example. There are no political parties. They elect 22 MLAs, and then all the MLAs get together and they decide who are going to be the 7 or 8 people in Cabinet.
We realized when we started this, Drew, that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a process, it takes time, and it takes a lot of work and energy. But first of all it takes a belief in the change. The people got to believe that the change is for the best. NL Alliance is committed to getting elected, getting in the House of Assembly, proposing the changes, but at the end of the day we would have to go to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in a referendum or whatever, to have them decide if they want to change the structure of government. A lot of people have thrown the idea of a consensus government out there, and again, I don’t think that would be a decision of NL Alliance. That would be a decision of the elected officials, but more importantly, a decision of the electorate to decide that. But we definitely need change.
The thing is that the change needs to come will happen as people are number one: start with collaboration. And as we collaborate, we can bring proper structure to government in Newfoundland and Labrador. Through collaboration.
You’re very focused on moving past the power politics and getting more engagement with people themselves. All your positions seem to be quite literally grounded in “whatever the people want.” I think it would be fair to describe the NL Alliance basically as a populist party in that sense, right? Obviously that word that has a lot of baggage at this moment in time, but I think the simple definition is that it always refers to a politics grounded in appeals to ‘the people’ and the idea of popular sovereignty.
I wouldn’t at all put NL Alliance down as a populist movement because it seems like populist movements rise and fall and fizzle away and we’re not planning for the NL Alliance to fizzle away. We’re here for the long haul. I believe we’re different than a populist movement in that we are so laser-focused. We are listening to people; we are making decisions through collaboration. We’re not going to go out and just do it. A populist movement has sort of a negative undertone to it, but we’re not seeing that.
We are here for the right reasons. We are here to make a difference in the long term in Newfoundland and Labrador. I feel everyone in the populist movement that have risen up, they have opinions and concerns about things and most times their concerns are very legitimate. But we want to be seen as an alternative for Newfoundland and Labrador where we’re going to be listening to the people and we’re going to be engaging people and we realized that you can’t be all things to all people. But I believe you can engage people and they can feel like they are a part of the process.
Let’s look at the [Topsail-Paradise] by-election here. 36% voter turnout? 64% did not see the need to get out. Now there are a number of reasons you can put there, there’s a whole bunch of things you can look at. Let’s just think about it across this province. There’s a reason we have 50% turnout at our general elections, Drew. It’s because people say they’re all the same. They elect no one that’s no different, just the colour of their signs. Just the colour of their banner. That needs to change. We have to get involved in getting people engaged in the demographic process of Newfoundland and Labrador, and that’s what we want to do.
I get a sort of hesitancy about the ‘populist’ label. But I think it’s still fair to say that ideas of popular sovereignty are central to the campaign. You already expressed that any major changes would be subject to a referendum. A lot of people would say that ‘populist’ is a bad thing, but I see it more as a neutral term; it just describes a form of politics that exists.
So for example, a lot of the negative things currently associated with populism are anti-immigration sentiments. This doesn’t seem to be the case with the NL Alliance.
When it comes to immigration, my wife and I, we are the proud parents of three immigrant sons that we brought to Newfoundland in 2000. People in other parts of the world that have so much expertise. When we bring immigrants into the province, we need to capitalize on their expertise. I mean, let’s face it. We are in trouble when it comes to our food supply, food management, resource management. And that’s something we need to capitalize on when we bring immigrants in.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are very honest. Very honest and passionate. And as you talk to people across Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to immigration, they talk about, “yeah Graydon, we agree, we know immigration is great, our population is dwindling and we’re aging, we need to bring people in.”
But they also said, “these people will come in and we need to make sure that we are able to maintain our culture and things are not forced upon us change-wise.” We don’t want people to say, “because these people moved into your town you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” There has to be a mutual respect. It has to go both ways. We must, and I do believe, we respect anybody that comes into our province, and they are able to contribute to our province and make it grow and so on but the respect has to go both ways. And this is exactly what people are saying. They come into our province, they can’t expect us to give up our culture and the thing we have done for years and years and years and years.
Immigration has to be legal, and there has to be so many things to look at when you have people come into our province. We need to have things in place to help them fit into the lifestyle, the weather, the way we do things, schooling, everything. We need to look at the language. We need to have something in place for ESL for our students. We have to look at bridging programs and help them get into workforce. We also have to be able to listen to the expertise that they bring that might be able to help us grow our food supply or do things a little bit more efficiently. Let them tell us about the way they did things in their country.
But there has to be a two-way street. That’s one of the things that you’ve heard people say that, you know, why do we have to give up this, why do we have to stop this because of other religions or other cultures or whatever.
I have no problem with any religions or any cultures, but people feel they shouldn’t have to throw away everything they’ve done out the door because they’re introduced to something new.
Right. I’m wondering if you have any examples of that happening, or…?
Well, historically Newfoundland has been a very religious community. People talk about in schools, about how in school they are not allowed to do this or that over the years. Now I thoroughly enjoy the school system we have. I think it’s very open and very accommodating and very good. But people say “we can’t do this,” and I mean we’ve all heard the stories about taking a cross down or stop saying this at school or whatever, because some cultures says it’s offensive to them. But we also have to make way for other religions as well. And that’s one good thing about the religion program that I teach in Grade 4. We study the religions of the world, and I am very impressed with how open and how willing the kids are to discuss these different things. We have children in our classes from other parts of the world and different religions and it’s amazing.
The bottom line, Drew, is mutual respect for religions, lifestyles, for cultures. It’s all about respect and being open and honest with people. I’m sure you and I have different opinions on things but that’s not going to stop me from sitting down and having a conversation with you.
If you don’t report this way I want you to report this doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk to you again.
Yeah. I mean my plan mainly is to just print the interview. But that’s good to know.
And I want to say in all sincerity that it’s been a lot of work, a lot of work, Drew. I want people to see me as real. I want to be real. People need to see that. I’m not going to say things because I’m a member of a party. I want to say things because I’m Graydon Pelley, the individual. You ought to be able to see that in me. That’s my goal as the founder of this party, this Alliance. I want that to be seen as, you know, this guy is genuine. The more people I can get to talk to face to face— I mean we could have easily done this interview over the telephone, but I want to sit down and I want you to feel my passion.
Yes, I can definitely feel the passion. You’re one of the few aspiring politicians of the province to talk about campaign finance reform right now. Is that something that has come up often in your talks with people?
Spending during campaigns needs to be looked at because there’s an awful lot of money put into political campaigns. If you can afford the big bus or the big signs and all that, that’s good and dandy but not everyone can do that. So are we on an equal playing field? Is it a rich man’s game? That needs to change because we have missed out on so many intelligent people, great leaders that cannot do this because they don’t have the money. I’ve had people say to me, “I’d love to get in there but I don’t have the money.”
Well I’m telling you today that Graydon Pelley don’t have the money. But I am a firm believer that every person should feel like what he or she contributes is valuable. If we focus on small donations, we’re going to get more people contributing, and the more people we have contributing the more people are going to feel a part of it. The NL Alliance will not be bought by anyone.
The only problem there is while you’re capping yourself at $5000, none of the other parties will be.
That’s fine. That’s fine. That’s the message we’ll use. We’ll say, “Look, we don’t have the money to do what they’re doing, but we do have something here that you need to take a look at.” It’s not about the money, it’s about what we’re putting out to make change in Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re starting right from the start.
Whether this takes one year, five years, ten years, I am here for the long haul. That’s what people need to hear. Commitment.
Excellent. So the last time I saw you was at a town hall in St. John’s, and there was a gentleman there with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, and he had asked you if you were familiar with what Maxime is doing because there’s some overlap. At the time you haven’t really looked into it, because you were avoiding getting involved with federal politics. But I am wondering if you’ve looked into it at all since.
We have kept our focus on Newfoundland and Labrador. The task is to be ready with candidates in the next election. We have 100% focused on building the Alliance in Newfoundland and Labrador. We have no entertained the idea of lining ourselves up with any federal party We have not had any of the conversations, except at that town hall, and that’s where we’re going to stay. That’s where we are, and that’s all I can say about it right now. That’s all I can tell you because that’s all we’ve done. That’s where we are and right now all our resources, everything we have is Newfoundland and Labrador.
So there’s been no communication with Bernier & Co.?
None, none, none.
[When asked this question again in a follow-up interview on 25 April 2019, Pelley reiterated that the Alliance is focused solely on provincial politics and has not been in contact with any federal parties, including the People’s Party of Canada.]
Fair enough. Alright, so, let’s do the fantasy: take us through the first day of a NL Alliance government.
Well there’s going to be a celebration!!
From day one under a NL Alliance administration, we will let the elected members of the House of Assembly know that we understand why they are elected. No matter what party they are from, they are elected because the people in their district felt they were the strongest voice to represent them. We are going to say to them the best way we can best represent and work for the people of the province is to work together. Now, what can we do today to begin that process of working together? The NL Alliance will invite every elected member to sit down together and let’s look at the priorities of our province. We need to get our province back on track financially. We need to get our province back on track politically, and we need to look at the areas we need to focus on first and foremost. Then that discussion is going to be had and we’re going to sit down that day and say okay, let’s put it here: what can we do to bring back Newfoundland and Labrador to a place of prosperity and promise?
Would you run it like a coalition-type government where you invite members of other parties to sit with you in Cabinet?
Well that would be a discussion we’ll have. One of the things I want to reiterate is that no one person, no leader, no one small group of people, are going to make these decisions. The elected representatives will make these decisions collectively and we’ll look at that. If someone brings up an idea of what you’re talking about, it’s got to be discussed. It’s got to be talked about.
Drew, people look at me and say hell you’re living the dream, you know? You’re living the dream. It’s just a dream world. But you don’t know how things can work.
Listen, that’s their loss. We’re living in a new day. We’re living in the 21st century. It can be done different, absolutely. And NL Alliance is here and saying to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, “we have what you’ve been asking for, for a long time. Give us an opportunity and we’ll show you that this can work for you.”
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure these things out. These are the ideas, and everything I’ve said to you today, everything we have said has come from discussions we have had with the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody is saying look, “this is plain to see,” I’ve had just this past week I had a little lady call me from a little town in Trinity Bay and she said, “Mr. Pelley, I want to thank you first of all for what you’re doing. I’m 84 years old. These are my concerns,” and she said these things.
These people are educated, they are aware of what’s going on, but because of the tradition, the mindset of the party politics and the way things have been done in Newfoundland, it’s difficult to change. But people are beginning to stand up and say it’s time for change and I’m glad to say that NL Alliance is able to be the initiators in this change. That’s what we’re about.
With nine candidates fielded in the 2019 general election, the prospect of an Alliance-led government—and everything that would entail—is off the table for now.
But those nine candidates, and the movement they embody, represent a growing number of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who feel alienated from the democratic process and want to find a way back in. They want to talk about the system, how it does (or doesn’t) work, and how it could be reformed. They are not going to go away, and they are learning how to speak with a new voice cobbled out of the province’s political vernacular. Whether or not those words fall on deaf ears remains to be seen. Politicians ignore the ferment of popular frustration at their peril.
The 2019 election has got a bona fide wildcard. He says he’s sticking around for the long haul. Adjust your bets accordingly, and prepare to ante up.