I can see Cleary now the sane is gone

Ryan Cleary’s problem isn’t that he has no political principles. It’s that he’s principled to the point of pathology.

Hello and good day to you, Newfoundland and Labrador, and all the ships at sea — assuming any of them weathered the flood of virtual ink (and blood) that’s been spilled since Ryan Cleary joined the Progressive Conservatives.

And not a minute too soon! God knows if he’d waited any longer than literally 11 days after being turfed from his job as NDP MP, the province would descend into chaos.

Of course, from the outside looking in, it’s not immediately clear what exactly Cleary is doing. His old comrades in the NDP are certainly having a hard time with it. He’s been named and shamed by just about every card-carrying New Democrat in the greater St. John’s metro, including his recent co-worker Jack Harris. And I imagine quite a few of his new buddies in the PC Party aren’t totally sure what’s going on.

But really, can any of us know the hearts and minds of our neighbours? Who among us can say they even know themselves, and the hidden darkness lurking in their hearts? Like the ultimate ends of God, perhaps Ryan Cleary remains inscrutable.

Or not. The gap between the federal NDP to the local Tories is not as abyssal as it first appears. I wager there is some method to Ryan Cleary’s madness beyond a masochistic streak and a pride rivalling only Joe Smallwood.

Dare we venture into the mind of Cleary? Hell yes, we do.

The Fighting Newfoundlander

Say what you will about Mr. Cleary (and my God, does there ever seem to be a lot to say), but you can’t deny that the man is passionate about Newfoundland — to the point that he was openly counselling separatism less than six months before running as an NDP candidate in 2008. The Independent is itself the spiritual successor of the paper Cleary once ran, and its banner is a testament to his belief in the idea of a FREE NFLD. No one can dispute that he loves the place — or, at least, the Idea of the place. (And at root, isn’t this all nationalism, ours included?)

 The problem isn’t that he has no principles — it’s that he’s principled to the point of pathology.

All those people chewing Cleary out as “a person who has absolutely no understanding of ideology” are missing his single most identifiable commitment to ideology. Ryan Cleary is a Newfoundland nationalist. His dedication to his vision of Newfoundland (and the good Newfoundlandic life) is the lodestar of his entire political and journalistic career. It transcends any mere partisan commitment and, apparently, rational thought. It’s cold comfort for all the jaded New Democrats who just sank their time and money into his campaign, but the problem isn’t that he has no principles — it’s that he’s principled to the point of pathology.

If you look at it in this light, the shift from Orange to Blue makes more sense (as does his contempt for the Liberals). There is no real left-right spectrum in provincial party politics. The NDP are garden-variety social democrats, and as much as they love social programs it’s hard to imagine they’d ever really rock the capitalist boat if they found themselves in office (if you don’t believe me, just look at Rachel Notley’s Alberta). 

Both the Tories and the Liberals are roughly on the same page on any given substantive issue, and generally only make claims to being better managers of any given set of projects. The PCs are not even particularly conservative, either socially or fiscally. Danny Williams expropriated a frigging factory, for Christ’s sake. These are not people who froth at the feet of the free market.

Fight the real enemy

Instead, the only real, substantive, ‘ideological’ division in N.L. politics—beyond the tribal loyalties of partisanship—is the “national question”.

The PC Party was cobbled together out of the anti-Confederate forces after union with Canada in 1949. When Frank Moores unseated Smallwood in the early 1970s, he helped foster a cultural renaissance. Brian Peckford’s pre-cucumber career was built on fighting Ottawa and upending Newfoundland’s “colonial inferiority complex”. And Danny Williams — well, he was Danny Williams. Even if Clyde Wells hadn’t managed to successfully derail the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, it’s hard to imagine him yanking down Canadian flags in protest.

Although we’ve never seen it in government, the provincial NDP definitely have a nationalist streak. As Michael Connors pointed out on Twitter the the other day, when he asked prominent politicians in each major party back in 2009 whether they would have voted for Confederation or Responsible Government in 1948, it was only the Liberal—Yvonne Jones—who would have voted for union.

 Nationalism puts the blame squarely on the machinations of imperial Ottawa while the Left, traditionally, pins it on the exploitative nature of capitalist social relations.

Social democracy—and even actual socialism—in Canada has a historically long-running flirtation, and occasional outright marriage, to nationalism. Newfoundland nationalism, in particular, blurs into local left-leaning thought. Both are attuned to the economic exploitation of Newfoundlanders, and the fact that ‘the people’ have little control over their economic and political destiny in Confederation. Nationalism puts the blame squarely on the machinations of imperial Ottawa while the Left, traditionally, pins it on the exploitative nature of capitalist social relations; though if you ask most Mulcair-era Dippers about the class struggle, you’ll probably get a much fuzzier analysis.

At a distance, nationalism seems largely at home with social democracy.

But—historically, at least—Newfoundland nationalism only appears progressive the further it gets away from power. The idea of a Newfoundland nation, taken in isolation or elevated into the organizing principle of political activity, tends to steamroll over actual Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians). By way of example, both Peckford and Williams presided over strike-breaking legislation so sweeping that it earned the province censure from the UN’s International Labour Organization. In practice, Newfoundland nationalism is quite a conservative force.

A week ago, Cleary was an MP for what is basically the political wing of organized labour in N.L. Now, he’s a member of the party that has historically been the most enthusiastic about hammering labour with the weight of the provincial state. How he justifies this is going to be an interesting feat of political gymnastics.

Unless we assume that this whole time he’s been a double agent working only for Newfoundland (if not for actual working Newfoundlanders themselves).

Hell hath no fury like a Dipper scorned

Of course, thoughtfully detailing the political dynamics of Newfoundland nationalism doesn’t really explain Ryan Cleary’s decision to join the Tories so quickly after his failure to secure a second term in the House of Commons. The defection itself isn’t the source of the outrage. Cleary wasn’t an elected official, so he’s not really “crossing the floor” in the same way that Paul Lane or Dale Kirby did; it’s totally fair for someone to switch party allegiances if they weren’t elected on a particular partisan ticket.

Provincial NDP leader Lorraine Michael chats during a photo op with federal NDP members Jack Harris, Ryan Cleary and party leader Thomas Mulcair in St. John's, May 2013. On Tuesday Michael announced she will be stepping down as party leader of the provincial NDP, and Cleary (right) has said he is considering running for the job. Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Ryan Cleary (right) chats with (L-R) former provincial NDP leader Lorraine Michael, former St. John’s East MP Jack Harris and federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair during a visit by Mulcair to St. John’s in 2013. Photo by Graham Kennedy.

The issue is that he did it so suddenly, without really explaining his decision to anybody. As of Monday evening, his federal campaign co-chair still hadn’t heard so much as a whisper from the man he just spent three months trying to get re-elected. His old comrades rightfully feel betrayed; a running theme in the commentary from campaigners is that they all thought Jack Harris’ seat was safe, so they all worked for Ryan Cleary. They spent so much time, effort, and money on the man without getting so much as a “head’s up” from him that he was considering this kind of decision. Either he was mulling this over for a while and deliberately rope-a-doped his volunteers, or he actually made the decision in the span of a few days and didn’t respect any of these people enough to tell them what was going on. 

No wonder they feel bitter.

It’s tempting to call him an opportunist, but running for the PCs in the 2015 election against one of the best-organized candidates in the best-organized campaign ever assembled by a Liberal Party that’s been consistently sitting between 45-60 percent in the polls for the last 18 months doesn’t really seem like a solid career move. It’s like jumping out of a lifeboat onto the Titanic right before her stern goes vertical and she slips beneath the water.

Some people have speculated that he’s playing the long game, and that this is just the opening act for his eventual bid to run for PC leader as their next great nationalist saviour. Which, sure. But it still wouldn’t explain why he had to run right this second, immediately after his last election, when he could just wait a month or so until the election is over and the Tories formally go into rebuilding mode. If he’d waited, he could plausibly put together and articulate coherent intellectual reasons for taking the plunge instead of coming off like a hack who has no idea how politics work, while alienating almost everyone he’s worked with for the past four years because he got scared that too many Liberals is bad, b’y.

 It’s like jumping out of a lifeboat onto the Titanic right before her stern goes vertical and she slips beneath the water.

The Tories allegedly wanted him to give their slate some star power and hopefully coax some other big names off the fence to run for them – the writ will drop this week and so far premier Paul Davis is short about a dozen candidates. But it’s hard to see how this would bring more heavyweights out of the woodwork since Cleary has an uphill battle himself (and this is being generous). The only people his defection seems to have motivated are angry New Democrats who will be willing to work double-time in order to put Judas in his place.

It’s also not clear what Cleary himself actually gets out of all this. It’s possible that Davis made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, although it’s hard to imagine what that could be coming from a premier who is almost guaranteed to be on his way out of office. Cleary was probably offered a position in the fantasy PC cabinet that would theoretically emerge after election day. But the Tories returning to government is profoundly unlikely, and I doubt anyone but the truest blue diehard expects anything other than getting more or less brutalized at the polling booth. So I’m skeptical that this would be enough to compel Cleary to make the brazen leap he did.

Unless, of course, we assume that Ryan Cleary’s ego is actually legendarily large, that the man really believes he is of singular importance in beating back the Liberal tide, that the sheer force of his personality is enough to obliterate all his opponents and haters, that he will join a triumphant Tory government in a fourth consecutive mandate, and that this is his moment to step into the sunlight as Newfoundland’s new messiah. 

That is, none of this makes any sense unless we assume that Ryan Cleary is delusional.

But then again, what the hell do I know? As Ryan would no doubt be the first to remind me, I’ve been on the mainland too long.

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