First off, let me just say that Lorraine Michael should be commended for her service at the end of a solid political career in the House of Assembly. She took the provincial NDP further than they had ever been before, and was at one time the most popular opposition leader in Canada. She was also a consistently strong voice for the poor and the marginalized in the legislature. These are no small accomplishments and she deserves credit where credit is due.
That being said, Michael opening her resignation speech by admitting “a good leader knows when it’s time to go,” 15 months after she immolated the party in order to preserve her job, is a strong contender for the most bitterly ironic moment in Newfoundland and Labrador’s political history. However far she took the NDP under her tenure, her last year-ish running the Dipper politburo into the ground has solidified her public legacy. So much the worse for the province’s social democrats.
Still, an overhaul is better late than never. In theory, an NDP leadership contest will give the party room to breathe and grow. It’s not clear how much of that will actually happen in practice, though. Paul Davis has generously promised he won’t call an election before the NDP has a new leader — presumably he sees the Tories’ best interest lies in letting the NDP build strength to fight with the Liberals. But when the race is wrapped up in March, the new leader will only have, at most, six months to prepare for the next election. Even assuming they can petition Saint Jack for a miracle, they’ll have their work cut out for them.
The timing of all this is going to make for a weird race. Anyone who has serious designs on leading the NDP (Ryan Cleary, Greg Malone?, etc.) will likely wait until after 2015 rather than taking the helm just before she sails into the maelstrom. As such, the leadership is ripe for intervention from the traditional union bulwark (can Earle McCurdy liberate the workers’ party from a cabal of downtown hipsters?) or a starry-eyed moral crusader (e.g. Chris Bruce) who is maybe less interested in winning votes than in “starting conversations”. And I don’t mean that last bit to be glib or dismissive — some of Canada’s greatest political achievements were ideas ripped off from the NDP.
So, if I had to commit the cardinal sin of predicting the political future, I think what we’ll see this year from the NDP will be a more orange-flavoured ‘Kevin Aylward Experience’. Any substantial rebuilding and revitalizing will likely wait until after the next election.
There is a definite appetite in Newfoundland and Labrador for social justice, open government, and democratic accountability…
Not that any of this means the outcome of this leadership race will be pointless or irrelevant. The NDP is uniquely positioned to do good intellectual and advocacy work in the House. Given the current forecast of a Liberal sweep—happening not so much because of any real visionary contrast with the Tories so much as a Liberal promise to better manage the same basic political project—it will fall to the NDP to articulate a compelling alternative to the “Liberal/Tory/same old story” chant they keep telling us about.
Whether or not they can do this and still pull together a sensible slate of candidates and a functioning campaign machine in less than six months remains to be seen, but my money is on “probably not”. The party is still fractured from the October Crisis and many of its historical supporters are scattered to the four winds. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again before, at the earliest, 2019.
But the way the party handles this leadership contest will be a good indication of its potential in the years ahead. They have more to work with in the province than their poll numbers would suggest. There is a definite appetite in Newfoundland and Labrador for social justice, open government, and democratic accountability, and just as many people will be voting against the Tories as will be actively voting for the Liberals. Whether the NDP has the capacity to harness this—or whether something new is needed—remains to be seen.
For now, by opening up the leader’s position, the NDP is finally doing something more productive than just rotting on the vine. This alone is a step up from where they’ve been for the whole stretch of last year.
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