We are very nearly there, my friends. The finish line is right in front of us.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s frankly awful 2019 provincial election will mercifully end today.
Elections are not generally supposed to be actively demoralizing. If anything, it’s the opposite: in an ‘ideal’ election, the community should be agitated with the energy of passionate conviction and public debate to the point of nearly boiling over. Muskrat Falls, climate change, our megaproject-based economy, our debt-servicing costs: there’s certainly no shortage of major issues politicians need to address in this province.
But rather than an election about any of these important things, we got the worst of all worlds: a meta-election, an election about the election. It was about provincial politics itself and the utter poverty of the entire enterprise.
The Liberal and Tory campaign buses smashed into each other and exploded within minutes of leaving their starting positions. The rest of the campaign has been standing around the wreckage, watching the fire spread into the forest beyond the crash site, and realizing the water bombers aren’t coming anymore.
Alienation, Not Apathy
There is a strong belief that many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians—particularly young people—are ‘apathetic’ about politics. This seems to be the obvious conclusion behind sixteen consecutive years of falling voter turnout: only someone who doesn’t know and/or care about “politics” would neglect their sacred duty to vote. (They will even say things like: “if you don’t vote you don’t get to complain,” as though unaware that the Newfoundlander’s right to complain is inalienable.)
It is always easier to blame the victim. The truth—certainly in this election—is that most people are alienated from provincial politics.
Can you blame them?
Alienation begins at home—assuming people are even aware of the events happening around them. Local journalism has contracted significantly over the last twenty years, and has been scaled back severely even since the last election. The west coast of the island lost its daily newspaper in favour of a weekly from St. John’s right before the writ dropped, to say nothing of further closures and consolidations of small regional newspapers across the province.
Reporters are scarce and resources are drying up. This vitally important work is being downloaded onto fewer and fewer people, now constantly stretching less into more. What should be basic and common community information becomes rare and ephemeral. What little news that can be chronicled competes with American entertainment culture and national politics for attention. To even know that a local election is occurring before lawn signs appear, let alone follow the issues, requires a certain level of self-motivated commitment. It’s like going to the gym, but for “society.” I find it hard to fault anyone who was never taught or encouraged to do this for failing to pick it up on their own.
(And no, clutching our collective pearls and screaming down everyone who expresses hesitancy about the sanctity of “voting against your interests because they don’t appear on the ballot” does not count as ‘encouragement.’)
Consider also the rewards of being “well-informed” about provincial politics. Checking your brain at the door is cover price at the House of Assembly. Gatherings of the community’s “best and brightest” endlessly degenerate into grade school rackets. Our political class is skidding along rock bottom because there are few meaningful ways to engage or register constructive criticism. Why would the average person want to touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole?
Not much was accomplished through this election. But if nothing else, it demonstrated the thorough moral, organizational, and intellectual bankruptcy of provincial party politics.
There is an incredible and vibrant civil society flourishing here in spite of our political dysfunction. Just imagine what could be done if we had a healthy way to channel that energy into collective action. (Fantasy, I know.)
Our parties are woefully underdeveloped as democratic institutions. Every single one. Entrenched partisan interests will co-opt new and innovative voices or kick them out. Parties are more an obstacle to political engagement than its avenue. There are strong candidates under all banners in this election who will be dragged down solely by the colour of their shirt.
This is a real tragedy, because ordinary MHAs may matter more than ever after the dust settles on election night. We need to stuff the place with solid people.
Mother, Should I Trust the Government?
In the last week, the provincial campaigns have totally collapsed. There is no political leadership in this province. No one going into the premier’s office on Friday has shown themselves credible, or even frankly qualified for the job.
Provincial politics is embarrassing.
The Liberals are at serious risk of losing a snap election they called on themselves because no one told their Emperor his arse is hanging out—or, maybe he wouldn’t listen. At any rate, there is a good chance Dwight Ball has come to regret swaggering into the election campaign like a widely beloved rock star. They have run an astonishingly bad campaign.
It began with a flurry of grand pre-election announcements, each one heralded as greater than the last. First there was the four-decade $2.5 billion Hibernia Dividend. Then there was the rate mitigation plan featuring $200 million dollars in unspecified “federal refinancing commitments” we are assured definitely exist. Finally we got the “2019 Budget,” which was less than a real budget than a campaign platform (with extra stuff tacked on at the end as the Liberals started panicking about the election).
It is impossible to call what the Liberals offer a “vision”—we are carried Onward by inertia—but it’s definitely the most ‘finished’ platform. Then again, I’m sure the other parties could probably also turn out some passable glossy documents if they too could hire international consulting firms to write them instead of a couple volunteers and some staffers. The Liberals stacked the deck with incumbent advantage.
Running with “you can trust us this time, really!” as your core message to a skeptical electorate was always going to be a risky play for the Liberals. Certainly, the Premier spending the first three weeks of the campaign bothering people at Tim Horton’s and cutting a seemingly endless parade of cakes across the province did not exactly exude confidence.
The Liberal party began this election with its credibility comatose. It was taken off life support when George Murphy announced $5 million dollars in ArtsNL mystery money—you know, money somehow missing from last month’s Budget, Cultural Action Plan, and election platform, but here just in time to re-elect the Liberals. It later died when Dwight Ball spontaneously decided to announce unnecessary 24-hour Emergency Room services in Botwood.
Dwight Ball is not trustworthy. His credibility was broken by his government’s abrupt about-face on everything he recklessly campaigned on in 2015. Four years of treating voters like rubes hasn’t earned it back. This is a man who appointed himself Minister of Indigenous Affairs, promised to apologize to residential school survivors in 2017, and then simply ran down the clock on his commitment. Words come out of his mouth completely disconnected from his actual intentions or the things happening around him. He has not even demonstrated he can learn from the one major takeaway of the 2015 election: don’t make shit up for votes!
It is worth repeating that the Liberals were a governing party with a commanding majority, and they used every incumbent advantage to call a snap election that ambushed a weak and disorganized opposition. They have flubbed the campaign so badly it remains an open question whether they will survive their own arrogant stunt. If they do manage to hold government, it is unthinkable that Dwight Ball survives his next leadership review. The province does not have time for another four years of this. The man is not a leader.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, neither is his only real opponent.
Whoever Wins, We Lose
I am hard pressed to name a bigger disappointment in recent Newfoundland history than the short political career of Chesley Crosbie II. You would expect a prestigious lawyer and scion of the island’s unofficial royal family to approach his job with, I don’t know, a basic level of dignity. Instead, he’s been phoning it in since well before the campaign started.
Crosbie is literally making this up as he goes along. And that goes as much for his principles as his policies.
“Pot for Potholes” was devised on the road between Tim’s locations after a Tory candidate fell into one and broke her leg. (That both major parties put “joyless photo ops in Tim’s” at the core of their branding tells you the political class in this province is overdraft on its brain trust.) Their “costed platform” contains a $700 million accounting error because the party was too busy slagging the Liberals for betraying the 2005 Atlantic Accord to bother reading the actual document.
His bizarre reliance on shocking and puerile partisan outbursts—Corruption at Canopy! Dwight Ball hates the oil industry!—mimic the worst of the right-wing meme machine and charged the campaign with a profoundly poisonous energy. On the final day of campaigning, the party had to field a pissy press release from the Lieutenant-Governor because Bill Matthews—the venerable bipartisan lich resurrected to run for Ches in Burin-Grand Bank—forgot he wasn’t running against Judy Foote.
This kind of bad judgement—of both concepts and character—keeps plaguing Ches Crosbie. He’s always “mysteriously” finding himself surrounded by right-wing ghouls—most notably federal CPC leader Andrew Scheer and his assorted provincial goons, dark money data-miner Devin Drover, and at least one of his insufficiently-vetted candidates in Labrador. Here, Crosbie proved his principles are as improvised as his policies. Within six hours, he flipped completely from “Michael Normore’s opinions are horrible but we live in a democracy so we respect the wide spectrum of individual views in society” to “politics should never be controversial.”
(It should be said that Dwight Ball never backs down from a contest, even one where the only object is self-abasement. As news of the Normore scandal broke, Ball was busy gloating about the progressive values of his caucus when it was pointed out that two candidates—Gerry Byrne and Jerry Dean—both had political careers featuring anti-LGBT votes and actions. Ball insisted both had signed off on a values commitment, but in reality this was simply the candidate nomination form. And asked on the forms whether he had any ‘reservations’ about Liberal policies, Dean literally wrote “for the most part… no.” God guard thee Newfoundland indeed.)
None of this inspires great feelings about Ches Crosbie or the party that has banded around him as leader. And this is before you factor in that the Progressive Conservatives have never meaningfully acknowledged (or atoned for) the fiasco called Muskrat Falls.
“No BS in Politics” is literally one of Ches’ campaign slogans, but he is bullshitting his way into the premier’s office. It’s almost admirably brazen.
But if we let him get away with it, we may as well call time on this whole “responsible self-government” thing. (Again.)
Meanwhile, the NL New Democrats have launched a full court press to avoid being driven out of the House entirely. Novice leader Alison Coffin has done about as reasonably well as you would expect a completely green academic-turned-politician getting a total baptism by fire to do—considering the NDP has been at civil war with itself for half a decade or more. The snap election didn’t help, but it is folly to pin the NDP’s 14/40 candidate slate squarely at the feet of government.
Dwight Ball didn’t force the NDP to ignore the basic, unglamourous, and thoroughly necessary work of building district associations or party structures. Dwight Ball did not force the party leadership to sacrifice the NDP on the altar of holding St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi. These are internal problems that the NDP will need to reckon with after the vote, or else repeat this exact same song and dance the next time an election is called. The rest of us are losing patience that they’ll ever pull it off.
(Whether it would be better in the long run for the party to rebuild by holding their seats, or getting totally annihilated—and starting over again from scratch—is a question I leave up to their membership.)
Last but not least: the NL Alliance. Bless their earnest hearts, but they are still babes in the political wilderness. We pray they do not perish of exposure, though we note conditions in this province are particularly harsh for democratic experiments. Ironically, they may have been the most prepared for this election. As a loose coalition of individual candidates with no meaningful central campaign and a loosely shared platform, they were the only ones ready for the campaign’s final collapse into “every candidate for themselves.”
For those of us who have spent the whole election leaning undecided because oh my God, these are the options?, there haven’t been any moments that convinced me who I should vote for; only who I should vote against. It’s been a month of nothing but poison coming from all camps.
All I got out of this exercise is confirmation that Ray Guy was right in his warning from 1970: “put not your trust in princes.”
What Is To Be Done?
The 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador election is the symptom of a body politic that is gravely, gravely ill. It is no surprise that so much discussion during the last four weeks focused on spoiled ballots and protest votes. Alison Coffin was raked through the coals for briefly musing that it might be alright for NDP supporters to spoil their ballots in districts where they have no representation.
That’s not necessarily something you want to hear from an aspiring Premier, but anyone genuinely outraged by the remark isn’t paying attention. Say it with me now: it is OK for people to conscientiously object to voting against their values, and doing so is fully consistent with exercising your democratic rights and responsibilities.
But a big problem is that our system has no way to differentiate between ignorance or apathy and formal abstention or dissent. Spoiling a ballot is largely meaningless as protest because, unless there is a truly notable increase, it formally counts as an error. Ideally, we would be able to formally decline our ballots, as they do in Ontario. But even then, the exercise has its limits.
Again: these are the discussions that have characterized the 2019 election. Political leadership in the province is nonexistent. There’s nobody sensible at the wheel.
So what do you do in an election where all leadership is a write-off?
It all comes down to the individual candidates in each district. This election, and the choice you have to make, can really only be evaluated on the district level. Even if, God forbid, you live in a district with only two candidates: someone still has to win. And with leadership crumbling, party caucus membership will matter more than ever.
The representatives elected will be the people who have to deal with the fallout from this election. It is entirely likely, given the frankly chaotic possibilities of disorganized campaigns, the public’s desire for change, and depressed voter turnout, that the results might be really weird. MHAs may well have to choose new leadership from amongst themselves. Neither Liberal nor Tory minority governments are off the table. It’s not out of the question that Eddie frigging Joyce could end up kingmaker of a hung Parliament.
No one really knows what’s going to happen. Too many races are up in the air.
Not the End, but a New Beginning
It would be perfectly, ironically twisted for this embarrassing and tedious provincial election to produce the most volatile political arrangement since the end of the Smallwood era. This has been a magical realist election, and that kind of ending would be perfectly suited to our national narrative. Maybe then our politicians could have a real conversation, like adults, about the problems imminently bearing down on the province.
Climate change, demographic collapse, Muskrat Falls power, and volatile geopolitical tensions around the world: all this is bearing down on us imminently.
This is it, b’ys. We either get this shit together or we don’t. The road we’ve kicked this can down ends—maybe within a decade or two—at a pier.
But if there is a silver lining to all this, it’s that this election has awakened everyone to just how desperately overdue the province is for serious democratic reform. Our problems go much deeper than fixed election dates, campaign financing, or even the electoral system. There are clearly serious material and cultural barriers to basic citizen participation in provincial politics. We obviously cannot rely on our politicians to fix this. The parties are dead ends.
We need new vehicles for political action. The work of building them begins on Friday.
The Liberals and the Tories are the only parties in any position to form government after today. Neither of them have earned it. They share the same stale ideas, the same abysmal leadership, and the same frustrating tendency to treat voters like they’re stupid. The honest-to-goodness best case scenario in this election is a minority government where the leader loses his seat or gets fired.
Much to the alarm of Dwight Ball and Ches Crosbie, voters are not stupid. This election is a referendum on Newfoundland and Labrador’s political class, and the status quo is losing.
All we’re missing is a way to vote “no.”
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