Is it too late for the Liberal party?

Kieran Hanley explores how the Liberals went from governing to 6% support in St. John’s in just 9 years

By the night of the provincial election, securing second place had turned into the benchmark of success for the Liberal party. The day after, an increase in their seat count was an outright victory. But the reality is that if last January’s Liberal party were to be told about October’s election results, they would be bitterly disappointed. What happened? Was it all self-inflicted? Was it unforeseen circumstance? Or was it all part of the plan?

The Year of the Liberal Party

It was to be the year it all changed for the Liberals. A federal election was on the horizon – a federal election which the the Liberals thought they had a good shot at winning. Danny Williams, arguably the most popular political figure in the history of the province, had retired. The provincial NDP were still a non-factor. The PC party was suddenly vulnerable, looking for a new leader. And this new interim Premier – Kathy Dunderdale – was bound to make mistakes. With the PCs having nowhere to go but down in the polls, the Liberals were bound to bounce back from their worst-ever election showing – and bounce back big-time.

The only hiccup was that the party held a leadership contest just months before Williams suddenly retired; interim leader Yvonne Jones was acclaimed leader after no one contested her bid. Jones was never seen as ideal for the Liberals, but the party expected to face Danny Williams in one more election and a few years beyond. But now, how could the party possibly move to replace her when she was acclaimed just a few months prior? To make matters more complicated, Jones needed an extended period of time away from politics to concentrate on her health. In February, polls were showing that the Liberals under Jones had made up no ground on the PCs since Williams’ departure, and this incited Liberal mainstay John Efford to openly call for her to consider resigning. Efford’s comments echoed what many party insiders knew – if they were to win the election in October they would need a new leader.

Circumstances change

But soon there was more to worry about for the Liberal party. To say the federal election results were unexpected would be an understatement. The significant drop in support for the Liberal party and its replacement as the official opposition by the NDP drastically changed the political playing field. The NDP’s success at the federal level in May, and the fact the party won two seats in St. John’s, fueled local supporters and volunteers in believing that the NDP could be relevant in provincial politics too; Jack Layton’s passing at the eve of the provincial election only galvanized that support.

As if the depression of the Liberal party and the rise of the NDP weren’t enough, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador were growing comfortable with Kathy Dunderdale as their Premier. She hadn’t made any giant missteps, and she had managed to keep her own party members in line and on message. All of this added up to a sense of acceptance for the party that the 2011 provincial election would not produce the breakthrough that the party once believed it would. But is it fair to pin the fate of the Liberals on factors outside of their control? Not quite. The fact of the matter is that the Liberals are responsible for their result for a variety of reasons.

All about the Joneses

The beauty of the fixed election date is that political parties know, at any point, exactly when they’re going to the polls. But it appears the Liberals didn’t get the memo. After a disastrous result in the 2007 election, the party had four years to prepare for 2011 – yet here they were in the middle of the campaign without a full slate of candidates. Even with the best of candidates, more times than not it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to gain the community’s support to the point of winning a district; candidates should have been in place long beforehand. Over that four year period the party had made little headway in addressing its debt issues, and up until Kevin Aylward took the reigns, even the party’s website was in disrepair. One has to wonder – what exactly was the plan here?

As the caretaker of the party for almost four years, some of the responsibility for the Liberal position has to rest on Jones’ shoulders. Jones took great pride in going toe to toe with the PC leader in the House of Assembly over the Lower Churchill, and even hired former Conservative candidate and Danny Williams’ personal arch-nemesis Craig Westcott as communications director of the party. The reasoning was clear – attack Williams – but the move miffed party supporters and was counter-intuitive: what’s the benefit of spending your party’s very limited time, energy, and resources going after a man who had at times a 90% approval rating? It was a good way to solidify support against the Liberals. It is clear now that the party’s attention for those four years should have been focused on the ground in election strategy instead. Despite pressures to step aside, Yvonne Jones hung on until the last possible moment.

Avalon Peninsula? What’s that?

“I would have to say to the mayor of this great city that there are a hell of a lot more priorities outside the overpass that need to be addressed before we start forking more money over to the City of St. John’s” – Danny Dumaresque representing the Liberals at a debate during the 2011 election

It didn’t help that the party seemed to forget about St. John’s. Since 2007 the Liberal party has all but abandoned the capital city and the surrounding metro region. In 2007, then-leader Gerry Reid ran a fiercely rural campaign, and the focus hadn’t changed much by the time 2011 rolled around. Their effort on the Avalon was rewarded in October with 6% of the vote in the capital city. Yes, it is true that the party’s best hopes to capture new seats were west of the isthmus, however a strategy that ignores the capital city (and a region that contains half of the entire province’s population) has two serious drawbacks.

First, even if the majority of the electoral districts are off of the Avalon, the majority of the people are still there. The business, the industry, the interest groups, the university, the public service, the government, the media – are all based out of St. John’s. Because of this overwhelming imbalance, public opinion and political ideas are shaped there too. With neither on their side in the most populous region of the province, the party had not just eroded its support there, it may have inflicted serious long-term damage to its own political network.

Second, the money is in St. John’s. For a party that has been struggling financially for quite some time, by ignoring St. John’s they have cut themselves off from the population and businesses that are most able collectively to finance the party.

Though the party’s focus on rural Newfoundland continued into the 2011 election, the Liberals did have one last shot at creating interest in the entire province.

Leadership – a botched opportunity

The Liberals could have milked headlines like this one from The Independent for a full month, instead of for a few days

When the Liberals did finally capture the attention and imagination of the Newfoundland – with the resignation of Jones and the subsequent frantic search for a new leader – the party missed their chance to make the most of the opportunity.

Of course, with under 2 months to go before an election, the party’s instincts were to install a new leader as soon as possible; but the party could have done so with a lot more tact. The deadline for ‘applications’ to be leader was on a Friday afternoon – the worst day to break a news story, because people’s attention is focused on the weekend (yet by Monday, Friday afternoon is old news). Governments and businesses often release unflattering news items on Friday afternoons for that very reason. Worse, the leader was picked during a closed-door session on Sunday; the public woke up Monday with a new Liberal leader, without having the chance to follow any of the drama that occurred over the weekend.

In hindsight, the Liberals would have been better off using the entire month leading up to the election call deciding on their leader. Instead of watching one man try his best to make the most of a desperate situation, the public would have seen 6 or 7 leadership hopefuls for an entire month hammering the PCs and the NDP while exploring new policy ideas. With the media unable to resist the story of a party picking its leader so close to an election, the Liberals could have even involved the public in selecting who they thought was best to challenge Dunderdale. While that entertaining charade played out, backroom Liberals and candidates could have gone about their business in preparing strategically for the election.

But perhaps backroom Liberals didn’t want a fresh new face to lead the party into an election and beyond; it would have upset their long term plans.

It’s all a part of the plan

One got the sense that the Liberal plan all along for the October election was simply to survive it, and move on. When the leadership of the party was suddenly vacated a month before the election call, insiders gravitated towards seasoned politicians with extensive election experience like Chuck Furey and Kevin Aylward. The party didn’t necessarily want a newcomer to take the reigns – because they might just have an intent to stick around after October 12.

The Liberals wanted somebody to navigate the party through the election. This is perhaps why high-profile leadership-possibilities like Siobhan Coady never put their hat in the ring – there was a feeling that the party had other long term plans. Kudos to Aylward for doing his bit by faring extremely well with what he had to work with – and then stepping out of the way.

The party’s long term plans may have started to emerge publicly when Dean MacDonald – millionaire, former business partner of Danny Williams, and long time Liberal – announced publicly only days after the election had finished that he was (perhaps) interested in leading the party. MacDonald is the perfect solution for the Liberals: he is rich, well-known in the St. John’s business community, carries little political baggage, and even might engender the support of Danny Williams.

Indeed, those with an active imagination might start to see some interesting pieces to the puzzle. Was Danny Williams, when he seemingly out of nowhere started bickering with Premier Kathy Dunderdale, intentionally creating distance between himself and the PC party? Was he paving the way for legitimately supporting his old friend Dean MacDonald in a future election? This might not be such a bad theory; Williams didn’t exactly tow the Tory line during his Premiership, and a man with that kind of passion and political drive doesn’t completely lose interest in his work.

But as MacDonald presumably charts his course to the party leadership, what is he inheriting?

A long road back

As the party continues to exhale a sigh of relief that it held on to official opposition status, what now? With a popular support that has crumbled from 50% to 19% over 3 elections, and a dismal effort on the Avalon, one has to wonder if the Liberal party has done irreparable damage to its brand.

Other than putting a name on the ballot, the party gave townies no other alternative this October to the governing PCs than the NDP. The Liberal vacuum allowed a youthful and energetic New Democrat network to form in the region – a strong and permanent network that will be hard to disrupt – and the NDP made the most of that opportunity by winning big. The result is a polarization between the Liberal rural strength and the NDP urban strength, and the end of a virtual-two-party system in our province.

As much as the party would love to believe they are still the government-in-waiting, NDP strength in St. John’s is simply something they cannot ignore. It’s hard to believe that the Liberals can keep their support even in rural areas for long if they aren’t viewed as a legitimate contender, and it would be difficult for them to achieve that without making up ground on the eastern half of the island. The Avalon peninsula contains 22 of the province’s 48 districts; with just 6% of the popular vote in St. John’s and not much better in the rest of the region, the party has quite a hill to climb. To reverse the trend they have to simultaneously on one hand convince first-time NDP voters that they made a wrong choice, and on the other hand pry away consistent PC support. Not easy.

My advice to the Liberals? For what it’s worth: act fast. Get your leadership situation sorted as soon as possible, and begin planning for 2015.

Get some feet on the ground in St. John’s.

But is it too late for the Liberal party?

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