Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador tend to be ruled from one side or the other. Results skew madly. There are dearths and dominances, and rarely a level playing field.
Take Tuesday's election: when the House of Assembly dissolved, the 48 ridings broke out as 43 for the Progressive Conservatives, 4 for the Liberals and 1 for the NDP. When the Liberals last held power, going into the 2003 election, the numbers were 14 PC, 32 Liberal and 2 NDP. Governance has passed back and forth between the Liberals and PCs, but seldom quickly. Anyone over 40 has lived through every NL administration since Confederation; and Kathy Dunderdale is the 10th premier (two, PC Tom Rideout, and Liberal Beaton Tulk, were not elected but took the helm when Brian Peckford and Brian Tobin, in turn, left politics).
The latest polls are giving the PCs 54 per cent support, NDP 33 per cent support, and Liberals 13 per cent. (The Liberals dispute the result, saying the firm who did the poll, MQO Research, both supports and is contracted by the Tories.) If this plays out on election day tomorrow, the Tories will retain their majority, but it will still be a ground changing result. This is a race to the official opposition. If the NDP win they will be the strongest they have ever been in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Liberals will be toast.
The Liberals are in a kind of astonishing disarray that is parallel to their federal counterpart, but for different reasons. Leader Yvonne Jones (MHA for Cartwright -- L'Anse au Clair) resigned Aug. 9 because of health reasons. Kevin Aylward, a former cabinet minister who had left politics in 2003, was chosen her replacement by the Liberal Party executive on Aug. 14. Aylward does not seem to have the popular touch. As of writing, the Liberals do not have a full slate of candidates. The NDP do for the first time since 1993. And, the NDP's standing in the House of Assembly having peaked at two, they really have nowhere to go but up.
The Liberals have not elected a single member in the St. John's area since 2003 -- and previous victories were pretty sporadic flares in the anti-Confederate, long-remembering capital before then. The city is where the NDP is showing momentum -- in fact, across NL they as often as not polled second in the past two federal elections, a strong showing for a party that had the least presence of longstanding roots in the one province that probably values such history the most.
In this campaign, the Liberals are pushing a rural-versus-urban message, but it is not getting much traction. As well, they are pelting Premier Kathy Dunderdale with spitballs marked "Muskrat Falls" (the first construction of the planned infrastructure for the Lower Churchill project in Labrador, and either the energy answer to the future, or a $6.2-billion albatross, depending on your point of view), and "too friendly with Harper." Neither seems to stick.
The number one issue in polls and on the campaign trail is health care. The only two protests the premier has yet seen were agitated, respectively, by last year's reassignment of Air Ambulance service from St. Anthony, on the Northern Peninsula, to Labrador, and the quota stalemate at the Marystown Ocean Choice International fishplant.
Newfoundland and Labrador now is now a have province, the unprecedented ranking fueled by oil revenues. Still, the forecast deficit for 2012-2013 is $496-million, for 2013-2014, $309-million. The population remembers, either personally or by cultural osmosis, how past resources and riches were squandered, and expect forward-thinking stewardship.
The NDP released their platform first. Title: It's Time. Cost: $142-million. Includes: publicly funded homecare, all-day kindergarten, rent supplements, and a 3 per cent surtax on oil revenues.
The PCs were next. Title: New Energy. Cost: $135-million. Includes: tax breaks, a freeze on post-secondary education tuition fees while replacing loans with needs-based grants, and investment of one-third of future surpluses in public pension plans.
The Liberals were third. Title: People's Platform. Cost: $145-million. Includes: the creation of an advocate for senior citizens, and 10 per cent of oil revenues invested into a legacy fund.
A few ridings of note:
This is Dunderdale's seat, and she is safe. She assumed the party leadership when Danny Williams left in Dec. 2010, first on an interim basis, then changed her position and ran, unopposed, for the mantel. (Except for an offbeat contesting from one Brad Cabana, who subsequently ran for the Liberal leadership, and is now allegedly suing... oh, never mind.)
Signal Hill -- Quidi Vidi
NDP leader Lorraine Michael vs. PC John Noseworthy, the former provincial attorney general (he also claimed that the provincial Liberals had offered him the leadership of their party, which they denied). The Tories have already flung some heavyweights at Michael, to no avail.
St. George's -- Stephenville East
Here is where Liberal leader Kevin Aylward is trying to win a seat, tackling Education Minister Joan Burke. (Aylward was the MHA 1985-2003.)
Cartwright-L'Anse Au Clair
Former leader Jones is running again, as the incumbent; the popular MHA has held this riding even as an Independent.
St. John's Centre
Natural Resources Minister Shawn Skinner is facing a real challenge from NDP Gerry Rogers.
St. John's North
Incumbent PC Bob Ridgley is trying to head off what looks like steadily surging support for NDP Dale Kirby.
Voter turnout in NL has set a Canadian record, of about 88 per cent, in 1971. But in the last election it dipped to 60 per cent.
Joan Sullivan writes from St. John's, where she is editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly.
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