The Newfoundland and Labrador NDP will have a new leader this year, following the announcement on January 6 that Lorraine Michael, current leader of the NDP in Newfoundland since 2006, would resign and contest the next election only as an MHA for her district.
Efforts to select a new leader have begun; however, few strong predictions have been made about possible candidates, except to rule out those uninterested in running. The process is hoped to be concluded by the end March, said party president Kathleen Connors.
New leader, new candidates renewed credibility?
Michael is a former Roman Catholic nun, teacher and principal known for her social activism and was praised by Premier Paul Davis as an "active and passionate advocate for social justice," following her announcement.
Davis has pledged to wait to call the election until the NDP has a leader in place.
Michael is stepping down partly as a result of a dispute that became a public caucus revolt, leaving a lasting effect on the party's image and polling support.
In October 2013, four NDP caucus members signed a letter, which was obtained by the CBC under unclear circumstances, asking Michael for a leadership convention. Reportedly, two of the MHAs had a change of heart and later attempted to prevent the letter from actually being sent. At least one MHA was also perceived to have claimed to be pressured to sign the letter by a second MHA, whom he more directly claimed to have threatened to leak it to the media. This account has been flatly rejected by the second MHA.
The fracas provoked great interest and was a dramatic contrast from earlier in the year and from 2012, which saw points where the NL NDP led in the polls, albeit narrowly, for the first time ever.
In the aftermath of the dispute, two NDP MHAs joined the Liberals, who would also absorb defected Tories and thereby significantly increase their seat count over the NDP, who had emerged from the 2011 election with their largest caucus ever.
Currently, the focus will be on how a new leader might hope to attract new candidates and establish renewed credibility with the subtext of some media analysis so far involving the need for a move to centrism.
Importantly, Newfoundland also has a highly personalized political culture where voters often examine the characteristics of individuals rather than the political ideologies they represent. However, differences between the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals in Newfoundland have also tended to be narrower than in many provinces.
The candidates so far
The NDP MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, Ryan Cleary, and the former head of Newfoundland's fisheries union, Earle McCurdy, were among those initially considering seeking the leadership.
Cleary has since bowed out and thrown his support behind McCurdy, who has also received endorsement
from Bob Buckingham, a well-known St. John's lawyer who was also approached to run.
Chris Bruce, a former provincial executive member who left as a result of the caucus dispute, has also expressed interest, while current NDP MHA Gerry Rogers also backed McCurdy after temporarily leaving open the possibility that she might run.
McCurdy is a former head of Newfoundland's fisheries union and presided over times of great challenge and change for the province's once dominant industry.
McCurdy served for more than 20 years in the role, presiding over the aftermath of the 1992 Atlantic cod moratorium, which devastated and forever changed the province's economy. He also gained attention for his role in the so-called Turbot War, an international fishing dispute between Canada and Spain that saw Canada seize and arrest the crew of a Spanish ship.
McCurdy agreed to an interview, but unfortunately could not be reached for press time.
Chris Bruce is a former member-at-large with the provincial executive who briefly attempted to found a Green Party in Newfoundland, the only province in Canada that lacks one.
In a recent interview with CBC NL, Bruce was a rare voice in Newfoundland for the issue of political finance reform.
Though corporate and union donations to political parties have been illegal at the federal level since 2004, Newfoundland is one of several provinces which have "essentially no limits on how much money unions, corporations or individuals can give to political parties." In contrast, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia ban corporate and union donations entirely.
Bruce told rabble.ca in a phone call on January 15 that he believes the NDP should stop accepting union donations as a tough first step towards party finance reform, regardless of the hardship it might impose.
"The realpolitik argument is that we'd be hamstringing ourselves. But now is the time for us to do the right thing," Bruce said. "If we're not willing to do the right thing when we're not in office, it's not a very good sign for us to be able to do the right thing when we are in office. Maybe the NDP feels better about [accepting large donations] because the money comes from working people and not corporations. ...But in either instance the public finds it unpalatable."
Though Bruce has said most in the party have been unreceptive to the idea of finance reform, he is committed to emphasizing the issue. Bruce also emphasized his support for creating a competitive energy market in Newfoundland as a means to generate revenue and diversify the economy, which has become highly dependent on and sensitive to recently plummeting oil prices.
Bruce is yet to be officially declared, saying that his decision to run will depend strongly on the ability of supporters outside the convention to cast votes.
Problems historical, personal and perceptual?
Past assessments by local opinion-makers have included implicit criticism that the party has erred by focusing on perceived narrow issues "rooted in social justice" or that it lacks a fully coherent fiscal and economic policy.
While the latter concern can be read simply as equating non-neoliberal policy as reflecting a lack of credibility, it is nonetheless true that Michael's own defences of deficit spending have not really relied on economic arguments that it is often relatively benign.
The Newfoundland NDP's efforts will be further challenged by the plummeting price of oil, on which the province's economy, traditionally reliant on the fishery, now so strongly depends.
Indeed, one sympathetic writer believes that the party remains too "fractured" and its old supporters too "scattered to the four winds" to successfully rebuild.
All these complications further compound difficulty for a party that is also still dealing with what Michael called the "public perception" problem of the party, referring to the lingering effects of the caucus dispute.
At the same time, little attention has been paid to the fact that the NDP's support may have already begun to decline in popularity before the conflict unfolded.
Whatever the case, Michael has been forthright in admitting that the party's goal will now be to hold seats, and, regardless of media narrative, the significance of that goal can only be further disheartening for a national party that has seen its problems "pile up" in more ways than one.
An original version of this article mentioned a perception or implication that the MHA in question signed the letter or participated in its drafting process under "duress" and referred to this as an allegation. However, it is not necessarily clear that the MHA directly alleged this, though CBC reported that he said he was "pressured" and the second MHA used the word "duress" when describing his take on his colleague's own account, which he rejected. (A set of interviews and accompanying articles with CBC's Anthony Germaine contain these quotes and accounts). For comparison, Germaine himself uses the word "hoodwinks" to describe his own interpretation of the first MHA's account of the letter's signing.
Cory Collins is a St. John's-based nonfiction writer, visual artist, poet and contributor to rabble.ca and other publications. His poetry, criticism and art work have appeared in The Island Review, Lemon Hound, The Telegram, Burnaby Now, Off the Coast and Cordite Poetry Review, while he has written on current events, economic news and political affairs for Aslan Media, People's World, Bee Culture and Canadian Dimension. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.