Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Road From Perdition

With a number of journalists and commentators speculating about if/when Williams will step down and what stage of Dannyism we've entered, it might be a good time for the Liberals to take stock. As I said in an earlier post, if history is any guide, real change in NL politics will come when the governing party rots from within: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/03/long-view.html

As we weigh the different political predictions, I think we should keep three things in mind. First, Williams will not leave office with the Lower Churchill left undeveloped. As I've said many times, the road to Newfoundland nationalism runs through Labrador's hydro power, and I cannot envisage Williams stepping down without signing the Mother of All Deals. So either he'll have to be defeated in an election, or he'll step down once the hydro deal is signed.

Second, the Tories, like the Liberals, are neither a monolithic nor uniform entity. Rather, they comprise a coalition of different groups and peoples brought together for different reasons in a drive for power. For any party to govern effectively, it has to cross traditional sectarian and geographic boundaries. In the case of the Tories, they were successful because they extended their appeal beyond their traditional Townie and Catholic bases of support. They managed to do this in a number of ways (e.g., effective local recruitment in ridings, an appeal to nationalist sentiment and fed-bashing, and capitalizing on Liberal weaknesses); however, they never really succeeded in re-branding Williams, whose flashy suits and corner-boy style are as Townie as you can get.

There is an undercurrent of anger in many fishing communities and in Central Newfoundland. There is a real fear of being left behind, while the St. John's bubble continues to grow and grow and grow. The first place that the Tories will falter is in rural Newfoundland, where Williams' style has never been as popular as the polls indicated. In many parts of NL where people haven't felt the benefits of oil revenue and the government-spending boom, Williams' support is still a mile wide, but it is only an inch deep.

Third, the shift in power will begin only when the Liberals re-brand themselves as the party which cares about the little guy, the working people who feel left behind, the fishermen, and mill workers -- the people who feel screwed over and who never had a shot at a comfortable civil service job. They're not going to do this with Dean MacDonald in charge, or by returning to Tobinism. If the Liberals think they are going to be able to out-Danny Danny by annointing a slick new heir apparent, they should think again. In my humble opinion, Yvonne Jones has done a good job under difficult circumstances: she deserves to play a central role in deciding how the Liberals organize for the next election.

Above all, the Liberal Party needs to heal the fractures from 2001 and the fallout from its civil war. It needs to reintegrate the powerful tradition of rural populism that it lost when Efford was defeated, but it needs to do this without returning to Tobinism, which wore thin remarkably quickly. Tobinism was, in many respects, Dannyism without the petrodollars. It was slick and media-savy, though it was also inauthentic. One of the reasons why Danny remains relatively popular is that, whatever he is, he is seen as authentic. Many voters overlook his outbursts not because they like him but because they don't see him as inauthentic.

I've seen commentators make unfair comments about Jones' accent and her style, and I think the Liberals could turn this into a political opportunity. They need to brand themselves as the authentic voice of the majority of the population who do not spend their free time planning their next vacation to Cuba, loading up their new Camry at Costco, or calculating how much their East End back-split has soared in value since Danny took down the Canadian flag. Instead, the Liberals need to adopt what I would call the "Shearstown litmus-test." They need to rally around a leader, a style, and a platform that generate genuine enthusiasm in a traditional Liberal heartland like Shearstown. They have to start with the base of the party and work from there. If they can fill a hall with a speaker comfortable with the Shearstown brass band, that's a start.

The Liberals need to decide what they want to stand for: they need to find their own voice and forge a distinctive brand. And they cannot wait for the next election to get around to it.

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