Pillar to Post | By Craig Westcott
The results of the Topsail – Paradise by-election left a smell of blood in the water for hardcore political watchers and prognosticators.
The win for Paul Dinn was the third straight by-election victory for the Opposition PC Party since the Liberals took office less than four years ago. The Liberals, who were elected on a wave of revulsion over the way the PCs had ruined the province’s finances after 12 years in government, declined to capitalize on their advantage and answer the public’s thirst for punishment for those responsible, instead letting the PCs and especially PC appointees such as the Nalcor board and its president Ed Martin, make fools of them. Other PC sympathizers and senior bureaucrats who helped foist the Muskrat Falls white elephant upon on us were promoted or given lateral transfers within the civil service.
As a result, Dwight Ball’s Liberals failed to distinguish themselves as a new sheriff in town and simply became the latest incarnation of the failing former government. They are more PC-Lite than actual Liberals. Consequently, they have not won a single by-election victory since taking office. That’s the kind of string of defeats that governments into their second and third term and on their way out of power endure, not governments in just their first term.
PC Leader Ches Crosbie, who has offered nothing new in the way of policy or approach to the former incarnation of his party, has a pretty even chance of becoming premier this year. But it will probably be close. How close? The colour of the next government could be decided by the likes of independent member Paul Lane and exiled Liberal stalwart Eddie Joyce, whom Ball threw under the bus in the face of exaggerated and frivolous harassment charges against his fellow cabinet members and MHAs.
It would be a sweet and just revenge for Joyce, who famously took a figurative bullet for his party back in 1989 when he resigned his seat so that Clyde Wells could have one when the Liberals won power without Wells managing to find a seat of his own.
Here’s how things could break down: The Liberals now have 27 members to the PCs eight, while three members, including Joyce, Lane and disgraced Liberal member Dale Kirby, sit as independents, which is one more than the NDP’s two members. If the Liberals lose seven seats in the coming general election, it will leave them with 20. They would have to nominate a speaker, which would leave them with 19. That would leave 20 members on the other side of the House.
The peril of losing seven seats isn’t far-fetched. Until last election, the District of Topsail – Paradise was a bellwether. This has been so dating back to the 1970s with the seat always going to whichever side happened to win the government. That was true for PC John Butt, Liberals Patt Cowan and Ralph Wiseman, PC Diane Whalen and former member Paul Davis. The latter made history last election when he managed to hold onto the seat despite his party losing government.
If Dinn’s win Thursday is a bellwether for seats on this part of the island, all or nearly all of the Northeast Avalon could go PC next election. In St. John’s that would add three seats to the PC’s side of the House, assuming the NDP manage to hold onto their two seats, and that’s a big assumption. It’s uncertain Lorraine Michael will run again, so that could put St. John’s East – Quidi Vidi in play. The PCs would have a much better chance of winning it than the Liberals. Let’s say they do; That’s four gains for the PCs.
Outside the Northeast Avalon, but nearby, other Liberal seats that could fall in the face of a small blue wave, the retirement of a Liberal incumbent, discontent with the Liberals’ performance, or a particularly strong local PC candidate, are Betty Parsley’s seat in Harbour Main, Sherry Gambin-Walsh in Placentia – St. Marys, and Pam Parsons in Harbour Grace – Port de Grave, which has the dubious honour of having perhaps the worst state of roads of any district in the province, taking that distinction away from Placentia – St. Mary’s.
Then there’s Terra Nova District, where malcontent Liberal Colin Holloway is probably likely to fall. A local pundit whose opinion I respect tells me there is talk of discontent with the Liberals on the Burin Peninsula too, perhaps putting two more seats in play.
One particularly ill-timed scandal and the boards could start crumbling under the Liberals in other places.
The prospect of the Liberals losing government after just one term in office, especially after the previous PC administration nearly bankrupted the treasury and Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale gave away Muskrat Falls to Nova Scotia, should be an impossibility. But it isn’t, because this Liberal government has been the most milquetoast regime Newfoundlanders have ever seen in office. These Liberals should change their party colour from red to beige.
As we head toward Spring, or early or late summer, or whenever Dwight Ball decides to take his chances, there is a very real prospect that 2019 will be an historic year in modern Newfoundland politics. It could mark the first time since Confederation that a new government destroyed its re-election chances in just one term, not perhaps for anything they did, but for all the things they didn’t do, like tame the deficit, punish those responsible for Muskrat Falls and inject a bit of colour and confidence back into Newfoundlanders and our politics.