Gushue | When a byelection's meaning extends beyond voting day

Cathy Bennett's win in Virginia Waters marks the first time since the 1990s that the Liberals won a vote in St. John's, and could be a harbinger of a significant shift, writes John Gushue

Virginia Waters gives Liberals a new edge in metro St. John's districts

Cathy Bennett won the Virginia Waters byelection earlier this month, becoming the first Liberal to win a St. John's seat in 15 years. (CBC)

In the early-morning hours of April 9, I noticed something remarkable on the drive to work: a full parking lot outside Cathy Bennett's campaign headquarters.

The sun wasn't up yet, most people were still asleep, but not only was that parking lot full, there were cars parked on Pearson Street nearby. I noticed that Bennett tweeted later that the shift of campaign workers, who flooded the Virginia Waters district with reminders to get out to vote, had started at 5 a.m.

When the polls closed that night, Bennett wound up edging Tory Danny Breen by just 40 votes. The significance was obvious: Virginia Waters, for more than a decade, was the seat of Kathy Dunderdale, who was not just the premier until January but (giving credit where it's due) the former party president who helped engineer the comeback that put the Tories in power in 2003.

Newfoundland and Labrador voters do not change governments lightly. Joey Smallwood's Liberals had almost 23 years, the PCs the next 17, the Liberals the 14 after that. It's now been 11 years of the latest PC regime — a solid stretch in politics, and the party would no doubt argue that its best-before date is far from being written.

Only a month ago, the Tories had been raring to go with a three-way leadership race, even if no one from the inner circle was willing to get involved. But with Wayne Bennett booted out and Bill Barry shutting down his candidacy on Thursday, it's now a coronation for Frank Coleman. 

In the Virginia Waters byelection, the Tories knew they were in a tight spot. I thought it was significant that Danny Breen, who was unopposed in his ward in last year's municipal election, did not quit his seat outright to run, but took an unpaid leave of absence from the council chambers.

But Cathy Bennett's victory may turn out to be a harbinger of change, particularly if you look at what's happened in the past. I'm leery of making assumptions of patterns inexorably repeating themselves, but it's always instructive to bear our own history in mind.

Two incidents come to mind.

Waterford-Kenmount watershed

The first takes us back to March 1988, when Eric Gullage — up to that point an easy-going member of St. John's city council — won a byelection in the old district of Waterford-Kenmount, which used to include chunks of the west end of St. John's and parts of Mount Pearl. (Much of it is in the current Mount Pearl North.) 

Eric Gullage scored a political upset when he won Waterford-Kenmount for the Liberals in 1988. (CBC)
Waterford-Kenmount had been represented by Gerry Ottenheimer, whose PC credentials were so solid that he was just one of three Tories to hold back the Smallwood onslaught that was the 1966 election. Two decades on, he was appointed to the Senate, triggering a byelection that conventional wisdom held was there for the Tory candidate to take.

Except the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Gullage won the seat in an upset. Change was in the wind, in part because of the Sprung greenhouse that had sprouted around the corner, in larger part I think because of fatigue with Brian Peckford and the PCs.

Clyde Wells' political stock shot up after the Liberals won the Waterford-Kemount byelection in 1988. (CBC)

Peckford hung in for another 10 months, and the PCs then underwent a flashy, no-holds-barred leadership race that put Tom Rideout in the premier's chair, but Waterford-Kenmount turned out to a harbinger of how the public mood was changing. 

If nothing else, the ability of Clyde Wells to take a metro-area seat got people's attention, and presaged the huge breakthrough that came in the 1989 general election when the Liberals painted a lot of St. John's red.

Northern Peninsula upsets

Trevor Taylor made history in 2001 by becoming the first non-Liberal to get elected in The Straits-White Bay North. (CBC)

Let's jump forward 13 years, to January 2001 and an upset of historical proportions on the Northern Peninsula.

Two byelections were held on the same day, to find successors to Brian Tobin and Chuck Furey in the districts, respectively, of The Straits-White Bay North and St. Barbe. (Tobin had just quit as premier to go back to federal cabinets; Furey threw in the towel after 15 years at Confederation Building.)

To call those districts "traditionally Liberal" was an understatement. The Straits had never elected anything but Liberals, and St. Barbe had only done it twice since Confederation.

Nonetheless, Trevor Taylor and Wally Young knocked out home runs in the simultaneous byelections, signalling a big win for Danny Williams, who at the time was campaigning for the PC leadership. (That June, Williams would win a byelection himself in Humber West, replacing another Liberal stalwart, Paul Dicks.) 

Danny Williams was not even PC leader in early 2001 when he helped guide the Tories to two byelection upsets. (CBC)
Like Waterford-Kenmount, the significance of the Northern Peninsula byelections was hard to discount. If the rejuvenated Tories could take the most hardcore Liberal seats, what were they not capable of getting?

Up for grabs

Similarly, if Cathy Bennett can take a proverbially safe Tory seat, what else might be up for grabs?

Here's one thing to consider. Cathy Bennett is the first Liberal to win a seat in St. John's since the 1990s. The Liberals did quite well in the 1999 election, the second huge majority for Brian Tobin, but could not win a single vote in the metro area from thereon in … until now.

Floor-crossings have given the Liberal caucus a metro feel, thanks to the arrivals of former Tories Paul Lane and Tom Osborne and former New Democrat Dale Kirby. But winning a byelection is different, and gives the Liberals that elixir — political mojo — that is all-important for recruiting cash, candidates and foot soldiers willing to work on the next election. (Even the 5 a.m. shift.)

Let's also give credit to Sam Slade — Sammy Claus, as he memorably dubbed himself in the pre-Christmas byelection in Carbonear-Harbour Grace. That district was held by Jerome Kennedy, the enforcer of the late Danny Williams era. The victory was important; it was the first time the Liberals stole back a seat from the Tories since Marshall Dean took back The Straits-White Bay North in 2009.

To repeat, a byelection win does not mean that bigger change is unavoidable. There are plenty of things to happen in the coming months in provincial politics, including the emergence of a new Tory premier, the NDP leadership review and, no doubt, things we simply cannot anticipate.

That age-old saying  the one about a week being a lifetime in politics  plays on one's mind as we look at quite a few weeks before an election is likely.

But, for all it's worth (and the toonie it would take on top of that to buy a cup of coffee), I think the Virginia Waters byelection could well be remembered in a generation's time as much more than just one vote in one corner of St. John's.