Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Cochrane | The NDP's big challenge

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael got fed up with the incessant heckling from the Progressive Conservative MHAs sitting directly across from her this week, but, as David Cochrane writes, sometimes the hecklers have a point.

It happened very quickly this week – but it was a long time coming.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael lost her cool in the legislature, fed up with the incessant heckling from the Progressive Conservative MHAs sitting directly across from her.

"Yes, people do need, and that’s what we’ve got to learn!" Michael shouted at the heckling Tories.

"People do need, and we’ve got to meet their needs, and I’m sick and tired of getting made fun of in this house when we talk about the needs of people."

The antics of question period and what passes for debate in the house of assembly clearly frustrates Michael. The New Democrats are the biggest threat in the polls to the Tories and also the biggest target for Tory jeers.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, pictured in this file photo, lost her cool in the legislature this week, after incessant heckling from the Progressive Conservative MHAs. (CBC)

The heckling is often a loud cocktail of derision and contempt. The Tories sneer at the NDP for making expensive promises to an ever-growing list of the aggrieved, with no clear explanation of how to pay for it.

The heckling is often boorish. It is always loud. It can be sophomoric. But what should be troubling to Michael and her caucus is that it is often at least partially right.

When the NDP was stuck at one or two seats and polling in the low teens, nobody paid much attention to the party and its policies. But things are changing for the NDP, and that means the party has to change as well.

It is no longer good enough to simply list all the things the party would like to do for people. It is time for the NDP to start telling people how they will do these things and how they will pay for them.

NDP needs to spell it out

The party has come a long way since its breakthrough in the 2011 election. Its MHAs do extensive public outreach, and the party generally runs a crisp media relations operation. The NDP is simply outhustling the competition on many fronts.

It is officially still the third party in the legislature, but the NDP is running first in poll after poll. As we get closer to the 2015 election, the party needs to spell out precisely what an NDP government would do. We all know that the New Democrats are a party that supports the poor, working families, health care, home care, child care, and education. What are less clear are the economic and fiscal policies that an NDP government would pursue.

Here’s a question that has no obvious answer right now: Who would be the NDP finance minister? That needs an answer. And it needs one long before the next election.

The Tories like to mock the NDP for having a so-called "money tree" that will magically finance all of their promises. They are desperately trying to brand the third party as a gaggle of taxers and spenders who would dial back the recent gains in debt reduction and credit rating upgrades.

Michael and her caucus have led an aggressive condemnation of the recent provincial budget cuts. But they have never  precisely outlined how they would do things differently. There are broad answers about better planning and better management. But the only way to avoid the cuts in this budget would have been to do less spending in the first place.

The NDP also talk about the need to look at ways to increase revenues, which either means cutting more economic deals or raising taxes.

Tax plans?

During the 2011 election, the New Democrats floated the creation of a new three per cent surtax on oil companies. It failed to realize that the existing oil agreements are copper fastened with regulatory stability clauses designed to guard against after-the-fact tax increases.

It was a minor slip in an election where the NDP was looking for a breakthrough. But a repeat could completely undermine the party in an election where forming government would be a realistic goal.

All of this may seem premature with an election still two and a half years away. But financial and economic management remain the weak points in the NDP brand. If the party plans to raise taxes, it needs to spell that out and have that conversation well in advance of the next election.

The province’s business community is already quietly worried about what might happen if the NDP wins the next government. They fear a renewed expansion of the state financed by an increase in corporate taxes. That fear may be overstated. But it is fuelled in part by a lack of clarity on just what constitutes NDP economic and fiscal policy.

Wood pellet crusade

A prime example of this is Christopher Mitchelmore’s Twitter crusade for wood pellets. The MHA for the Straits-White Bay North is a vocal supporter of a domestic wood pellet industry, going so far as to advocate the wholesale conversion of all public buildings to wood burning as a source of heat and electricity.

It amounts to a plan to create a domestic market for an industry that has already requested repeated government subsidies.

"Government of NL should convert government buildings from heating oil to wood pellets. Let's save taxpayer money," he tweeted recently.

"When will NL Gov realize energy savings & convert schools, hospitals & public buildings to wood pellets. Much cheaper than electricity."

Is that official NDP policy? Would an NDP government unhook the Health Sciences from the electricity grid in favour of wood pellets? Is that how an NDP government would spend infrastructure dollars?

Mitchelmore has been preaching this for months, along with plans to burn shrimp shells and other biomass to fuel greenhouses, which would provide food security to the province. Is he freelancing? Or is that also the official party line?

It is a conversation the party needs to have with the public. If the wood pellet solution is a core part of NDP economic and energy policy, it needs to be fleshed out and clearly articulated.

As it stands, it is a lightning rod for ridicule in the legislature, and a big eyebrow raiser for more neutral parties.

The NDP needs a coherent economic and fiscal plan to present to the voters. It is time to burn the midnight pellets and pull it together.