Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

A tale of 2 conventions: On the floor with the Liberals and Tories

Drew Brown took it upon himself to sit through back-to-back annual meetings of the Liberals and Tories. Here's what he found.

Differences between 2 recent conventions boil down to which party is in power

Premier Dwight Ball, left, and Opposition Leader Paul Davis faced their respective party conventions this fall, arriving with different sets of problems. (CBC)

Liberal, Tory: same old story? Or is this old adage a little bit hoary?

As it turns out, it's a little bit of both. Having now sat through two back-to-back annual general meetings, there are a lot of similarities between our two governing parties — but some important differences too.

And I don't just mean who can party harder — the Liberals win hands-down in that department, for better or for worse.

But that, like most else about Newfoundland and Labrador politics, boils down to which party sits in government.

When the stakes are so low

Both conventions were marked by heated debates between different factions over party policy. But the nature of those disputes, and the groups involved, reveal the different tensions roiling through the Liberals and the Tories.

Among Progressive Conservatives, the debates were largely abstract and the disagreements were almost always on principle.

Red Tories, Blue Tories and social conservatives clashed with one another over how much the government should meddle in the economy and/or the romantic life of private citizens.

This is not because the PCs are a particularly philosophical party so much as it is because the stakes are so low.

Whatever the Liberals are for, the Tories are against, usually on the laziest possible pretense.

After 12 years in power, a rapid succession of leaders, a resounding defeat in the last election and a rump caucus of stale leftovers, the party has been forced to go back to the drawing board.

They don't actually have anything to do, so armchair political theorists come of the woodwork.

And just as sure as the rising and the setting of the sun, they will vanish again the minute a strong new leader appears and the party comes within striking distance of government.

Crass, intellectually bankrupt opportunism

They're still operating on the top-down model. Most of the Tory resolutions were drafted by members of caucus, whose track record in opposition so far could be best described as crass, intellectually bankrupt opportunism.

Despite rumours of an upset, Liberal delegates overwhelmingly endorsed Dwight Ball's leadership last week. (CBC)

Whatever the Liberals are for, the Tories are against, usually on the laziest possible pretense.

This is, of course, exactly what the Liberals did for years in the run up to 2015. This is the cycle of political life in Newfoundland and Labrador. The cosmic ballet goes on.

Meanwhile, at the Liberal AGM, there was a different set of disputes on the convention floor.

Around the same barren banquet table

The Liberals position themselves as a deliberately non-ideological party, but they've never hesitated to play up the rural/urban divide to score political points. And now that the baymen and the townies are sitting around the same barren banquet table, those chickens are coming home to roost.

Dwight Ball rallied Liberal delegates at the party's annual general meeting in Gander. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Case in point: one of the first resolutions they tackled was to implement a precautionary moratorium on the commercial capelin fishery and commission a DFO study on the the health of the stocks.

Several veteran fishermen in attendance emphatically warned that the capelin were vanishing in the same ways as they did an the eve of the cod collapse.

The debate got intensely heated and the motion was narrowly defeated, voted down unanimously by several tables of Young Liberals gazing absently into their smartphones.

One of the fishermen shouted to the room that this was the same hubris that destroyed the industry 30 years ago and declared that "this is the problem in Newfoundland … we try to do something right and we get shouted down."

So now we're 'People of Cod'

Ten minutes after shutting down a troupe of fish harvesters, the room overwhelmingly voted to make 2019 the Year of the Cod and declared us "People of Cod."

There is no greater comment on the way that a certain idea of rural Newfoundland has come to overshadow actually-existing rural Newfoundlanders in this province.

Liberals approved a resolution to declare 2019 'Year of the Cod,' not long after seasoned fishermen warned of the fragile health of fish stocks. (Submitted by Dana Blackmore )

Both motions are entirely symbolic. The provincial government can't compel DFO to do anything, nor can it open or close the capelin fishery at will; all they can do is petition Ottawa.

But the membership could at least go through the motions of pretending to take fish harvesters seriously — and wash the party's hands of any future ecological catastrophe.

Then again, none of this really matters. The resolutions are all non-binding and the governing party will adopt and reject whatever policy it wants.

No matter how many factions exist in a party or what lines are drawn in the sand, the buck always stops at the leader — especially when that leader is also the premier.

O captain! My captain!

Both conventions this year also functioned as post-election retrospectives for each party. A big part of this was an assessment (or reassessment) of each party's leader.

It was supposed to be, at least, until Paul Davis copped out of his review by resigning at the last minute.

Not that you can really blame the guy. The writing was on the wall, and he wanted to go out with a little bit of dignity — an element that was otherwise in short supply at the Progressive Conservative convention.

Outgoing PC Leader Paul Davis used his speech to the party's annual general meeting to attack what the Liberals have done since taking power. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Neither the outgoing leader nor his potential replacements could even mention Danny Williams by name, despite the fact that he was the only thing holding the political universe in this province together for the better part of a decade.

Likewise, the big buzz around the Liberal convention was Dwight Ball's leadership review.

Normally this is a non-issue for the premier of a majority government before his first anniversary, but the premier's first year in office could charitably be described as a trainwreck.

Most of the province is ready to burn the man at the stake (his latest approval rating among the general public is 16 per cent), and there has been a lot of open speculation since the April budget about whether he could retain the support of his party.

Polite, but long on empty words

Admittedly, while the premier had a pretty good two weeks coming into the AGM, it's still hard to describe him as a strong leader. He is intensely polite but long on empty words.

The provincial economy is too precarious to throw an unnecessary political crisis on top of it.

You can't press the guy on anything and given two opportunities to speak at the convention, he didn't offer much of substance beyond conflicting reassurances that hard times were on the way but things were looking up.

But despite it all, he got a ringing 90.9 per cent endorsement from the Liberals. Of the 333 delegates who voted on the matter, barely 30 of them actually wanted to see Ball sacked.

Liberal delegates passed a number of resolutions at their annual general meeting, but none is binding on the government. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Part of this, certainly, was that the party scrambled to stack the convention with alternate delegates loyal to the premier. But mainly, it's that the stakes were too high for any serious Liberal to set the world on fire.

By law, ousting the premier and triggering a leadership race would also trigger an early general election. There is no obvious successor waiting in the wings, and the provincial economy is too precarious to throw an unnecessary political crisis on top of it.

Does the buck stop at the premier's office?

Holding power, as always, is the name of the game.

For most of the Tory years, Danny Williams held the reins with an iron fist. The buck stopped at the premier's office. But unlike the Old Man, Dwight Ball is just one cog in a much larger political machine.

Former premier Danny Williams did not even get a mention at Progressive Conservative annual general meeting. (CBC)

The main takeaway from the Liberal AGM is that the real power behind the throne in this province is Judy Foote, passing out cheques courtesy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The truth is that it doesn't really matter who leads the provincil Liberals, because they're just a frontman for a federal bailout.

The opposition had a strictly buttoned-down affair while the governing party drank Gander dry.

But even Uncle Ottawa can only do so much. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and a year into their mandate, Dwight Ball's government looks more helpless than ever.

Like I said: most of the differences between the Tory and Liberal conventions boiled down to which party was in power.

The opposition had a strictly buttoned-down affair while the governing party drank Gander dry.

But the Liberals' underlying pathos was clear: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The premier's newly released "vision document" involves a lot of staring into the abyss. Winter is definitely coming.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Drew Brown

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Drew Brown writes frequently on politics. He lives in St. John's.

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