Nfld. & Labrador

How a need for a 'knockout punch' led to fewer seats in the House of Assembly

The surprise move to cut the number of seats in the legislature came out of a strategic session among top Tories worried about the party's future, writes Peter Cowan.
Premier Paul Davis has admitted that he's encountered one problem after another since he became premier last fall. (CBC)

About a month ago, some of the top people in the Progressive Conservative party gathered to find a solution to a serious problem that's plaguing the government in Newfoundland and Labrador.

After three months in power, support for Premier Paul Davis was dismally low. Nothing he was doing was getting traction with the public. From the appointment of Judy Manning to the collapse of the fisheries fund, Davis couldn't get a win.

The people around the table were challenged with coming up with something to flip things around.  As one person in the meeting told me, they needed a "knockout punch."

They talked about election timing, whether it might work to go earlier, or go later.

Other suggestions were thrown around, but there was one idea that came out of the meeting that Davis and his team thought would work: cutting the number of MHAs.

Motivating factors

It has a lot of things going for it. For starters, it cuts spending at a time when oil prices have put everything on the table.

The spring budget is expected to hand out pink slips to civil servants, so cutting the number of politicians shows that everyone has to make sacrifices.

It also helps that the other leaders had been on the record as generally supporting the move.

And best of all, having fewer politicians is something the public anecdotally supports.

So how did it all work out?

People inside the party are pleased with this week's developments, because they think Davis comes out looking like a strong leader, and because the move got the public talking about something other than how badly the party is doing.

Liberals put on defensive

Opposition Leader Dwight Ball is at his best when he has time to consider different sides, read the material and then speak out, so this unexpected move put him on the defensive and forced him to explain his own changing position.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball may face awkward problems with candidates who have already been nominated for the next election. (CBC)

Even some inside the Liberal party, while taking credit publicly for the original idea and the amendments that were passed early Friday morning, admit privately that this was a smart move for Davis and expect a small polling bump for him and the PCs.

For the Liberals, it creates internal problems.

The party's early election organizing has delivered 27 candidates ready for the ballot, who now may find themselves in districts that disappear. Earlier this week, the party suspended its nominations process.

Other candidates may end up in a different district than the one where they are already nominated when the boundaries change.

Once the lines are redrawn, the party will have to figure out which races need to be redone ... and that's where it gets messy, with the possibility that two confirmed candidates fighting over a new district.

For example, if parts of St. John's East hypothetically get folded into Virginia Waters, you may see MHA Cathy Bennett fighting with Paul Antle for the nomination. It's not something that builds party unity, especially when candidates have planned their lives around running for the party this year.

Changing the conversation

Davis' move won't be enough to single-handedly turn the PC fortunes around. They're still trailing well behind the Liberals in polls, and in organization.

But it has at least changed the conversation - at least briefly.

The party is hoping this move gets the public to reconsider its support for Ball and to take a second look at Davis.

With the public's attention, it's what he does next that will decide whether voters just give him a glance, or a vote.

The party's next big challenge is how to cut programs and people in a spring budget, while picking up support.


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.


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