Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Labrador's byelection turns into a national litmus test

The Labrador byelection is not just about Peter Penashue's future, writes John Gushue, who sees high stakes for each of the three major parties.

Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all have much on the line in upcoming vote

The upcoming byelection in Labrador will be about many things — Muskrat Falls, natural resource development and, at the very least, that little thing called ethics — but it will most certainly be about the leaders of the national parties.

Yes, the primary ingredient is Peter Penashue, who is in the unusual position of being both the trigger for the byelection and the man to beat. Penashue resigned his seat in the Commons earlier this month, after Elections Canada told him his 2011 election campaign had accepted inappropriate donations not once, not twice, but 28 times.

But the race is going to be about more than whether Penashue, who has been a target of Liberal and NDP salvos since last year, is fit to return to the House.

For Penashue, the stakes could not be more clear: the former Innu Nation leader's reputation is in shaky shape, and he needs a win to reclaim whatever is left of it. That's no small chore, and while Penashue has become a target for the anti-Harper hordes, observers should not make the mistake of writing Penashue off just yet.

It's clear that in just the last few days that a few other things are on the line.

It was interesting to see NDP Leader Tom Mulcair fly to Labrador on Tuesday, to drum up support in the mining towns of Wabush and Labrador City for newly minted candidate Harry Borlase.

This came right on the heels of an unusual call by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who asked the NDP to not put a candidate in play for the byelection. May is trying to end the vote-splitting that has benefitted the Conservatives in past elections.

NDP brushes off Green plea

Mulcair was having none of that. The NDP went ahead with a vote on Sunday, picked Borlase, and then arranged for Mulcair to be the first national leader to get on the ground in the Big Land. Mulcair simply would not agree to seeing the Official Opposition playing second fiddle to a party that has a much smaller presence in parliament, regardless of the riding's voting history.

Tom Mulcair, left, flew to Labrador Tuesday to rally support for candidate Harry Borlase. (CBC )

"We've been bringing a much tougher opposition to Stephen Harper than the Liberals were able to do in the past," Mulcair told CBC News during his visit.

"If there's one person who should stand down in this election, it's Peter Penashue. No one else."

That's not going to happen. The Conservative Party of Canada announced Penashue would be the party's candidate the very day he quit his seat in the Commons. Penashue had a jump on the competition, too, knowing days in advance that he would be stepping down, only to run for the seat again.

It felt like a race from the outset, even without the small details — like a byelection date — in place. Penashue had a campaign ad in the paper at the outset, and the Liberal Party of Canada followed suit with an anti-Penashue attack ad that was published before Yvonne Jones was even named as the party's candidate.

The conventional wisdom has historically been that Labrador is the Liberals' to lose. The political reality is that the riding has been pretty loyal to the party. Since Confederation, in fact, voters have only twice broken away from the Grits. The first was in 1968, when Ambrose Peddle was one of a set of PCs in Newfoundland and Labrador that bucked the Trudeaumania sweeping the country that year (in an election that, in this province at least, had more to do with JRS than PET).

The second was in 2011, when Penashue scored a breakthrough so surprising that the CBC News election desk had already called the vote for Todd Russell. (The problem? The majority of polls that had reported early had been in Russell's favour, and matched previous patterns.)

But Russell's performance in that election was weak, with the lowest vote count for a Liberal candidate since 1996, when Lawrence O'Brien squeaked by a Reform candidate in a byelection.

Penashue should not be underestimated

While Penashue has become a poster boy for inappropriate campaign spending, there are rumblings from Labrador that he's not at all out of the race. One Liberal told one of my colleagues that the party senses there may be more solid on-the-ground support (maybe it's sympathy) for Penashue than outsiders might think.

Peter Penashue is seen speaking with CBC News in June 2011, weeks after his upset win in the riding of Labrador. (CBC)

There's also the spectre that the Liberals may yet turn out to be the authors of their own misfortune. A few of us in the newsroom noted a bit of a sour tone when Russell spoke to Labrador Morning earlier this week, to announce that he would not be competing for the party's nomination.

"I was disappointed that Ms. Jones made such a hasty decision," Russell told Tony Dawson of Labrador Morning. "I would have hoped that I would have had the liberty, the freedom to make my decision without that added consideration."

Well, I can't imagine that Todd Russell was at all unaware that Yvonne Jones had had her eye on the federal seat. We here in the St. John's newsroom have been aware of that for some time; it didn't pass our attention, for instance, when Jones softened her stand on Muskrat Falls in November, a change of tack that would a) appeal to many voters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and b) help lure donors friendly to the Liberals.

Russell said he would not be campaigning for anyone in the byelection, and that includes Jones. Does that mean that Russell's campaign machinery will sit on its hands? (One of my friends, a Labradorian, was blunt about who Russell's machinery is. "Well, that's Yvonne," he said — at least, that is, on the southern coast.)

The Trudeau effect

Jones, though, is hoping to have high-profile help of her own. While declaring her intentions a couple of weeks ago, Jones was keen to point out that she supported Justin Trudeau's bid for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. With the Liberals about to finish their coronation, er, leadership process in just a couple of weeks, it seems probable that Trudeau will head to Labrador himself.

Yvonne Jones finished a 17-year career in provincial politics for a run for the federal Liberals. (CBC )

Expect to see plenty of notables in the weeks ahead. Mulcair said this week he will be back again before voting day, and I cannot imagine that the Conservatives will not put some high-profile names on the ground to back up a candidate they very much want to see succeed.

The Liberals? Well, it's unthinkable that a party that has held a seat for 58 of the last 64 years will not fight like hell to get it back, especially when you want to persuade Canadians — that's right, the whole country, not just the 27,000 or so people living in Labrador — that your bright, shiny new leader is heading up a government in waiting.

In other words, there's quite a bit on the line for all the parties. The voters in Labrador could make a choice that will have an effect well beyond merely picking a new MP.