Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Paul Davis pitches hope and fear to N.L. voters

As the province gets ready for an election, the Tories are making their messaging about the Liberals clear, writes David Cochrane.
Premier Paul Davis had a specific message when he spoke with the St. John's Board of Trade on Tuesday. (CBC)

In a pair of speeches to big labour and big business, Premier Paul Davis spelled out his re-election pitch to Newfoundland and Labrador voters.

And while Davis says his approach is about "leadership and hope" his message is also punctuated with a healthy dose of fear.

"There is a real threat on the horizon — a threat to your customers and your businesses," Davis said in an election-style speech to the St. John's Board of Trade on Tuesday.

"The Liberals have stated they would make cuts. They just won't say which ones."

It was a similar message last week when Davis spoke to NAPE.

"The only thing hidden is the full truth about the Liberal agenda," Davis told the province's largest union.

"I will reward you fairly and quickly when we regain fiscal capacity," he promised. "That's not the future behind the red door. Back in that room they're sharpening the axe."

The messaging couldn't be more blunt. Davis knows voters want change, so he is trying to make them fear that change and create doubt as to what a Dwight Ball Liberal government would mean to the public service and the provincial economy.

'Punching at fog'

Davis may be a new premier, but he leads a Progressive Conservative Party that has held power for 12 years and has baggage so old the wheels squeak. Pushing back that desire for change is the toughest battle for any incumbent.

"It's like punching at fog," is how one senior PC official described it.

So instead of punching at fog, Davis is trying to smoke out Dwight Ball. All of the party leaders will speak to the Board of Trade before the Nov. 30 election, but Davis wanted to go first to set the bar.

He also wanted to dial up the rhetoric.

Liberal insiders say the party's campaign plan is to ignore Paul Davis' negative campaign approach. (CBC)

"You can't simply throw thousands of people out of work, like the Liberals have done in the past," Davis warned. "It causes a shock to the system and it grinds our economy to a halt."

Expect more of that. Stark warnings about Ball designed to force the Liberal leader to clarify his positions.

The provincial campaign will be much shorter than the marathon 78-day federal campaign that just ended, so there isn't enough time to do the slow build that carried Justin Trudeau to victory.

"We are going to be very aggressive," said a top PC strategist.

Very aggressive and very focused — focused to the point of writing off parts of the electoral map.

The Tories have adopted a 21 district strategy. They've identified the 21 seats — the bare minimum needed to form a majority government — where they are the most competitive and will pour their time, money and leader into those areas during the campaign. 

"We still think we can win," insists that PC strategist.

Not taking the bait

But if the PC path to victory relies on a daily clash between party leaders, the Liberals don't seem likely to take the bait.

Liberal insiders say the plan is to largely ignore what they call Davis' "negativity and fear mongering" and push their "team-focused" campaign.

None of which should surprise the PCs. Politically, Ball is naturally risk averse and he has been acting like a front-runner for nearly two years now.

One frustrated Tory described the Liberal leader as "gagged and bubble wrapped."

But Davis' speeches this past week demonstrate the PCs won't stop trying. The Tories believe these speeches hold the basis of an election winning argument.

They now have one month and a series of debates to make voters reconsiders their desire for change — in part by making them fear what that change may bring.

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.


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