Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

After this wild election, both Ball and Crosbie are in rough spots

There are bound to be some awkward conversations in both the Liberal and PC camps this holiday weekend, and maybe a little horse-trading too, writes John Gushue.
Premier Dwight Ball holds his granddaughter Antonia Ball-Barry while speaking with supporters at Thursday night's victory party. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press )

There are bound to be some awkward conversations in both the Liberal and PC camps this holiday weekend, and I wonder how many of them will make it to ears of the respective leaders.

[There may also be some very heated discussions, too, of the horse-trading variety. With neither side able to form a majority, one can only imagine the creativity of the pitches that might come the way of New Democrats and Independents. But I digress.]

The blunt reality is that Dwight Ball is in an obviously difficult position. Four years ago, he led the Liberals out of the political desert after a 12-year exile, straight into a majority government with 31 seats. The Tories were cut down from a majority to just seven seats.

On Thursday night, Ball — who at least had the distinction of being the first MHA to win a seat — saw the prospects of a second majority slip through his fingers.

He wound up holding a caucus of just 20 seats.

Ches Crosbie speaks with reporters shortly after a non-concessionary speech to the public. (Mike Moore/CBC)

You can be sure that there are people in the Liberal party who will want Ball to take his leave as leader. Some of them are in his own caucus. Don't forget: last fall, things were so pitched in the Liberal camp that some people thought it would be risky for Ball to head to China on a trade mission, and leave the rest of caucus to its own devices.

When Ball showed up at Liberal campaign headquarters in Corner Brook on Thursday night, he was all smiles as he pumped handshakes, slapped backs and worked the room.

His eyes, though, belied how tired he must be. As he hoisted his granddaughter up to the microphone at the lectern, something became obvious to me: the grandfatherly side of Dwight Ball may well be something he'll be wanting to explore.

Both leaders made themselves unavailable

Maybe Ball will surprise everyone and come out with a strategy to shore up the party's position and find a path to stability and to rebuild.

But our soundings with the Liberals suggest that many in the party will be wanting a new plan — with a new leader — in soon enough time.

It's worth nothing that Ball did not make himself available on Friday for media interviews. Or anything else, really, in the public eye. There's a bit of a convention for political leaders to take a victory lap with morning-after interviews, especially when your party forms another government.

Ball took a pass.

And he was conspicuously not alone.

Ches Crosbie had intended to speak to the media late Friday morning. Then, the time was pushed back to the afternoon. Then, it was scrubbed altogether, with Crosbie planning to talk early next week.

Those quick moves came after Crosbie's unusually pointed, at times vitriolic speech on Thursday night, which appears to have alienated plenty of the people who watched it — and rubbed some Tory insiders the wrong way.

Ches Crosbie may not have thanked his supporters on Thursday night, but he did bust a dance move with some of them. (CBC)

Crosbie did not thank his volunteers for effectively giving up a month of their lives to work for him. He did not congratulate the other parties for the democratic competition. He made a point of saying he would not not use either of the two speeches he had prepared, and instead went off-script with a combative tone that seems to set the table for what we can expect from the Opposition.

On Friday afternoon, Crosbie's office issued a statement acknowledging that something was missing from his speech. "Amid the outcome last night," the statement attributed to Crosbie said, "I omitted to offer the following congratulations, and for this omission I offer my apologies." He went on to thank Ball, other candidates and voters. 

Supporters evidently floored by off-the-cuff speech

The improvised speech, several of my colleagues tell me, clearly floored some Tories. It caught them off guard. Refusing to concede was one thing, but the starkly negative style was something else. Whereas Ball used the word "grateful" three times and "thank you" seven times in his televised remarks, Crosbie steered clear of such words.

"I am not conceding victory to the Liberals. They will have to struggle for the next months and years to hang on to power," said Crosbie, who emphasized that he will be looking for ways to engineer that collapse of Liberal power.

Fair enough; that's what oppositions do.

During his speech, Crosbie appeared to be opening negotiations in public with the NDP and the two Independents. He said he would be contacting his "friends" in the NDP, and that felt odd, given the tone of the speech.

Honestly. Here's Alison Coffin, who not only got elected but defied expectations and political gravity to take the NDP to three seats.

Do the PCs really think that Coffin will now say, "You know, we scored a huge win, we came back from the brink, and now I'm going to put all of our credibility and political marbles in the hands of that guy."

Tory campaigns did not have a big ground game

Crosbie definitely has much to take pride in. The Tory caucus has effectively doubled. It will have dramatically more clout when the House of Assembly reopens. The seating plan alone in the legislature will make that shift clear.

But here's the sticky problem in the PCs: Crosbie has not been a popular leader internally. Some prominent Tories sat on their hands during the campaign. So did rank-and-file party volunteers.

One of the reasons why the Tories did not capitalize on polling data that suggested a PC majority victory was the lack of a ground game. Many candidates — some of whom were rounded up just before the nomination deadline — were outpaced by Liberals for basics like pamphlets and signs.

Here in metro St. John's, which has traditionally been very good to the Tories, there was an obvious lack of ground support: the volunteers who work the streets, distributing literature, make the calls asking for support and so on.

Election Night: Watch our complete broadcast:

I had a revelatory conversation with an experienced Tory who was blunt: he just doesn't like Crosbie, and can't see a way that Crosbie will win the hearts of an electorate that's already frustrated.

On Friday, the post-election talk seemed to be about the future of the two leaders. Ball seems to be in a struggle to stay ahead of a pack that may have tough expectations — especially among open talk that there are potential leadership candidates aplenty, from Gerry Byrne and Andrew Parsons to Andrew Furey and Dean MacDonald. 

Unimpressed voters are also watching Crosbie. Voters did not say "Yes to Ches," and in return he showed a sooky, graceless side that he somehow had managed to conceal on the campaign trail. 

Despite a better-late-than-never letter of thanks, Crosbie's speech strikes me as the kind of thing that will become a milestone and be remembered for years. 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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