Shades of grey: Why politicians are aiming for easy votes and missing hard conversations
A focus on denied campaign access to personal-care homes speaks volumes about which voters matter most
A pointed exchange in the House of Assembly on Thursday afternoon revealed something significant about what drives politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador — and what's driving them away from conversations they ought to have.
There was John Haggie, the Liberal minister of health, fending off questions about personal-care homes from Conception Bay South MHA Barry Petten. The Tories have been raising questions about whether seniors with mental health problems are having difficulty being admitted to personal-care homes.
Haggie — who usually stands out from the Liberal front bench by tending to not go for the political jugular — wanted to talk about another impediment to personal-care homes.
The political kind.
"The member opposite seems to think it's all right for a previous PC minister of health to deny admission to a candidate to a person's dwelling place in order to inform them of their choices around that election," said Haggie.
Haggie didn't name Paul Oram, the eastern Newfoundland businessman who sat in the Williams-era cabinet.
'A human rights issue'
It wasn't Oram's own personal dwelling, of course, that Haggie and the Liberals are complaining about. It was the personal-care homes that he runs.
"That happened in at least three districts to colleagues who were running for the party on this side of the house. I have documented evidence of that," said Haggie, adding that a complaint has been filed with the chief electoral officer.
"It's a human rights issue."
Perhaps, but it's also a clarifying remark about a blunt reality of political campaigning in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Here it is: a typical politician in Newfoundland and Labrador will head straight to what we used to call an old-age home before a dropped writ hits the floor.
We are committed to our seniors and ensuring they have a sustained high quality of life. <br><br>Special thanks to The Golden Years Estate & residents for their kind hospitality as your Liberal candidate for Gander <a href="https://twitter.com/Johnrockdoc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Johnrockdoc</a> and I stopped in for a chat over tea and cookies. <a href="https://t.co/rY7A4S1HRL">pic.twitter.com/rY7A4S1HRL</a>—@DwightBallNL
This played out in full in May's general election, and Premier Dwight Ball was hardly the only politician to make a personal-care home a highlight of the day's campaigning. (The other staple: the nearest Tim Hortons.)
Look at it from the campaigner's frame. You walk into a room of not just likely but probable voters, and you get a generally warm reaction, if not better. CBC reporters who were on the trail noted that there were smiles and hugs on several occasions. You won't get that reaction in too many other places.
Here's the catch. There are plenty of other places — plenty of homes, and individual ones — that politicians can and should go.
For some time, campaigns have been disproportionately geared toward older voters. I mean no disrespect to them (especially as I'm walking closer every day to their number) but the grey bloc is a powerful one.
I'm curious about the younger generations, including young adults and 30-somethings.
Their issues are numerous and complex, too, but no one makes daily, concerted visits on the trail to court them.
The issues include what's called the housing ladder, or how difficult it is for many consumers to afford to buy anything. Rents are a related issue.
The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high compared with other provinces, and the young are the most deeply affected.
This generation — for whom the trendy phrase "side hustle" more accurately translates as "I work two part-time jobs, because that's what I can get" — has a deservedly skeptical view of the proverbial system to deal with employment inequity.
So many families know this narrative: they brought their kids up, saw them through an education, and now see them fleetingly when they come home to visit. The grown-up kids are living away.
Twas always thus, I guess. It was Cambridge and other Ontario towns when I was a kid, Fort McMurray when I was a young adult, and all over the country now that I think about where my older friends' children have settled.
Many, though, are still here. A few are determined to stick it out.
The solutions to their generation's problems are complex, and probably beyond a single provincial government to resolve.
But the signalling from politicians — that a hug and smile with Nan and Pop are always preferable to a conversation, no matter how awkward, with younger adults — leaves the upcoming generation feeling disconnected and overlooked.
An electoral postscript
Back to John Haggie's complaint about Liberals being barred at the gate of personal-care homes. Petten noted in the legislature that he had been told that candidates weren't allowed in most of them.
Elections Newfoundland and Labrador says similar complaints have been filed in the past.
However, an official said there is nothing in the Elections Act that requires access be given to personal-care homes — nor to apartment buildings or condominiums.
There have also been non-political exclusions.
In this spring's election campaign, a special ballot team was denied access to one home. Why? There was a viral outbreak inside. Typically in such a situation, no one — no matter how noble their purpose — is allowed entry.