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Canada's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 15, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 15, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Tim Powers: A lot is at stake in the Labrador by-election Add to ...

Whenever the federal by-election is called for Labrador, which I believe will be soon, it will be a battle that will matter to the three main federal parties. All of them will try to play down expectations about what a win or a loss means but that is just spin and Lord knows I have some experience with that.

So what is at stake?

For the Conservatives and the Prime Minister they want to hold their only seat in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Prime Minister and his team’s strong defence of former Labrador MP Peter Penashue shows that commitment. The Conservative government through Harper and Penashue have made significant historic investments in Labrador best exemplified by the billion-dollar loan guarantee for the Muskrat Falls project. As they have been arguing and will hammer home in the by-election, Labradorians benefit when they are served by a Member of Parliament who sits on the government side.

But there are other things at play here for Team Harper. This is also a caucus strengthening exercise. Many MPs will, if they haven’t already, take notice of how the Prime Minister has stood by his man Penashue in tough circumstances. That breeds loyalty and that matters when times get tough. Eventually they will for this Prime Minister and backing a vulnerable team member buys him some insurance when the worm turns on him.

A win in Labrador is also symbolically important for the government for another reason. Labrador best represents the actualization of the Prime Minister’s pursuit of Canada as an energy super-power. Labrador is a resource-rich region that is humming. From the Iron Ore Company of Canada’s mine in Wabush, to Vale’s Voisey Bay’s nickel property and multiple other developments that could explode, the advancement of Labrador leads to economic prosperity for the country as a whole. Harper’s commitment to Muskrat Falls has arguably the potential to have the same impact on Newfoundland and Labrador as former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s commitment to the Hibernia project 20 years ago. Oil has made my home province a “have province” and what happens in Labrador may make us an economic powerhouse for generations.

Thomas Mulcair also wants to win in Labrador. As he demonstrated last fall when he brought his caucus to St. John’s, the road to an NDP government begins on the East Coast. He controls St. John’s, having two strong sitting members representing the capital region. He’d love to pick up another seat in the province. Recent provincial polls done in Newfoundland and Labrador show the NDP are wildly popular, seeing levels of support they have never achieved before. The NDP provincially and federally are seen as virtually the same entity.

Mulcair has suffered a couple of defections of MPs to other parties since he has been Opposition Leader. Winning in Labrador, where the NDP have had some minor success provincially, generates a bit of momentum and stems some criticism Mulcair has received about his own winnability quotient. Capturing a seat here also shows that Mulcair can beat Justin Trudeau in key battlegrounds.

What would a column about Canadian politics be like these days without a mention of the aforementioned Mr. Trudeau? By the time Labradorians vote, Justin Trudeau, barring the bizarre or a major reality check by masses of Liberals, be the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. You can be damn sure his team and his party will want an early win to demonstrate their own bona fides. What a way to start your leadership by taking back a seat that has been your party’s basically since Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949! In the process of doing that you take out a former cabinet minister and temporarily stop the NDP in their tracks.

One of the potential Liberal candidates for the upcoming by-election is Yvonne Jones, an extremely popular and likeable provincial Liberal politician. When talking about her candidacy, she was throwing around Trudeau’s name and her support for him with such enthusiastic abandon she could have been mistaken for the groupie of another Justin – yes, that punk Bieber. Right now the informal polls – also known as gossip – coming out of Labrador have Jones or whoever is the Liberal nominee as the favourite to win this contest. At the start of elections in Labrador the Liberal candidate is generally favoured to win – now is no different.

Two other points about the upcoming Labrador by-election. Though ego bruising for me, the lather and blather of commentary coming from everywhere but Labrador on this race and Penashue’s resignation that spawned it are likely to matter little to the voters in the riding. The people of Labrador are admirably an independent lot. They could care less about what some blow-hard in Ottawa or St. John’s says about how they should vote. In fact, going hard after a once-popular local like Penashue can backfire. But they’ll figure out for themselves what is in their best interest.

Finally, though I know this wasn’t Peter Penashue’s intention but this vote in Labrador presents a great opportunity to tell the story of the emergence of Labrador as a region of economic power in Canada. Jacques Cartier, the famous explorer, once described Labrador as “the land God gave to Cain.” Today, it is far more able!

Conservative strategist Tim Powers is a vice-president at Summa Strategies.

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