Politics is different on the Rock, where people live and breathe the issues of the day. Residents often know their representatives by first name and have no compunction about button-holing them on the street for a diatribe.
This passion can create politicians with outsized personalities. Former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, now the Lieutenant-Governor, comes to mind. So does Joey Smallwood, the ‘Father of Confederation’ who still casts a long shadow. And many residents revere pugnacious former premier Danny Williams as simply ‘Danny.’
But as Newfoundland and Labrador gear up for an election race that kicked off Monday, the usual political chatter was muted by a belief the governing Progressive Conservatives will romp to an easy win in the Oct. 11 vote.
“There isn’t a sense here that people have much of a choice,” said Stephen Tomblin, political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s. “I think everyone knows what the result will be no matter what anyone does.”
If so, Tory Leader Kathy Dunderdale will become the province’s first elected woman premier. The Tories are polling over 50 per cent and political wisdom suggests that Ms. Dunderdale, 59, the hand-picked successor of Mr. Williams, will run a safe and low-key campaign. Voter disengagement works to her advantage. Although she can be gracious and warm in person, she does not have the rabble-rousing charisma of her predecessor.
There’s certainly no lack of important issues. Many rural residents feel left behind by the boom in the St. John’s area, where houses well outside the capital go for more than $500,000. There is tension between those who believe the province should use its oil-based prosperity to pay down the projected $8.7-billion debt and those who want more spending on social programs and infrastructure.
Jobs are a perennial concern. The 8.2-per-cent unemployment rate this spring on the Avalon Peninsula, home to St. John’s, was dwarfed by numbers around 20 per cent in the rest of the province, according to Statistics Canada. And plans to develop hydro potential at Muskrat Falls in Labrador remain controversial
Ms. Dunderdale, who sat down recently in Gander for an interview that ranged from her rural roots and love for running to how to help the province’s struggling outports, showed her steel when talking about Muskrat Falls. The $6.2-billion hydro project has been attacked for its environmental impact and over concerns it will lead to higher prices for consumers. The provincial Liberals call it a budding fiasco.
The Tory Leader acknowledged that the project, which is going through a lengthy approval process, is complicated. But she believes its merits will stand up to the glare of attention on the campaign trail. “The opposition parties might want to fight the election on the issue of Muskrat Falls, it’s certainly not anything that intimidates me,” she said. “… Because I’m confident in the work that we’ve done, and continue to do.”
The Tories held 43 of 48 seats at dissolution. The Liberals, under Leader Kevin Alyward, had four and the New Democrats one. With limited suspense in the overall result, minor shifts in support and individual races will provide the interest.
The NDP, which hopes to vault past the Liberals into Official Opposition status, is working hard in the St. John’s area. Leader Lorraine Michael holds her seat in the capital and the party did well there federally in the spring election.
Also worth watching is the top of the peninsula poking up on the western side of the province. In a 2009 by-election, the Grits took back from the Tories the traditionally Liberal district, helped by anger over the government’s handling of local health care. Without that dynamic the seat could be in play.
And the coastal area north of Gander could prove interesting. The Conservatives snatched the traditionally Liberal district The Isles of Notre Dame by only 12 votes in the 2007 election, when Mr. Williams’ popularity was lifting his party’s fortunes across the province. Without him the Tories could have trouble holding it.
To do so they will need to keep on board voters like Don Hollett. A former school bus driver in Virgin Arm, he leaned Liberal but was swayed by Mr. Williams. Moving gingerly as he recovers from cancer surgery, the 57-year-old took a break from building an addition on his woodshed to talk politics. “We had Liberals for ever so long, can’t say there was nothing done but not much,” he said. “At least now things are getting done.”
Ms. Dunderdale, who grew up in a remote area, comes across as sympathetic to rural difficulties. During the interview, she appeared to have a catch in her voice talking about her father working at sea and Newfoundlanders’ long history of going away for jobs. She said the devastating effect of the cod fishery’s collapse “still ripples out, all of these years later.”
But she insisted a credible plan must accompany rural assistance, pointing to several instances where government investment had been leveraged into regional success. “We’re not going to lead with money,” she said. “We’ll lead with the planning and the collaboration and doing some research and some analysis. But, you know, if we’ve got something that works or we think that could work then we’ll come. We’ll find the money.”