However, there is still a residue there of caution among people. The Liberal rise, and the PC fall are dependent on two things. The first, and foremost cause of the Liberal rise provincially has been the rise of the federal Liberals and the promise many see in Justin Trudeau. Frankly, Canadians are desperately hoping he is a chip off the block of his father, and so far he has been able to harness that hope into success in the polls. People here see that, and there is a natural inclination here to be aligned with the federal party in charge of the purse strings - some habits die hard. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where roads are a political issue and not an expected public service, pragmatism still trumps idealism.
Secondly, there is the death throws of the reigning PC party. Like a wretched beast it twists in the bed of its making. Corruption, patronage, dishonesty, arrogance, and fiscal immaturity have left an odious taste in the people's mouths. Despite the fact that this state of affairs was formed strictly by then Premier Williams, Dunderdale (his flak jacket) has taken all the bullets of his policies and actions. Be that as it may, it is what it is, and Kathy Dunderdale is it. Try as she may to steady her shrill of a voice, the dye is set. Many argue now that she is the worst premier ever, while I would contend that mantle belongs to Danny Williams. Public perception, however, is what is important, and in their eyes the Dunderdale PCs are an abstract failure and need to go.
So the dramatic rise of provincial Liberal fortunes here is tied to these two events and in the order stated above.
Amongst this realignment of popularity is the Liberal leadership contest. With the departure of hugely unpopular Yvonne Jones as provincial leader, mere weeks before the last election (she now sits as the federal replacement for disgraced Peter Penashue), the party was able to slowly transition. No longer was the party saddled with its own disrespected leader. However, with mere weeks before an election, a makeshift leader was put in place by the provincial executive (I was a candidate in that process).
Now, like the phoenix, the provincial Liberals are rising from the ashes. A permanent (such as it is) leader is being selected, and the thought is a future premier as well. The promise of electoral success in 2015, or perhaps sooner, has drawn some interesting folks to the race: Paul Antle; Dwight Ball; Jim Bennett; Cathy Bennett; and Danny Dumeresque (in alphabetical order). Each has their own qualifications, and each has their own baggage.
Paul Antle is a successful business man, and perhaps more importantly, well educated in economics from Harvard University. He has humble attitude about him, and truly loves and cherishes his wife and young family - all traits that are indicators of a really grounded person. This I like. I like it a lot. His business attitude seems to be very well formed, focused and confident. I like that too. His empathy for the disadvantaged, and those left behind from the "buddy boom" here is very refreshing, and perhaps more needed than anything else. Paul is an excellent candidate for leader. Not because he is "credible", that term flogged to death here, but because he is very real. If you don't think that's important, check the history of the cab driver from Calgary that became one of the most successful and respected premiers of Alberta - Ralph Klien. Paul started off very weakly on Muskrat Falls, but now appears to hitting his stride on the issue. His original answer that he didn't know enough about the deal to have an opinion was, for a leader, not acceptable. However, he seems to have gotten that education on the issue now, and realizes it is of central importance to the people as he goes from community to community. Paul has what it takes.
Dwight Ball is also a successful business man. He does not have the ivy league education of Antle, but is educated and well spoken. He has a calm demeanor, and has been a steady hand in the wheel house of the provincial Liberals since being appointed interim-leader two years ago. The one issue I have with that is, under the British parliamentary tradition we follow, an interim-leader is not supposed to run for permanent leader - it gives them an unfair advantage. However, to give Dwight his due, he made it clear from the beginning that he would only take the job on the condition that he would be allowed to run for permanent leader. Dwight is also a humble man. He has the ability to connect with people - not in a saviour-type way , but rather in a neighbor-type way. He is the "every man". Politically though, Dwight has showed the skills necessary to hold his team together, and he has their respect ( all but one MHA, Jim Bennett, have thrown their support behind him). He has been tested under fire during the Bill 29 and Muskrat Falls issues in particular, and gained respect for his conduct. What sold me on Dwight was, during the first leadership debate in Gander, he replied to Cathy Bennett's challenge of whether or not Muskrat Falls should be shut down with an "all options are on the table". Given the legal and financial circumstances that seems the wisest answer possible. Dwight has what it takes.
Cathy Bennett is a successful business woman, with little education. Her claim to fame is starting on the floor and now being an owner of eight McDonald's franchises. Her other claim to "fame" is being an ardent supporter of the PC party agenda over the last ten years - including being a major financier of the party. Her loyalty and support was rewarded by Danny Williams with appointments to Nalcor's board of directors, and its Chairmanship. Although she claims otherwise, she is in no way a Liberal. Her adamant defence of the Muskrat Falls project has elicited cat calls, laughter, and shouting down by the Liberal crowds at every debate. Her support is from the Tobin crowd of the party. The Williams side of the business community. She is strong on spending money marketing herself, but weak on getting any results. Her vision is no different than that of the PC party. Her recent public comment that she has to hire foreign workers for her McDonald's franchises, because Newfoundlanders don't have the skills to work there, was eerily reminiscent of Dunderdale's infamous statement that Newfoundlanders were too stunned to understand Muskrat Falls. Cathy Bennett should have run to replace Dunderdale in the PC party, because that is what she is - a PC. Her attempt to capture the Liberal leadership appears as a crass, and obvious, attempt by the Tobin-Williams crowd to control another party. Cathy Bennett does not have what it takes.
Jim Bennett is a lawyer, former leader of the party, and a long-time Liberal. Jim is very well educated on many of the issues of the day, and makes an obvious effort to have a well rounded opinion. This comes through at debates and during interviews. It is what initially drew me to him, and why I initially supported him. However, suddenly Jim's take on the Muskrat Falls project changed. He went from being a strong opponent of it, to now saying its a fiat a compli . The only issue left now is how we can shield taxpayers from the damage according to Jim. For me that was a deal breaker. Jim lost my support altogether. Not because the issue was Muskrat Falls necessarily (although it is near and dear to my heart), but rather its the questions that change in attitude raises. For instance, as a lawyer, he should understand the five lawsuits now filed against Muskrat Falls, and the material affect they will have on the project going further ahead. That's just one example. Yet he chooses to ignore this, and when asked, will ignore the question too. It's very odd to be sure, and unlike his approach to all other issues. At first I had a hard time reconciling the two. However, now as time grows closer to the vote it appears Jim is snuggling up with the other Bennett - Cathy. Perhaps he sees no chance for himself. Perhaps it was always his intention to get his people to support Cathy on the second ballot. It's hard to say, but very disappointing none-the-less. Jim has what it takes to be a Minister in a Liberal government, but that is it.
Danny Dumeresque is the glove that does not fit the hand. He is on the one hand a successful business man and on the other a well educated political scientist with deep Liberal roots. Yet, he is haunted. Many in the party see his leadership as a dividing force that would split the party as it did in the Grimes/Efford days. To be sure, Danny is an intelligent, well-spoken, well-researched, solid as a rock kind of guy. His strong family loyalty and truly admirable fathering skills can not be debated. He is a furious defender of the province, and in particular Labrador. Yet, ironically enough, his failing in this leadership contest is his flip-flopping on Muskrat Falls. Danny has been an out spoken opponent of the dam project since day one. He railed against the idea of using the tax payers to subsidize cheap power for mining companies. He bemoaned the lack of any economic case for the project. Yet, suddenly during this contest, he has become a champion of those very things. His latest take on it is all the power should be kept in Labrador to develop mines. That is by far the largest flip-flop of any of the candidates, and even rivals the senseless candidacy of Cathy Bennett. It is akin to the Pope becoming Jewish. Now Danny has wrapped himself in the Labrador tunnel idea, and so be it. He has taken the "I'm Mr. Labrador" role, and so be that too. The truth about Danny is he is a sincere man with a history in the party, but sounds like a man from history. His strong oral skills are reminiscent of the bluster of yester year. His industrialize or disappear strategy is of the same ilk. I like Danny, but he does not have it.
The final sign up numbers are in. About 35,000 have signed up to vote in the contest. That is a huge success considering not more than a year ago the party was at 14% and could hold a meeting in a fairly large telephone booth. Clearly, the Liberal Party is coming into its own. Dwight Ball claims to have signed up some 15,000 people. Paul Antle has about 10,500. Danny Dumeresque claims 8500-9500. Jim Bennett hasn't claimed any I'm aware of. Cathy Bennett, true to her Nalcor roots, refuses to disclose how many she has signed up. Interesting math. The numbers wouldn't seem to add up in some ways. I feel Dwight and Paul's numbers are solid. That's 25,500 of the 35,000. That leaves 9500. Danny is claiming those 9500. That would mean the Bennett's collectively have zip. So who is not telling the truth here? Somebody isn't. Is it realistic that Danny has more signed up voters than Cathy Bennett given her vast organizing. I guess that is possible. What isn't possible is that she has nothing. Same goes for Jim.
I see this leadership coming down to this: an old fashioned convention without the convention. Sure it is ranked first preference through five, and sure you can include, or not include all the candidates on your ballot. However, that is where the whole open vote ends. I see this more as a partnership. For instance candidate A says to candidate B: "spread the word to your people to vote for me in second place, and leave everyone else off the ballot, and I'll make you a Minister". That kind of thing. Nothing wrong with that. Smart in fact, and likely politically necessary. The question is who is working with who? Clearly Dwight has a commanding lead on the first ballot. I see Paul being a natural fit with Dwight, and I even sensed some deference shown between the two at the Gander debate. So I would say Paul is with Dwight. I would say Jim is with Kathy Bennett. And I would say Danny is running solo aiming to establish himself as "Mr. Labrador", to be appointed as the Minister for Labrador by whomever wins. That's just my take on it.
Whatever happens, as long as either Dwight or Paul win, the party is in great shape to go forward. If, by some chance any of the other three win, the party is headed for disaster. The numbers, however, speak for themselves and it's going to be either Dwight (most likely) or Paul. I know that is how I'm voting: first Dwight; second Paul; third blank; fourth blank; fifth blank. Dis is it.