All right, so I spent the weekend surrounded by the relentless, almost-nauseating positivity of the NDP convention in St. John’s. The big takeaway from the weekend was that the party is feeling pretty good about its core beliefs, but it has a lot of work to do when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the party apparatus. Read my story in Monday’s paper for a lot more detail on that.
But there area few other bits and pieces that I think are worth mentioning that didn’t make it into the paper, so I’m going to dump the lot of ’em here.
Right now, it’s Lorraine Michael, and I’m increasingly convinced it’s going to be Michael who will lead the party into the next election.
I heard some very muted rumblings over the weekend that there may be some people who aren’t entirely happy with Michael’s leadership. Basically, there are some people who don’t think she has what it takes to make the leap from third party to government. With Michael at the helm, so the complaints go, the best the party can hope for is opposition, and it’s entirely possible they’ll be consigned to another four years in third place. With the right person at the helm, maybe, just maybe, they can ride the current wave of support all the way to government.
There are a couple flaws with this line of thinking, though. For starters, there’s no single, universally accepted heir apparent. You’ll get plenty of people willing to speculate about possibilities — Dale Kirby? Gerry Rogers? Lana Payne? George Murphy? — but no firm consensus.
(Side note: There are plenty of people in the province who like to paint Dale Kirby as an ambitious rising star, who wants to supplant Michael as the party leader, but if you look closely, the vast majority of that noise is coming from Liberal and Tory partisans. I’m not saying Kirby doesn’t want to be leader, but I think the idea of an internal power struggle between him and Michael is more of a fantasy concocted by political opponents than anything based in reality.)
The other flaw with the idea of Michael getting replaced is that it doesn’t seem to be getting much support from a very small, but very important constituency: Lorraine Michael herself.
Here’s what she said to me Sunday afternoon: “I know I have the support of the party — the overwhelming support of the party for my leadership — and as long as I have that overwhelming support of the party for my leadership, and I believe that I have the energy and the creativity to keep helping us grow as a party, then yes, I want to be the leader of the party.”
If Michael doesn’t want to leave the job, then she’d have to be forced out. That would be messy and potentially very damaging to the party. Even if everybody isn’t 100% satisfied with her leadership, nobody is so unhappy about it that they’re considering mutiny.
Now, 2015 is a long way away. It’s entirely possible something will change. But if things keep going the way they’re going, there’s nothing that leads me to believe Michael will willingly step aside any time soon, and if she doesn’t then she’ll be the leader to take the party into the next election.
I am prepared to make a not-very-bold prediction that all five New Democrat MHAs will vote against the current proposal to develop Muskrat Falls. In fact, I’m prepared to say that the final vote will fall pretty much fall along party lines. Probably 35 yeas, 11 nays, (and I don’t have a clear sense of how Tom Osborne will vote.)
Everybody knows that the Liberals are basically against the current deal. The fiddly little bits are open to discussion, but in a broad sense, they think that Gull Island and Muskrat Falls should be developed, and the electricity should be sold at the border to Quebec or used to fuel mining development in Labrador. When it comes to island demand for electricity, they think some combination of small hydro, natural gas, conservation and who knows what else. They’ve been against this from the beginning, and they’ll vote against it at the end. (Please, please don’t spam me with e-mails telling me I’m wrong about this. I recognize that the Liberal position is more nuanced, and that they’re a long way from unanimity. This isn’t about the Liberals.)
The NDP has been taking a less strident approach. Lorraine Michael likes the idea of wind power, and wants to see a full study of it as an alternative. If you try to nail her down to a position, she’ll basically tell you that she’s not against the current proposal, per se, but she hasn’t been adequately convinced by the government that she should be for it. The party will deny this up and down, but short of sending the project back to the Public Utilities Board for a completely unrestricted study including all options — natural gas, small hydro, conservation, wind, thorium nuclear reactor, et cetera — nothing will convince them that Muskrat Falls is the best project.
You know how I know this? Because they passed a resolution Saturday afternoon which said exactly that: “Be it resolved that the Newfoundland and Labrador new Democratic Party is committed to allowing the PUB to fulfill its mandate by conducting an open and comprehensive review of the Muskrat Falls project, and requiring the PUB’s approval before sanctioning of the project.” Such a review would likely take a year or more, and do irreparable damage the current project’s timelines. Suffice it to say, it’s not going to happen.
More generally, politically, there’s no upside for the opposition parties. Think about it. If you vote for the project, and something goes wrong, then you’re in a weak position to criticize. If you’re an NDP MHA and you vote for the Muskrat Falls development, and then the costs spiral 200% over budget, every time you criticize the government, they’ll fire back by saying, “Hey you voted in favour of the project too.” On the other hand, if you vote against the project, and everything goes swimmingly, you can still fall back and say that you acknowledge that it’s a good project, but the government didn’t send it to the PUB, didn’t adequately study the alternatives, didn’t make enough information public, etc., and that’s why you voted against it.
So mark my words; the NDP will never come right out and say they’re against the current proposal to develop Muskrat Falls, but when the moment of truth comes in the House of Assembly, they’ll all vote against it.
The media restrictions controversy
I addressed this very briefly in Monday’s paper, but I think it warrants a bit more detail here. New Democrats wanted to allow the media into their policy sessions at the convention over the weekend, but they also wanted delegates to feel entirely comfortable saying whatever they wanted.
In the media advisory sent out on Thursday before the convention, the agenda specifically said, “open to media but not for attribution.” I was told again on Saturday morning that I was only allowed in the room on the condition that I not attribute any quote to a specific speaker without getting their express permission. Furthermore, at the beginning of the first session of the policy debate, MHA Dale Kirby, who was chairman of the session, specifically announced to all delegates that those were the rules. (I don’t have a direct quote here; I’m kicking myself that I didn’t have my recorder on at the time.)
At this point, I think we need to take a brief detour into the land of journalistic ethics. Journalists, by and large, want to know everything and tell everybody about it. That’s our job. There are some things we are not allowed to know — with good reason — which is why my comrades and I aren’t typically invited into cabinet meetings, CSIS briefings or board meetings of major corporations. That’s cool; we get it. But journalists also have a largely unwritten pact with our readers, viewers and listeners that we don’t keep secrets from them except for special circumstances. In those very limited cases, we are ethically obligated to disclose the nature of the situation — for example, if we quote someone anonymously, we generally make a point of saying something along the lines of, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.”
Now, the NDP could very well have closed the session to the media. That isn’t out of the norm at political conventions. The PCs had some closed sessions at their annual general meeting. I’m hearing the Liberals will have at least one or two closed sessions when they meet in Gander in a couple weeks. No biggie. The NDP had other closed sessions — a “Muskrat Falls Q&A” and a workshop on fundraising — for example, which drew zero attention and zero controversy.
But when it came to the resolutions session, the NDP wanted to have it both ways. They wanted it to be open so journalists could cover it and give their policies publicity, but they also wanted to protect anybody who wasn’t comfortable speaking publicly. The rules of the game, I was told, were that I could be in the room, and I could print any quotes I heard, but I was not allowed to attribute anything to a specific speaker without first getting that person’s permission.
So for me it was a choice of either not being in the room, or being in the room and agreeing to the rules. I agreed, but ethically, I was obligated to make it clear to my readers — on Twitter first of all, and then ultimately in the newspaper — that I was only allowed into the convention on the condition that I agree to (potentially) keep certain information from my readers.
I think the NDP was counting on a certain amount of goodwill from journalists when they put this in place. And the fact is, that if somebody had stood up and said something that I wanted to quote, typically I’d go over and talk to them — to get the proper spelling of their name, and to ask any follow-up questions. If a person says they’d rather not be quoted in the newspaper, as a general rule, I’d respect that. (Note: This rule does not apply to elected politicians, heads of corporations and other public figures.) If somebody with the NDP had pulled me aside and said, “Listen, out of courtesy, could you please not quote anybody without their permission, there are some people here who may face repercussions for being politically vocal,” I would’ve shrugged and said, “Yeah, no problem, that’s generally how I operate anyway.”
But this wasn’t presented as a casual, professional-courtesy sort of thing. This was presented as a hard-and-fast rule. It was right there in writing in the media advisory. And Dale Kirby announced it to all convention delegates at the beginning of the day.
So I explained the situation on Twitter. Of course, almost immediately, partisans seized on it. “Media blackout at the Battery? True colours shining through,” Steve Kent tweeted. Sandy Collins playfully needled New Democrat MHA George Murphy, saying “Is everything all right up at the Battery? The media blackout has me worried! Send up a flare or smoke signal if you're ok!!”
Given that the first resolution of the day was on repealing Bill 29, which the NDP says serves to increase government secrecy and limit access to information, it didn’t take long for people to start talking about the irony — or hypocrisy — of the situation.
If all of this seems a bit like vicious political opportunism, try to remember that a week earlier, while the PCs were debating a resolution on anti-bullying policy, Sandy Collins jokingly challenged Dale Kirby to a charity-boxing match, and that spiraled out of control pretty quickly too. Kirby interpreted the thing as Collins challenging him to a fight, and was ready to do interviews with media about how the PC Party was rife with “schoolyard bullies.”
Mid-afternoon, I was told by NDP vice-president Geoff Gallant that the whole thing was a big mix-up. He said the party executive had discussed the policy, and what they’d actually decided on was to allow media into the policy resolution sessions, but request that they not take any pictures or shoot video of anybody without their permission. Gallant told convention delegates that what the party brass had actually decided was, “Chairs will announce to delegates the presence of the media, that media be asked to please turn their cameras off during the debates. So there’s actually nothing in our decision that the executive made to prevent any of the media in here to actually say who said what, so I just wanted to make a clarification on that because there’s been some misunderstanding in the Twitterverse.”
(Strictly speaking, you could argue this is just as much a restriction on the media; it changes the facts of the situation, but doesn’t really address the principle of the matter. That being said, I was the only reporter who stuck around to cover the policy sessions, and I wasn’t taking any pictures or shooting video, so the party effectively lifted all restrictions that had been placed on me.)
I won’t judge whether the party was backtracking or whether it was a legitimate miscommunication mix-up. Suffice it to say, the NDP is saying it was a case of honest confusion, and there were plenty of people online Saturday who were a little bit skeptical about that explanation.
I don’t know whether that’s cleared the situation up any, but I wanted to address it in a bit of detail, and I didn’t have the space to go into it in the paper.
Two down, one to go
Anyway, that’s about it for the NDP convention. The Liberals are meeting in Gander on Nov. 2 and 3. I’ll be there to take it all in. And if you want an advance tip about what the Liberal convention controversy will be, two words: Party finances.
Neither the Progressive Conservatives nor New Democrats made any secret about their financial position. But then, neither of those parties are several hundred thousand dollars in debt. The Liberals are deep in the hole, and I’m hearing rumours that they haven’t been doing much to pay down their debt. I’m also hearing that the report on party finances will be done behind closed doors, and they’ll be doing everything they can to keep the state of affairs under wraps. For what it’s worth, I think it might be worthwhile for somebody in the Liberal Party to go Google the phrase “Streisand Effect.” I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that their strategy is going to backfire.