Turning 50 is a big event in anyone’s life, but it appears provincial Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward is just as excited, if not moreso, about what’s in store for him after turning 51 this past Wednesday.
“Taking over the leadership of the party is a tonne of responsibility, but I’ve got to say that 51 is going to be better,” said the optimistic Aylward following a birthday meet-and-greet event in the atrium of the Sheraton Hotel.
At 50, Aylward experienced a couple of surprising highs. First off, his beloved Boston Bruins won its first Stanley Cup championship in 29 years.
A few months later, the political veteran put his name in the hat as a last-minute candidate to replace former Liberal leader Yvonne Jones after she was forced to resign because of health issues related to her recovery from breast cancer.
Many pundits thought St. John’s lawyer Bern Coffey would prove the victor in the expedited process to determine the new leader. But following a virtual town hall meeting and presentations to members of the Liberal’s executive board on Aug. 14, Aylward’s 18-years of political experience as an MHA gave him the ultimate edge.
“The experience of the past is helping a great deal,” said Aylward, who held several cabinet posts, including environment, forestry and tourism, between 1994 and 2003.
“I’ve been used to handling portfolios, and I was fairly up on the issues. But it’s still surreal, because there’s a lot of work to do, and the timelines are short. But it’s starting to come together,” he said.
He vowed that day to hit the road hard to gear up for the Oct. 11 election.
In his first 10 days as leader, Aylward crisscrossed the province to meet with other Liberals, often working 18-hour days strategizing on how to achieve what some deem unrealistic for a party choosing a new leader 57 days before an election — forming the next government.
Following a day of media briefings in St. John’s on Aug. 15, Aylward visited western and central Newfoundland, Labrador and the northern peninsula.
“We’re going flat-out,” he said. Aside from strategizing on policies and finding candidates, the Liberals have also been working on fundraising.
Aylward plans to have a comprehensive energy policy looking at both Muskrat Falls and alternative energy sources, a policy on revitalizing the fishery, solutions for the forestry industry, as well as ideas on health care and serving the needs of seniors.
“We’ll be quite ready for a campaign,” he said.
Times have certainly changed for the Liberals since Aylward left politics eight years ago. The Liberals were in their 14th straight year as the governing party, though the Progressive Conservatives would go on to take 34 of 48 seats in the 2003 election. It now has 44 of those seats.
“When you’re out of power, it’s very difficult,” said Aylward, pointing to the particular strain it puts on district associations operating without an MHA.
On the flipside, Aylward notes he was twice elected in opposition.
He said the party structure has come alive quickly, and he attributes much of that to the work done by Jones prior to the leadership change. Looking at the election results from 2007, he said by shifting six percentage points in specific ridings identified by the party, the Liberals could obtain 25 seats to form a majority government.
Within his old district of St. George's-Stephenville East, Aylward is running against a tough opponent in Education Minister Joan Burke.
He said the effects of the closure of the Abitibi papermill in 2005 are still being felt in the region.
When he thinks of people who embody the concept of a leader, Aylward points to some expected individuals — former Liberal premiers Clyde Wells, Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes — though he also mentions Danny Williams. Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna also receives mention for his business savvy.
“What I see in leadership is you have to have a spirit. You have to have a passion for the job,” he said.
The birthday event was a success in Aylward’s view, with well-wishers weaving in and out of the two-hour event all evening, and many staying well after it officially ended.
Come Oct. 11, Aylward hopes those well-wishers have even more reasons to celebrate.