Liberal Leader Dwight Ball speaks to party members at their annual general meeting in Gander Saturday evening. The weekend convention was focused on party renewal and restructuring. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram
The message at the Liberal Party convention this weekend was repeated over and over again: things are getting better.
After nearly a decade in opposition, and one year past a disappointing election result last October, party members heard time after time that their stock is on
the rise in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I think the last election said that we need to pull up our bootstraps, didn’t it?” said former MP Siobhan Coady, who was at the centre of the party’s Renewal Committee.
Coady, along with renewal committee co-chairs Dean MacDonald and Kevin Aylward, delivered a plan to party members behind closed doors over the weekend for how to make the Liberal Party viable again.
They wouldn’t go into specifics, except to say that the party needs to improve in four broad areas: policy, communications, organization and leadership.
MacDonald said the renewal plan is a roadmap for how to put the party in a position to win the next general election in 2015. He made no apologies for keeping it secret.
“I’m not going to tell the guys on the other side of the football field, here’s the passing play we have coming up,” he said.
“You can be the most open party in the world, but I don’t think you invite the world in to see what your campaign strategy is going to be.”
But if the goal is winning in 2015, the party still faces major challenges.
It’s currently polling third behind the governing PC party and the NDP. Moreover, the Liberal party is nearly $800,000 in debt, and that number has been steadily increasing in the last few years, since the party hasn’t been paying down the principal, and it’s getting dinged with $32,000 in interest and penalties every year.
“This is a big number, right? It’s scary,” said John Hogan, the party’s outgoing treasurer. “We’ve been in discussion with our lenders constantly for the last three years. They know the situation of the party. They know it was a lot of money to expect, especially when you had three members in the House of Assembly. It’s very hard to raise money.”
Hogan hinted that those discussions are close to bearing fruit.
Interim Leader Dwight Ball went further, saying the debt will be completely paid off by 2015.
Within party members at the convention, there seemed to be a sense that the party is learning from past mistakes.
Delegate Bruce Layman pointed to communication — one of the issues the renewal committee identified.
“You’ve got to be able to communicate. The ordinary guy on the ground has got to be able to pick up the phone and call someone and get an answer or at least be able to talk to his representative from his district or his member or something like that,” he said. “That was lacking in the past with the Liberal party because everything fell into disarray, and of course, we took a whipping for it. But of course, live and learn.”
Similarly, members seemed to be spending a lot of time thinking about the need to “lead, not oppose” — one of the renewal committees ideas.
In his keynote speech Saturday night, Ball spent a lot of time attacking Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s government — at one point saying he doesn’t trust her to run a lemonade stand — but he said he also tried to offer alternatives.
“As an opposition, I’m not satisfied with where this government is taking us, so my role as the leader of the opposition is to address that. So that’s what I did (Saturday night),” he said, pointing to the government’s Bill 29 restrictions on access to information as an example.
“The leadership that we’ve shown on that is that, you know what? When we form government, we’re going to repeal Bill 29. So that’s leadership there; we recognize a bad piece of legislation and we’ve made a commitment already to repeal it.”
Federal Liberal interim Leader Bob Rae struck a hopeful tone in a speech Friday night. He argued that the Liberal party’s values — economic prudence, social justice, substantiality and national unity — are strong enough to keep the party afloat, as long as it learns from its mistakes.
“We cannot ever again allow ourselves to become divided among ourselves. We cannot ever get ourselves in a situation where conflicts of personality or rivalries between people get in the way of what we have to do as a party,” he said.