The Labrador byelection hasn’t even started, but it already looks like ex-MP Peter Penashue could head back to Ottawa to again bolster his government’s slim majority in the House of Commons.
There was a time when Penashue looked like he would lose any vote in Labrador even if he ran unopposed. His less-than-satisfactory performance after a Makkovik boy went missing last year was the cause.
Penashue’s constituents wanted him to champion their outrage in Ottawa and demand that search-and-rescue services be improved in Labrador, but what they got instead was an MP intent on excusing government cuts to SAR resources and facilities.
Penashue’s certain loss only lasted as long as he had no opponents. Now that the campaign has effectively begun, his two rivals have only managed to improve Conservative chances. It’s the old first-past-the-post dilemma. No candidate actually needs to win the popular vote when more than two are running. All anyone needs is a hair over 33-1/3 per cent.
The two opposing candidates (young Harry Borlase for the New Democrats and apparently veteran campaigner Yvonne Jones for the Liberals) could easily split the majority vote between them and allow Penashue to slip up the middle to retake the seat.
Despite the cheating, the blame-shifting and his lacklustre stint as both MP and cabinet minister, Penashue can still rely on a sizable base composed of voters who don’t believe or don’t care that their candidate appears corrupt and incompetent, or that the candidate’s government is by far the worst Canada has ever inflicted upon itself.
What Conservatives say about Liberals and the NDP might actually be true (although, to be sure, it also applies to them): they are putting their desire for an electoral victory above the interests of the country. As Liberals and NDPers rush into the campaign, they seem to be ignoring the dangerous flaw inherent in the electoral system — a flaw that awards almost absolute power with a 39-per-cent mandate — in hope that this time it will benefit them instead of Conservatives.
Of all the national parties, only the Greens are standing on higher principles. When leader Elizabeth May announced that to prevent an opposition split her party would not field a byelection candidate, she gave the other two challengers an equal opportunity to take this new and much-needed co-operative approach to Canadian politics — an opportunity they’ve declined.
This clearly won’t happen, but Labrador could have provided a model on how to bring down Stephen Harper’s government. If the three opposition parties set aside their petty partisanship to select a single, mutually agreeable candidate, reactionary Conservative forces would not stand a chance.
Sadly, since both the Liberals and NDP insist on pursuing their narrow partisan goals, the progressive vote in Labrador could become paralyzed with indecision. In this situation, the NDP can only lose because if the byelection is only about getting rid of Penashue, most voters will assume the Liberals have a much better chance. When the NDP find themselves once again in distant third, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
The NDP has never understood the Labrador riding — an ignorance it consistently displays by always standing on the wrong side of the one issue that could win them the riding. Like his predecessor before him, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair seems not to understand that support for dams at Muskrat Falls will not win the party any votes outside of St. John’s and will actually cost the NDP support in Labrador.
When Borlase was confirmed as party candidate, he spoke with clear conviction on a number of issues until he talked about Muskrat Falls. Jones, at least, comes by her support for the dams honestly. Not Borlase — he has a history of opposing them. When he voiced his new support for the hydro development, he clearly sounded like he was just parroting the party line — not giving his own views. If Labradorians want an MP like that, they need only re-elect Penashue.
That’s why Elizabeth May should reconsider her byelection boycott. She can’t stop the split anyway and unless the Greens offer a candidate, the great many Labradorians who passionately oppose the destructive Lower Churchill project will have absolutely no other home for their votes.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.