Ebb or flow?

Patrick Butler
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It’s amazing what can happen in a year.

Last March, when a Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll was released virtually tying the NDP with the governing PCs as the provincial parties with the highest approval ratings in Newfoundland and Labrador, the New Democrats were flying high.

Things were finally looking up for the NDP, long considered the perpetual third party in Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the time, the caucus had yet to self-destruct, George Murphy had yet to grovel to party leader Lorraine Michael, and Christopher Mitchelmore and Dale Kirby had yet to cross the floor and pledge allegiance to the Liberal camp.

But fast-forward a year and the NDP’s prospects look remarkably more bleak.

Since the party’s embarrassing implosion last fall, Michael’s credibility as a strong party leader has significantly diminished and the NDP caucus, at one point on the verge of attaining Official Opposition status, has been reduced to a meagre three members in the House of Assembly.

Adding insult to injury, a CRA poll released March 6 put current support for the NDP at 13 per cent, continuing an already plunging trend in public opinion.

To put things in perspective, last week’s poll pegged NDP support at a third of what it was last March, when the party garnered a 39 per cent public support rating.

It’s been quite the turnaround.

And it makes the next few months, especially the upcoming provincial byelection for former premier Kathy Dunderdale’s Virginia Waters seat, all the more critical for the NDP if they are looking to make a believable bid for anything other than third-party purgatory in 2015.

Premier Tom Marshall has yet to set a date for the Virginia Waters byelection, but the race has already heated up.

Cathy Bennett, who lost the provincial Liberal leadership last November to Dwight Ball, has already announced her intention to run for the Liberals, while sports figure Gord Dunphy is seeking the PC nod. St. John’s Coun. Danny Breen is also reported to be considering a run for the PC nomination.

Meanwhile, former city councillor and mayoral candidate Sheilagh O’Leary is running under the NDP banner.

All the candidates are well known in St. John’s and all three parties stand a lot to gain from a win in Virginia Waters.

For the Liberals, it’s a chance to continue building momentum after electing a new leader last fall and winning a byelection in Carbonear-Harbour Grace shortly after.

For the PCs, it’s an attempt to try to exploit the political capital the party gained from Kathy Dunderdale’s departure from public office and to try and move past the former’s premier’s debilitating public approval ratings.

But for the NDP, it’s a full-blown effort to resuscitate the party’s once flourishing image as an actual contender in the eyes of the public. A win by O’Leary could finally provide the NDP with a rallying point from which to turn the party around.

A loss in the byelection — especially in an urban part of the province, where the party has experienced most of its success provincially and all of its victories federally — could further set the party back behind the rest of the pack.

“I’m moving into the byelection with a great deal of hope,” Michael told the CBC’s David Cochrane last Thursday, following the release of the CRA poll.

And no doubt there is hope behind the NDP charge. But there must also be serious trepidation considering the past few months of turmoil within the party and the political capital at stake in the upcoming byelection race.

The NDP’s “orange wave,” which the party has so enjoyed touting for the past few years, has undoubtedly ebbed over the past few months in Newfoundland and Labrador. But a victory in Virginia Waters could change the tide.

It’s amazing what can happen in a year. We’ll have to wait and see.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: NDP, Corporate Research Associates, CBC Carleton University

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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