Wednesday’s byelection is going to be an interesting run for those who follow such things, followed by at least two interesting and self-serving explanations. By all accounts, the polling will be tight, and, on a Monday night before the byelection, the campaign looks extremely close.
But does any of it really matter?
Candidates for the Virginia Waters byelection stopped by the Masjid al-Noor mosque in St. John’s for an event organized by the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. From the left are Progressive Conservative candidate Danny Breen, Sheilagh O’Leary of the NDP, and Liberal Cathy Bennett. — Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram
Here, in advance, are what the losers might say.
If the NDP, as expected, doesn’t pull out a win, watch for the campaign or leader Lorraine Michael to haul out the old chestnut that “we held our numbers in a three-way race” or something like that. A strong candidate may well give the party a better performance than their polling numbers would suggest, but the true message about the NDP was written long before the byelection: whatever result they get is post-party-implosion.
If the Liberals lose, the script will be “this was a strong Tory district and our increased numbers show we’re gaining ground with disillusioned Tory voters.”
A Tory loss? “We are going to take this to heart and look forward. We’re listening to the people and changing our ways, but that message takes time to get through,” etc., etc.
The bottom line, though, is that while this may be hyped as a bellwether byelection, the only way it really changes things is as a political selling point.
One more Liberal or NDP member is precisely, exactly that — the Tory majority would be intact. And if a Tory wins, does that mean an immediate boost for the Tories? Well, it means they didn’t lose one, but not much more than that.
For each of the three parties, what it does mean is the ability to come out and claim that they have some sort of political momentum: in the game of shadows that is provincial party politics, that may be valuable coinage, but to the average voter, it’s not likely to mean very much.
Are you going to change your vote in 2015 based on the result of one byelection in urban St. John’s?
That’s unlikely, to say the least. Chances are, you don’t give a rat’s posterior who wins in someone else’s provincial byelection.
The problem is that a large majority of our provincial politicians believe their own hot air. Flapping their gums back and forth in the House of Assembly may make them feel like they are scoring political points, but in reality, the winners and losers in debate are really only collecting the applause of their party members and subordinates. And they believe that those political points actually mean something, instead of what’s actually the case: they’re preaching to the choir, and worse than that, to a choir that they hired.
The same is true of the byelection campaign: it’s tons of money, tons of effort, primarily for bragging rights in a very small circle of the already politically active. Wins and losses may send the hearts of pundits and political operatives atwitter, but a large number of the residents of this province couldn’t care less.
Whether you blame politicians or the media or the one per cent, a substantial portion of the population believes there’s essentially no difference between politicians and their parties. They also believe that the starting point in any election is that every party’s politicos are in the game primarily for their own benefit.
In many ways, unfortunately, the people who hold that belief have been proven right by successive politicians of a variety of political stripes.
Sooner or later, someone is going to eat some humble pie and admit the overall system is broken — maybe then we can find politicians we can both believe and believe in.
Until then, we’ll be told that this or that byelection is important, and whoever loses will announce that, somehow, by losing, they won.
And they’ll wonder just why it is that people think every politician is the same.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s news editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.