Last Wednesday’s slim byelection win for the Liberals in Virginia Waters was a tough loss for the PC party.
Danny Breen, flanked by Danny Williams (or vice versa, depending on how you hierarchize King Danny’s brief reappearance in provincial politics), were a star-studded lineup for door-to-door knocking and Ches’s photo-ops.
No doubt the defeat — by a mere 40-vote margin — will be a hard pill to swallow for the Tories.
But the loss in Virginia Waters, no matter how painful, wasn’t a death knell for the party’s hopes in the next election. Despite the look of things — three byelection wins for the Liberals in the past year, including the latest in a riding held by the Tories for over a decade — the PCs aren’t past saving.
Not yet, that is.
According to an Angus Reid Global poll released last week, Tom Marshall — with a 49 per cent approval rating — is now the third most popular premier in the country. By comparison, Kathy Dunderdale left the premier’s office with only 24 per cent of public approval.
And arguably all Marshall has done is over the past few months have been righting his former boss’s most prominent wrongs.
In the time between now and Dunderdale’s inglorious exit from provincial politics almost three months ago, the government has backpedalled on some of its most enduring false steps from the past several years, marking a few months of severe damage control.
It accepted all 29 recommendations of independent reviews into the province’s justice system, the result of thoroughly criticized cuts to the province’s Legal Aid Commission and the Sheriff’s Office. And it ordered a review of Bill 29 and promised more openness on Muskrat Falls.
But the budget is still in the red, the same faces encircle the cabinet table and other than a few long-lobbied-for education reforms it’s been more or less business as usual at Confederation Building.
Other than the government’s near-obligatory backtracking, there have been no obvious shakeups. And still, 25 per cent more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians approve of Marshall than did of Dunderdale.
It’s just one poll, but it has to be encouraging for the party, if only to show the PC brand is nowhere near past the point for resuscitation.
Furthermore, come July, following the party’s leadership convention, having a new leader and a fresh face leading the government could work miracles for the PCs. With over a year until the next provincial election and Marshall mopping up some of his predecessor’s biggest messes, the groundwork is already being laid.
But should Frank Coleman, the man expected to win at the Tory leadership convention in July, remain the same unheard-from, relative unknown he is now, the party may as well give up.
Coleman is a person people in the province hardly recognize, let alone have a connection with. As far as being a public figure goes, he is pretty much as unfamiliar to most voters now as he was before he entered the PC leadership race.
Given the two-man race for the leadership, Coleman has undoubtedly been told to keep his mouth shut and not make any waves until the end of the campaign. Other candidates in the race, through their outspokenness, have already succeeded in shooting themselves in the foot. Coleman may do well in the short term to lay low and ride out the race as the default frontrunner.
But should he choose to stay the course, once the convention is complete and the premiership attained, he’ll still remain the total unknown he’s always been.
With the clock ticking down on the next provincial election, Coleman’s lack of rapport with the public may very well steepen an already arduous uphill climb for the PC party from day one. And without a real public persona around which the party can rally, time may run out on Tory dreams of resurgence.
As the Liberals continue building steam, it’s now or never for Coleman to step out of the shadows.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.