One evening during the 1976 by-election campaign in St. John’s West, an eternity ago, I was getting half-shot (perhaps it was three-parts shot) with John Crosbie at one of his supporters’ homes in the riding. It was the last night of a week I had spent shadowing the heavyweight Tory candidate from rally to rally and household to household, the speeches, the spiels on front porches mostly repetitive (and thus dull, once the novelty of travelling with and listening to the brightest of Newfoundland’s political stars had worn off).
Back then, the NDP had a strong candidate in St. John’s West, union leader Tom Mayo, a physically imposing man whom Crosbie mocked by portraying him as a gorilla at one particular PC gathering of the converted in St. Mary’s, jumping up and down with knees bent, scratching his arm pits, shouting “big tough Tom Mayo, big tough Tom Mayo.”
Mayo’s participation in the by-election was a rarity back then, an NDPer actually viewed with some seriousness, a candidate with a half-assed chance at seat. Mayo ultimately lost, of course, but gave the powerful Crosbie a run for his money, resulting in — as they say in
the reportage of politics — a respectable showing.
Anyway, during that evening at his supporter’s home, Crosbie, in his inimitable way, had a go at the stereotypical view of the NDP in Newfoundland at the time, a party with a stable of loyal workers that seemed to include not much more than a few labour leaders, university professors, and naïve and sometimes preachy do-gooders.
“You’re gonna screw me with this piece you’re gonna write on the byelection, aren’t you, Wakeham?” Crosbie slurred as we consumed copious amounts of beer and booze late into the night.
“No, b’y,” I responded. “It’ll be a fair story.”
“It will not be,” Crosbie fired back. “Because you’re an NDPer.”
“I’m not,” I protested, grinning widely. “If anything, I’m apolitical.”
But Crosbie, rising to the occasion, was having none of my promise of fairness.
Well in his cups, as I mentioned, he said: “I know for a fact you’re an NDPer.”
“How d’ya know?” I mumbled, while probably sipping on my tenth or twelfth beer.
“Because,” Crosbie said, dragging out that particular word and the subsequent sentence. “Because you have a f…in’ beard.”
Well, I had a laugh, I must admit, as did he. But back then, the Tories and the Liberals could both crack jokes at the expense of the NDP because the so-called third party was going nowhere in a hurry in Newfoundland. With the odd exception, their record was pathetic.
Of course, the caricatures of the NDP were abundant (see reference to beard on young reporter as example), the party faithful stereotyped as hippies sitting around a campfire, singing “We Shall Overcome,” having a few tokes; border-line eccentrics with an agenda to not so much change Newfoundland as to save the entire universe. To myopic and parochial Newfoundlanders, it was not a winning song.
These many moons later, though, the NDP is no longer viewed as a party of extreme left-wingers, an organization of purists, but as a party of practicality, keeping its agenda squarely within the province. For the most part, and more importantly, it’s being perceived by thousands of Newfoundlanders as a legitimate force to be reckoned with, politicians who are no longer to be ignored or given a token ear; a serious option to whatever other party happens to be governing the province.
Who would have dreamed back then, in 1976, that the NDP would have six seats in the Newfoundland legislature or, as those polls indicated last week, that the party would have first-place status in Newfoundland, ahead of the PCs and the Liberals? This is the NDP, after all. The NDP? Who’d a thought?
But it’s true.
Now, those poll results of a few days ago were obviously helped along by the pathetic performance of the Dunderdale team, which is playing about as well as Danny Williams’ IceCaps did in the final round of the Calder Cup Playoffs (oops, better not criticize the IceCaps or I’ll join Robin Short on thin-skinned Danny Boy’s list).
But the fact remains that those people, turned off by Kathy’s Clowns, are heading towards the NDP stage, at least at this point, because they see Lorraine Michael and her party as a legitimate alternative; as the leading opposition party, at the very least. There’s something there Newfoundlanders are starting to take to, more so than ever before.
The figures are, as they say, a snapshot in time. But it must be one of the loveliest photos Michael, her caucus and longtime suffering NDP backers have ever seen.
And, if you like watching politics (and I do), it has to be thought of as a welcome development and a healthy one at that, when the political landscape starts to change dramatically. Granted, the election is several years away.
But we’ve got a government crippling around with a bandage over its foot after having shot itself there on a fairly regular basis, and a Liberal party with a lame-duck leader, still clawing and scraping to climb out of that bog into which it plunged several years ago like a wounded moose.
It’s prime time, an opportune time, for the NDP in Newfoundland.
One final note: as you may have noticed from the mugshot that accompanies this column each Saturday, I still have the beard, but it’s now snow white, and was never blue or red or, for that matter, orange.
And John is now serving cookies at Government House.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.