Liberals are quite sure that they know who's going to win the next election, and just about everything that happened at the party's weekend convention in Gander seemed to be driven by the assumption that the Liberals are on their way to forming the next government in Newfoundland and Labrador.
By James McLeod
The policy resolutions passed by Liberal rank-and-file were modest, and during debate, they discussed scaling one resolution back so as not to tie the hands of the next Liberal government.
In small conversations all through the Hotel Gander, people were quietly hinting or gauging support or making connections to help them win a Liberal nomination in whichever district they call home. It was a foregone conclusion at the convention that a Liberal nomination is just about the surest ticket to a seat in the House of Assembly.
With the Liberals at 53 per cent in the polls – more than 20 points ahead of the governing Tories – party members have a hard time imagining how they could lose.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball acknowledged the mood at the convention Friday night, and he told his followers not to get cocky.
“What I felt more than ever before coming into a convention was confidence. People, you know, you've just got a different swagger with you now,” he said. “But I tell you, we've got to be careful. We've got to be careful because we are nowhere near the finish line.”
Ball delivered a similar message again during his Saturday night speech, but he spent most of his time delivering a withering, relentless critique of premier-designate Frank Coleman.
The centrepiece of the speech was a promise to reform MHA pension plans – which are much more generous than civil service pensions, and the MHA pension fund has a massive unfunded liability because politicians don't pay in nearly enough to fund their pension entitlements.
But that announcement on MHA pensions was just one small chunk of a larger speech which was mostly about attacking Coleman for the way he won the leadership of the PC Party without anybody casting a vote for him, and Coleman's staunch defence of the Tory record of economic management.
“Not a single member of cabinet wanted to be premier, not a single member of caucus wanted to be premier, not one of them willing to step up and say, I want to lead,” Ball said. “As for me, I don't want a team of followers; I want a team of leaders.”
Ball reprised the line he used at a fundraising dinner earlier this spring, when he cited economic forecast numbers from the provincial budget to say that the province is “the worst, the last, the lowest” and that the Tories have mismanaged billions in oil royalties.
“Oil has made this government lazy,” Ball said. “They have shied away from the hard work of growing and diversifying the economy, and they have cashed the easy oil cheques. And the result? No unemployment growth these last five years; outside St. John's, unemployment up three per cent to nearly 19.5 per cent – the worst in the country.”
The next election is still likely a year away. Coleman will assume the role of premier shortly after the July 5th PC Party convention in St. John's, and then he will have a year to call a general election.
Ball has said he believes Coleman should go to the polls in the fall, but most political watchers think the campaign will happen in the spring of 2015.
Faced with those kinds of timelines, the party has very slowly been offering little pieces of concrete policy – like the commitment to reform MHA pensions – but most of it has been sweeping statements without much in the way of specifics.
Ball promised to run an open and transparent government; he also promised to reduce health care spending without cutting service.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Ball acknowledged that people want to see more in the way of concrete policy, but he said that will come when the party releases its platform closer to the election.
The one tantalizing policy put forward at the Liberal convention was an idea to lower the provincial voting age to 16 years old.
Ryan Steeves, the president of the MUN Liberals, was the person who put the motion forward; he said he was pleasantly surprised that the idea was overwhelmingly supported by fellow Liberals.
“It allows people to start voting at a stable point in their life; they're able to start voting at 16-years-old when they're at home,” Steeves said.
Paired with stronger youth civics education in high school, Steeves said he believes that lowering the voting age can do a lot to boost citizen engagement.
Despite the party overwhelmingly voting in favour of the policy, Ball was noncommittal about whether he would actually lower the voting age if he becomes premier.
“I think it needs to be taken to the public for open disclosure public consultations, and this is something that will be one of many things that I'm sure that we'll see around electoral reform,” Ball said.