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Friday, May 06, 2011

Election 2011 - Did principle trump pandering in Atlantic Canada?

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find… you get what you need” – Rolling Stones

Perspectives change. Often those changes are quite dramatic.

A perfect example is the perspective of people in Newfoundland and Labrador who, like others across Canada, are parsing the structure of a vastly redefined post-election Parliament.

Before proceeding further I’d be remiss if I didn’t re-affirm my long standing and deeply held belief that adherence to principle is always far more important to the long term good than simply caving into external pressures or the temptation of seemingly self serving actions.

Principle should always trump personal gain, pandering and opportunism.

This is as true for individuals as it is for governments at any level.

When you make a promise you do everything in your power to keep it and when you believe you’re right you fight with everything you have to defend your position. End of sermon.

Those sentiments were clearly on display during the federal election as most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians once again refused to support Conservative party candidates. In fact, the only Harper candidate elected this time out was a newcomer to the political scene. One who barely eked out a win by a few hundred votes. By all accounts his victory came in spite of his party affiliation rather than because of it and was due to the stature of the man himself. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Harper government.

The actions taken by voters in the Province are something all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should take pride in today. It once again proves, regardless of what certain individuals in parts of Canada might say, that the people in Newfoundland and Labrador are fiercely principled and willing to stand by those principles, no matter the short term pain.

With that clearly said, we now must live with the choices made by a broader Canadian electorate. The odd yet somehow poetic result is that this time around, standing by a principled position may have placed the Province in a far better position than anyone could have imagined.

At the outset of the campaign nobody in Canada would have predicted the near implosion of the Bloc, that the Conservatives would win such a solid majority or that the NDP, thanks largely to Quebec frenzy, would form the official opposition with more than 100 seats in Parliament. These are the realities of Canada today and they may actually work in Newfoundland and Labrador’s favor.

With ABC remaining a factor, the election of Labrador’s Peter Penashue as the Province's single Conservative MP presents interesting possibilities going forward. Perhaps just as important is Quebec’s version of ABC that played out during the campaign. These separate actions by two long time adversaries could in fact have resulted in the best of many possible outcomes that might have developed on voting day.

Make no mistake, the history of Federal/Provincial relations hasn’t changed. Stephen Harper turned his back on a promise to exclude non-renewable resource revenues from the equalization formula and essentially gutted the intent of the Atlantic Accord a few years back. Both actions led to a loss of billions for Newfoundland and Labrador. Harper also failed to move on his promise to make 5 Wing Goose Bay an integral cog in the Canadian military.

Those are indisputable realities, but there might, just might mind you, be a better chance of Harper’s latest election promises being kept than there has been in the past, even after the province’s voters refused to let him to buy votes with those promises.

On the issues of a loan guarantee (or equivalent funding) for the Lower Churchill and an increased role for 5 Wing Goose Bay nothing is guaranteed but the possibilities are far brighter today than they were a few short weeks ago. In fact they have a better chance of coming to fruition now than they would if this election had resulted in a minority Parliament for either party.

With the Bloc no longer a major force in Ottawa and a majority firmly in hand, Mr. Harper will face little if any opposition to his Churchill Falls promise. Any excuse not to honor that promise will be difficult to sell.

During the campaign both the Liberals and NDP made similar promises in spite of Quebec’s vocal opposition to the project. One would hope all parties will stand by their commitments but with the NDP now serving as a voice for Quebec and the Liberals looking to rebuild support there, either party could easily succumb to an urge to curry favor in Quebec at the expense of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In a minority Parliament, or if either of today’s opposition parties had formed government, that reality could have been devastating for the Province. This isn’t the case in the current configuration.

Allowing the Conservatives an opportunity to slip their oversized foot ever so slightly through the door has sent the clear message that voters most surely remember the broken promises but some are willing to offer one last chance at redemption. If Mr. Harper is to have any hope of growing his party’s fortunes in the province the onus is now squarely on his shoulders to accept the opportunity provided.

After multiple elections, any chance of widespread Conservative gains in Quebec is a long shot at best. Mr. Harper knows his party’s future, beyond the current term, depends largely on an ability to retain and grow support in other regions, including Newfoundland and Labrador.

Most of Canada, with the exception of Quebec, supports the development of the Lower Churchill thanks to a growing awareness of the mistreatment Newfoundland and Labrador has suffered at the hands of Hydro Quebec. In addition the entire Atlantic region stands to benefit greatly from the Lower Churchill project and, as the last bastion of Liberal support these days, Conservative strategists must be eyeing the area with a glint of lust in their eyes.

While an ABC hangover may continue to reveal itself from time to time as long as Stephen Harper is party leader, the Conservatives surely realize that strong support for the Lower Churchill will go far in building loyalties throughout the region and help drive a stake into the heart of a critically wounded Liberal party.

The Lower Churchill project isn’t the only issue that has a better chance of being advanced under the current federal configuration.

While Stephen Harper’s newly minted Labrador MP, Peter Penashue, is a strong advocate for that project he’s also solidly behind growing the role for the airbase at 5 Wing Goose Bay. How much influence Mr. Penashue can bring to Ottawa remains to be seen but as Newfoundland and Labrador’s lone representative on the Conservative bench he is most certainly up for consideration in the new cabinet.

His chances of gaining a cabinet position may be enhanced in light of Harper’s campaign message - in fact his message for the past 3 years - that the Province would be better served electing someone who can fill a seat at the cabinet table. Once again, the time has come for Mr. Harper to walk the walk.

Simply having the good fortune of being elected as a member of the top finishing party isn’t the only thing Mr. Penashue brings to the table. He also brings a world of experience thanks to his years as a respected native leader and pivotal role in the successful negotiation of Innu agreements on Voisey’s Bay and the Lower Churchill.

When you consider the combination of such a strong proponent for Labrador development, including 5 Wing Goose Bay, and Mr. Harper’s long stated position on protecting Arctic sovereignty, the possibilities become clearer. This may in fact be one last chance to ensure the survival of 5 Wing. Time will tell.

On May third many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, like many Canadians, awoke to an election result very few expected. In direct opposition to the feelings of true blue Tories the first reaction of many was likely despair and disillusionment, but as they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

When life gives you lemons you make lemonade.

Issues remain that find the Harper government and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador miles apart. That hasn’t changed. Marine Atlantic and Fisheries management, among many others come to mind. Never the less, both the Lower Churchill and 5 Wing Goose Bay are two very important files for Newfoundland and Labrador.

After multiple broken promises, when Danny Williams first tapped into the sentiment of the electorate and pushed ahead with the ABC campaign Canadians wondered if he could deliver the Conservative goose egg he promised. He did, yet many believed the Province was only hurting itself as a result.

After sticking to their guns once again in 2011 the Province has proven, contrary to popular belief, that the electorate does indeed have a long memory. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have provided a glimmer of opportunity for Mr. Harper to gain support in the Atlantic region at the same time offering one last gasp of life to the Liberal brand if he doesn't.

Today there isn't a politician across Canada, regardless of party stripe, who doubts for a second the Province's willingness to act on it's convictions going forward. At the end of the day that legacy may pay far bigger dividends than the previous 60 years of hat in hand politics ever did. If so ABC effect will far outweigh any short term lack of government representation the Province has experienced over the past few years.

Just as Mr. Harper forced his way into a majority government in large part due to solidly reading the possibility of wide spread Liberal/NDP vote splitting in Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador may have finally turned the corner on being bought off with crumbs and has managed navigate its way into the best of many possible election outcomes.

As election 2011 heated up, the parties, candidates and leaders pandered to anyone that they believed might help them win. The best part of the entire spectacle is that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador awoke to a new and potentially brighter reality without sacrificing their principles one iota in the process.

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