If one is an example, two is a coincidence, then three byelection victories by the Progressive Conservative party could represent a trend heading into the 2019 general election.
PC Leader Ches Crosbie, the victor of the second byelection campaign — in Windsor Lake in August — says he fully expects a PC victory in Topsail-Paradise, the district most recently held by former premier Paul Davis.
“I’m just not expecting that we will lose it,” Crosbie said in a year-end interview with The Telegram.
“It’s important to win it. It’s important to have momentum. Once we get that done, I think we’ll get it done on the 24th of January, we want to roll out nominations in other districts and capitalize on the momentum.”
Like the 2017 byelection in Mount Pearl North, Topsail-Paradise is an area of the province that’s been voting Conservative for a number of years. Aside from now-Conception Bay South town councillor Rex Hillier winning a byelection in Conception Bay South in 2014 before losing in 2015, the Conception Bay South area has been voting blue for almost two decades.
But Crosbie doesn’t have his sights set on Topsail-Paradise. He has his sights set on Premier Dwight Ball.
But before he can handle an election campaign, Crosbie says, there’s a larger problem facing his party and the province as a whole: how can the public have their faith in government restored?
“I think the juncture we’re in in Newfoundland history right now is that the voters have lost faith in politics. They’ve lost faith in politicians and in political parties to deliver what they say they’re going to do,” he said.
“They lump everyone together and many people have simply grown jaded and given up hope that the political system can ever represent meaningful change in their lives.”
Crosbie clearly has support, given his byelection win turned a Liberal seat into a Tory seat, but it’s an isolated case.
“I have to find a way to multiply those people, because there aren’t enough of them right now,” he said.
“I think the way to do that is to present a suite of policies that represent a bold, marked and dramatic departure from what people are used to.”
A glimpse of that departure came with Crosbie’s own byelection campaign over the summer. The three main planks were “honest government, lower taxes and affordable power rates.”
On lower taxes and affordable power, Crosbie says this province needs to get tough with Ottawa.
“In terms of living in a federation, it’s my position that we’re being ripped off in relation to federal transfer programs – all of them, but in particular equalization,” he said.
“We remember that Danny Williams went to war with Paul Martin and we eventually came back with $2.3 billion for having raised the issue vigorously and robustly with the prime minister.”
Crosbie says he doesn’t think Ball can handle such a conflict with Ottawa.
“Something is broken there and all you have to do is think about the fact … that Quebec is going to get $13.1 billion in the coming year, while we get nothing. I mean, Nova Scotia gets $2 billion, New Brunswick gets $2 billion – that’s a lot of money to us. Our budget is just over $8 billion. There’s work to do there. Whether Mr. Ball can do the work there, the voters will have to decide.”
Each of the campaign points Crosbie intends to make is an opening for criticism of Tory governments of the past, all of which is unfolding day after day in the testimony coming forth at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.
“I can’t dissociate the PC party from what happened in the past. But I’m making a bet that people are way more interested in the future and what the solution to the problem of affordable rates is,” he said.
“I’m not running from the problem of affordable rates because that’s in fact under the three things I campaigned on and will continue to campaign on.”
In fact, Crosbie was hesitant to discuss any opinions he may have about the testimony of his predecessors at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.
“While you might be interested in knowing my opinions on what I think I’ve heard along the way, and your readers might be, I think they’re more interested in knowing what I plan to do about rates in the future,” he said.
“So, I’m just going to let that dog sleep until later.”
But when pressed repeatedly during the interview, Crosbie said there are lessons to be learned about how the government makes decisions and oversees major projects.
“Muskrat Falls is more of a reminder of something that we all knew, I think. Which is that politicians can be overtaken by fevers. One thing that is a fairly neutral observation, government has pretty close supervision over Eastern Health, let’s say,” he said.
“That didn’t seem to be happening with Nalcor. Nalcor was treated as a department of government when, clearly by their legal set-up and governance structure they weren’t. That seemed to be the mindset. In relation to what Mr. (Ed) Martin, the CEO of the day, might have been telling the premier or anyone else in government about the risk of the project, there didn’t seem to be the capacity within core government to know what questions to ask about it and to make sure that the politicians were getting the level of information and the kind of information that they needed to be getting. I’m not sure what kind of a deficit you call that, but that piece seemed to be missing.”
Whether the Tories have learned their lesson and are ready for another crack at government will be up to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.