So after updating the part about the NDP in my forthcoming column in The Scope 3 times, I find out this morning (after it’s gone to print) that the situation has deteriorated further and MHAs Dale Kirby and Chris Mitchelmore have split from caucus and will be sitting as Independents going into the opening of the House of Assembly this coming Monday. Can’t win ’em all, I guess. But I thought I would put some of my additional thoughts here, just to make peace with all the different things I’ve wanted to say about this situation as it has been evolving over the past 8 days.
Has it really only been 8 days? Christ.
I won’t preempt my own column too much. And it’s probably safe to presume that if you’re reading this blog, you’re relatively familiar with the general coordinates of Newfoundland’s political scene at any given time. But here it goes:
This whole situation is a mess. The fact that caucus – obviously lead by Kirby – blindsided Lorraine Michael with an email, just after she was returning from vacation, instead of seeking to meet with her directly about this, was pretty foolish. More foolish is the fact that they proceeded in this endeavour without securing the cooperation of, at least, enough of the executive to garner the support to pull it off. Yes, obviously Kirby and the anti-Lorraine faction had some presence and power within the party executive – that is, the actual power behind the partisan throne – but it was clearly not enough to keep the situation under control and effectively get Michael to submit to a leadership convention (or a review, if you adopt a more sanguine reading of the letter).
(As an aside, I personally don’t fully buy George Murphy’s claim that he didn’t understand the letter his caucus sent, or that he was pressured into signing it by Kirby, or whatever. I think he knew perfectly well what that letter intended [it’s pretty clear], but he lost his nerve to go through with it once it blew up in public. Ditto Gerry Rogers too, I guess, but she [very wisely] has been much more silent about the matter than Murphy.)
The backing of the executive on this matter, and its delicate handling, would have been key. Say what you will about Lorraine Michael’s leadership (and there are so, so, so many things to say right now), but she toed a pretty lonely line during the height of Danny Williams’ power, and led the NDP to their greatest victory in provincial history. Hell, the only reason she isn’t the leader of the Official Opposition right now is because our electoral system is a regressive joke. And she polled among the most popular – if she wasn’t in fact the most popular – party leaders in Canada. She did deserve at least some modicum of respect and tact from caucus (when this started, anyways); certainly better than getting dumped via email.
Not that I don’t appreciate what they were trying to do. There is a very compelling, Machiavellian case for changing up the leadership and growing the party. And, since all of this broke in the media, I think the narrative has shifted a lot. Michael initially cut a pretty sympathetic figure – it wasn’t hard to believe she was getting a figurative knife in the back from her caucus. This image became a little bit less tenable as the week unfolded; former candidates (and at least one ex-party member) appeared in the media, alongside Kirby and Mitchelmore, to insist that Michael might resemble a hardline Stalinist more than a lovable old nun in matters of how she handled her leadership, internal criticisms, etc. Obviously, I think, we can see that there is a glimmer of truth in this assessment; she was quite willing to take a bloody feud that should have stayed in the backroom directly out into the spotlight in order to outmaneuver Kirby et al.
It certainly worked – but this is a Pyrrhic victory in the truest sense of the term. Lorraine Michael won the battle, but now with the defections, the NDP are certainly going to lose the war. And, frankly, they should; this whole situation has been embarrassing for everybody. This is apparently not a group of people who are prepared to commandeer the ship of state. The last straw, I think, were her comments the other day just after news of the caucus détante was reached (after two days of meetings, in secret, with the help of a mediator). When asked if she regretted anything, she rather flatly insisted, ‘nope’. Really? No regrets about creating the media firestorm that engulfed the party? None at all? Okay then.
It takes two to tango. If she was really interested in working with caucus, she would have taken a more conciliatory approach. Even if she just wanted to help stuff all this drama back behind the curtain until convention so the party could pretend to be a credible force when the House opened again, she could have at least shown some remorse for the media gongshow she helped bring about last week. That would have been a legitimate display of leadership. Instead, it’s now really hard not to start sympathizing with Kirby and the dissidents. Comparisons to Julius Caesar have been invoked, off and on, since this drama started; if at first we focused on the shock of Brutus’ betrayal, we now start wondering if he did in fact do it to slay a budding tyrant.
But what odds, now? The real losers here are the party faithful, who for the first time maybe ever were faced with the prospect of a formidable NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador, and are instead left with a patient on life support. But there are many on the outside also lose out; those of us who were hoping a strong NDP would mean new and original policy ideas (Mitchelmore’s wood pellet schtick is not as ridiculous as you think), a credible leftist voice in local affairs, and at the very least, more interesting political dynamics at the provincial level. The implosion of the NDP has more or less dashed those hopes. And yes, I say implosion – the caucus is split and everyone involved revealed themselves to be largely unaware of even the basic contours of the political game they’re embroiled in. I don’t think they’re walking away from this one anytime soon.
And if Ryan Cleary thinks he can ride into this mess and save the NDP and then hoist the Republican flag above Confederation Building, or whatever it is the man has planned? That might be the only thing that could make the situation worse.