Is anyone surprised that the latest MQO Poll places both the Liberals (44%) and the Tories (42%) in (possibly) a statistical tie? While neophyte PC Party leader Ches Crosbie has had an uninspiring start, which — for the Tories — aligns well with a non-performing Government, why would the public be in anything but a “show me” mood?
The Premier's approval numbers testify to the legitimacy of the questions. MQO gives Ball’s leadership a “relatively steady… mean score of 5.2 [on a 10 point scale] this quarter”. Crosbie, in spite of his inability to light any fires, oversees a jump in support of 7% as the NDP races to the status of non-entity.
MQO comments that declining support for the NDP reflects in the Tories' gain, but that is tantamount to suggesting change in the chemistry of oil and water. More likely, a pervasive leadership vacuum is adding room for fluctuation in the popularity of the two traditional Parties, it being left to both mainstream and social media to set the public agenda based on whatever passes as news.
The Poll also squelches talk of a Spring visit by the Premier to the Lieutenant Governor. Aside from the Liberals' poor performance, MQO reports that 44% of residents felt that their outlook for the province had worsened over the past three months, against only 10% who thought it had gotten better. This is not indicative of a Liberal “bump” occurring any time soon. A timid Liberal Caucus will want better evidence before risking dissolution of the House of Assembly.
Pundits and pollsters could engage in prattle over the urban vs. rural divide, advancing the thesis that the Liberals “own” the districts west of the Isthmus, and the Tories the Avalon.
Three by-elections wins on the north-east Avalon, including Crosbie's convincing return of the riding held by former Liberal Finance Minister Cathy Bennett, support only half the narrative. But proof from rural NL eludes. Bear in mind that MQO combines two arguably distinct categories of voters: “decided” and “leaning”. If you were paying for the data, its value is little more than a feel-good exercise, especially if the questions(s) that attempt to gauge "undecided" voters who are "leaning" towards one Party or another, does not include sufficient redundancy.
The MQO Poll puts the "undecided" vote at a considerably high 40%. The margin of error at +/- 5.2% isn't exactly small either. In short, without the availability of a full data set from this Poll, province-wide, the "decided" vote for the Liberals or the Tories could be less than 30%. For the Premier, who has to make the decision on whether to "pull the plug", that is not a support level suggestive of “fortress" Liberal” east or west. There is much uncertainty here for any Premier.
If the political climate in NL was as polarized as it could be, a different analysis might result. But, as a politician, the Premier is a klutz, making the next question essential. It is this:
Why are the Liberals in such a poor electoral position against a PC Party whose decisions have wreaked havoc on the public treasury and, therefore, on the provision of publicly-funded programs and services, possibly for decades?
Flat-footedness over Muskrat, the inability of either the Premier or the Minister of Natural Resources to articulate credible knowledge of the problems it has caused or how to address the threat of 23 cent/kWh electricity, contributes to public bafflement.
While no group in the province has volunteered to take the “hit” in pursuit of fiscal probity, by the same token the public are not stunned enough to think that a solution in the form of a “magic bullet” is possible.
Underlying the public’s sense of bewilderment are, I believe, three discernible conditions which are influencing public attitudes right now, causing a high percentage of "Undecided" in Polls such as the most recent MQO Poll and giving the Premier, and likely Ches Crosbie, too, a poor assessment. They are:
1. Evasion of responsibility by the two main Parties. The Liberals understand the province's financial situation but downplay its consequences, worried as they are that real leadership will exact a huge political price. They want a second term. The PCs refuse acknowledgment of their culpability and are content to play into the false narrative. Absurd is that the Liberals actually make the Tories look — let’s not overstate it — as respectable as the Polls indicate.
2. Mindless drift. Pick any issue and the Liberals exhibit no capacity for how the public discussion relates in each case. Who can name an accomplishment, or even just their priorities?
When public policy decisions should manifest cohesion in the face of a serious structural deficit, overwhelming debt, Muskrat-related issues, unemployment, as well as matters social and demographic, there is no plan except the singular hope that higher oil prices will intervene.
A promised balanced Operating Budget by fiscal 2022-23 is unlikely, causing even the Auditor-General to express concern, as did the last one — though not loudly enough. With no ideas of their own, the Government continues to embrace Danny Williams' “energy warehouse” concept, now giving the Oil and Gas Division of Nalcor separate corporate status, when it should be sold.
Renegotiation of the Atlantic Accord is underway with the Government of Canada. Imagine that the matter doesn't even warrant a public discussion of the principles guiding the Ball Administration in this risky process! What goes through their minds, if anything? The industry is more vital than ever; yet the Ball Government seems oblivious to the capacity of the Feds to diminish the powers a former federal government shared following years of Federal/Provincial wars in the 70s and 80s. How quickly we forget!
In each of those areas, Tory Leader Ches Crosbie has made no contribution unless you count the letter to the Editor by Ferryland MHA, Keith Hutchings only this past Saturday in the Telegram (notwithstanding the additional cheque from the Feds, it neglects to note the temerity of Danny Williams’ having insisted on an automatic review).
Knowing how weak the Premier is, Crosbie doesn’t even warn the public that the Liberals may be too willing to subvert the Province's interests to a Federal Liberal agenda. Ball should be advised to be one with the moral authority of an informed public. Likely, neither leader understands the risks involved in subjecting the Atlantic Accord to renegotiation. Its bad enough that Ball and co., possessing the clout of the Accord, still managed to give away shop away the shop in pursuit of the proposed Bay du Nord project.
3. The third issue contributing to general public cynicism and mistrust of the Liberals can be described as low-grade spin. Every statement issued from government is hatched. Their communications is a farce. Worryingly, the stuff is often written not by the politicians or their political staff but by bureaucrats.
Whether it’s the Liberals’ development strategy, “The Way Forward”, the Budget deficit, rate mitigation, local benefits associated with the Bay du Nord (see Turning Good News Into Disbelief) or others having lesser import, the narrative is twisted and spun to an extent that the truth is a perversion. Adding another couple of billion onto our large debt is parsed by the Finance Minister as a “balanced approach”. The Premier receives public derision over his assertion that rate mitigation will not be on the backs of either the “ratepayer or the taxpayer”, yet he invokes that baloney again and again. Indeed, if “The Way Forward” is infused with so many good ideas, why did the Government hire McKinsey Consulting and spend $1 million to find ways to diversify the economy?
Did the Liberals come to power with not a single arrow in their quiver? Does Ches Crosbie offer even less? Does either Ball or Crosbie think the public are mindless when it comes to public policy or long-term thinking? Or, are they both scared as hell to open up that Pandora’s Box?
The public may not be over-represented by policy wonks, but the notion that the whole body politic does not have an ear for issues that matter to them is terribly unwise.
The MQO Poll may have recorded another Quarter in which voter sentiment, especially towards the Liberals, has flat-lined. But if the public tires of being disrespected, rather than wondering what will curry their favour, the Party Leaders should worry if anyone will vote.