Newfoundland and Labrador has long been known for its unique culture, dialect, climate, and even its geology, but the most interesting thing about the province has gone largely unnoticed; its politics. Over the past several decades, the United States has become increasingly polarized along ideological lines. On one side you have Republicans who are socially conservative and believe in small government, and on the other side you have Democrats, who are socially liberal and believe in big government. Many south of the border have lamented how this ideological divide has led to increasingly bitter partisanship.
Unlike the United States and federal Canadian politics, there is virtually no ideological difference between the two main parties in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Conservatives and Liberals. When one party is in power, the other simply criticizes everything the government does without any consideration to ideology.
The most conservative premier the province has ever had, by far, was Clyde Wells, was a Liberal. He balanced the budget during the worst economic times in the province’s history and (unsuccessfully) attempted to privatize the government owned electric utility. Danny Williams, the most popular Conservative premier in the province’s history, increased the size of government, froze tuition levels, and made expanding the size and power of the electric utility one his top priorities.
In most places, the most bitter and polarizing causes of partisanship have to do with social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights, but social issues play absolutely no role in the province’s political debates. All the political parties, as are most of the electorate, are what one would describe as socially liberal. Yet despite all this, politics seems to be growing increasingly partisan and mean spirited.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the increasing partisanship more than the recent case of Don Dunphy. Mr. Dunphy was shot in his home by a police officer after making what were perceived by some (but not everyone) to be threatening tweets directed at some MHAs. The investigation into the shooting is ongoing, but already twitter and local blogs are filled with accusations that Mr. Dunphy was essentially assassinated by the police for criticizing the government.
A good barometer of the state of provincial politics would be the twitter feeds of some of the political media members. If you check out the feed of Paddy Daly, the host of the province’s most popular call-in show, you will see that half his tweets lately are about how much he loathes his Twitter followers. David Cochrane, the CBC’s chief political reporter, usually makes a weekly summary of his week on twitter, including how many new followers and retweets he had. Last week he instead tweeted a picture of a dumpster on fire. This week his feed featured an exasperated back and forth with a well-known local musician, Con O’Brien, who is a vocal critic of the current government. The exchange ended with each claiming to block the other and Mr. Cochrane telling Mr. O’Brien that his most well know song “sucked”. To be fair to Mr. Cochrane, he is far from the first one to lash out at Con O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien famously was involved in a backstage fistfight with one of his band members just before they were supposed to play a waterfront New Year’s Eve concert in St. John’s.
Things may well get worse before they get better. The ruling Conservatives are likely to lose power in the next election after holding power for 12 years, and there are legion of Conservative partisans who are actually looking forward to the Liberals being in charge if only for the opportunity to have a turn at being the ones who get to sit back and criticize everything the government does. Once they get that out of their system things may begin to return to normal. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are led by a particularly fiery or partisan person, so there is a chance that tempers begin to settle down a year or so after the next election. It may be a slim chance, but it is a chance nonetheless.