Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Of Landslides and Landscapes

Having lived in Alberta for a good number of years, I'm quite familiar with the political phenomenon that just happened in Newfoundland - I've lived through two premiers who won landslide majorities - Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein.

While Lougheed seemed to have the personal strength of character to not abuse the landslide majority voters gave him, Ralph Klein used it to dilute and weaken the effectiveness of the legislature.

I don't know Danny Williams that well, but he has big challenges ahead of him. With such an overwhelming majority, he runs some huge risks that he would do well to look to Alberta for lessons on how not to do things.

First, while a single landslide may well demonstrate the public support for a particular leader (and such may be the case in Newfoundland), the ability for the government to do pretty much what it pleases without any substantial opposition can breed electoral complacency (aka - "Fat, Dumb and Happy Syndrome)

Voter complacency happens quite naturally - the government is able to control much more than just the message, and the vastly reduced size of the opposition is such that they simply won't have the resources (people or financial) to challenge the government significantly and be heard. Most voters don't pay much attention to the implications of various bits of legislation that rattle through the legislature. As a result, as long as nothing is impinging on their "good life", they are going to assume all is well. (Great from the perspective of the governing party, lousy for the notion of democracy as a whole).

In Alberta, Ralph Klein was able to parlay his personal popularity into a series of overwhelming majorities. Now that Ralph has stepped aside, the consequences of that are becoming more and more clear. With a dictator's zeal for control, Ralph shut down any debate he didn't like - in the legislature, or in caucus. The result? Debate in the legislature that barely looks like a softball game most of the time, and an opposition that is only just emerging from the shadow of the governing party's overwhelming control.

It doesn't take much imagining to see why Alberta's voter turnouts have been collapsing in recent years. PC victory seems inevitable, and debate is minimal at best. I've been to more than a few 'all candidates forums' where the PC incumbent didn't even bother to show up - and they still won the seat handily! (and not because the candidate was overly impressive)

Williams will be deeply challenged to live up to the expectations of Newfoundland voters, and at the same time keep the legislature alive and effective. He may want to unshackle party discipline a bit and allow his backbench MLAs to throw hardball questions at his ministers during debates. He cannot afford to allow himself to become complacent - he may in fact find it necessary to stage a "shadow opposition" within his caucus.

The other question mark is whether Williams won this time on the basis of his feuding with Ottawa (in particular PMSH), or is there more to the picture. As long as the Con$ sit in Ottawa, Williams has a fairly natural target to direct people's attention to. Once Harper leaves, Williams may find himself "without an enemy" and thus vulnerable. It's hard to say.

In the short to medium term, Newfoundland voters must be cautious about becoming complacent. Governments with multiple landslides soon begin to believe their own BS - especially when you manage to all but wipe out the opposition. The long term consequences of that are evident in the "group-think" that people like Chandler seem to expect of Albertans.

Federally, I don't think this means that Newfoundland is likely to swing towards the HarperCon$, and today's election in Ontario is likely far more significant for Harper.

1 comment:

dragon said...

FDH Syndrome is more dangerous than you might think. Look how many years Alberta has suffered from it, and consider that we are only NOW waking up to the damages that the Conservatives have wrought - just look how much Kevin Taft and his team have brought to Albertan's attention.

A government without checks and balances can quickly get out of control burying scandals and hiding those little embarassing truths that can be oh-so-inconvenient at times.

A strong opposition can bring back accountability - and in the case of Alberta, I think that it's time that we put the Liberals in power to right some of the many wrongs that the Conservatives have made their legacy.

This is not to say that a landslide Liberal victory in the next election is desirable - no matter who is in power, the opposition can prove very useful in bringing points of debate to light in the legislature and providing a fair and evenhanded representation for all.