IN THE NEWS ~ New Democrats look to solidify East Coast support with Newfoundland summer caucus retreat

NDP’s choice to focus on Newfoundland and Labrador a ‘tactical, surgical strike,’ says Conservative pundit Tim Powers.

The Hill Times Photograph by Jake Wright

Kitchen party: Tom Mulcair, pictured at the NDP leadership convention, and the entire caucus have their eye on Newfoundland and Labrador, said NDP MP Ryan Cleary. All 101 NDP MP will be in St. John’s, Nfld., Sept. 4–Sept. for the national caucus.

By CHRIS PLECASH Published: Thursday, 07/26/2012 6:25 pm EDT

Federal New Democrats are surging in popularity in Atlantic Canada, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador where the party is hoping to continue its East Coast breakthrough by holding its summer caucus retreat in St. John’s in September.

“We’re very keen on building in Atlantic Canada,” NDP national caucus chair Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) told The Hill Times. “It’s a region that we want to continue to build in, it's a province that is showing real breakthrough support for the NDP like we’ve seen in Quebec, British Columbia, and other parts of the country.”

A string of recent polls show the party neck and neck with the federal Liberals and Conservatives in terms of public support throughout Atlantic Canada.

A poll released on June 28 by Forum Research showed a three-way race on the East Coast, with the NDP at 33 per cent, trailing the Conservatives by two percentage points, and leading the Liberals by five percentage points.

A July 13 poll conducted by EKOS Research also put the NDP second in a three way race with the Liberals and Conservatives in Atlantic Canada. The EKOS poll put the New Democrats at 28.4 per cent support in the Atlantic, 2.6 percentage points ahead of the governing Conservatives, and 4.1 percentage points back of the Liberals.

The numbers confirm that the NDP has remained a competitive federal party in the region after it took 29.5 per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 federal election, but a July 4 poll by Environics Research shows the party surging ahead in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Environics poll, which focused solely on Newfoundland and Labrador, put popular support for the New Democrats at 49 per cent, while 34 per cent of Newfoundlanders support the Liberals, and 17 per cent support the Conservatives. It’s a big gain for the NDP, at the expense of both the Grits and Tories. In the 2011 federal election the NDP took 33 per cent of the vote in the province, while the Liberals took 38 per cent and the Conservatives took 28 per cent.

“People down here don't like Stephen Harper, and it's going to be another generation or two before people will even consider voting federal Conservative again,” said NDP MP Ryan Cleary (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, Nfld.), whose riding will host the NDP summer caucus retreat on Sept. 4-Sept. 6 in St. John's.

Mr. Clearly told The Hill Times that Newfoundlanders have a long list of grievances with the current federal government, including changes to Employment Insurance and Old Age Security, and cuts to search and rescue services in the province, which have been blamed for the death of Labrador teen Burton Winters in January.

“We’re a sea aring people. These things are important to us and there’s been no reaction from the federal Conservatives. Their word is law, and that does not resonate with people down here. It pisses people off,” said Mr. Cleary.

There’s also a history of acrimony between Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) and the province’s former Progressive Conservative premier Danny Williams, whose feud over equalization payments and resource development led Mr. Williams to start an “Anything But Conservative” campaign in the lead up to the 2008 federal election. Progressive Conservative MHAs in the province campaigned against the federal Conservatives during that election, and the Tories failed to win a single seat in the province in that election.

The NDP currently holds two of seven federal seats in Newfoundland and Labrador, three of 11 seats in Nova Scotia, and one of 10 seats in New Brunswick. The party has yet to win a seat in Prince Edward Island.

Mr. Julian credited Mr. Cleary and NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John's East, Nfld.), as well as Newfoundland’s provincial NDP leader Lorraine Michael for building NDP support in the province.

Although Progressive Conservatives took 56 per cent of the popular vote under the leadership of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale in the province’s fall 2011 election, the Environics poll reported that the provincial NDP is now leading with 38 per cent support, compared to 35 per cent for the governing Progressive Conservatives and 26 per cent for the Liberals.

“The NDP hasn't been particularly strong in Atlantic Canada. Fifteen years ago, we were a fairly marginal political force,” said Mr. Julian. “Newfoundland and Labrador is the next breakthrough for the NDP.”

Prior to Mr. Harris’ election in 2008, the NDP had held only one seat in the province’s history. Alphonsus Faour won a 1978 byelection in the riding Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe but was defeated in the 1980 general election.

Conservative pundit and Summa Strategies vice-president Tim Powers admitted that the NDP is doing well in his home province of Newfoundland.

“This is a very tactical, surgical strike by the NDP to make St. John’s their eastern hub and have that grow into one or two other seats,” said Mr. Powers, who hails from Newfoundland’s capital. “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, particularly in St. John’s, see the NDP as the alternative voice to Harper. They don't see that with the Liberals.”

However, Liberal MP Gerry Byrne (Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, Nfld.) questioned the New Democrats’ logic in holding their caucus retreat in a city where they already hold both federal seats.

“If the NDP’s objective was to improve their lot, they hold their national caucus in Cornerbrook, or Gander or Goose Bay, not in the location where you’ve got two sitting members,” said Mr. Byrne, who suggested the party was more concerned with hanging on to the seats that it already holds in case the province’s anti-Conservative sentiment recedes.

“St. John’s will probably tighten up and become more competitive. What they’re there to do is to try to hold on to what they’ve got,” he said.

But Mr. Cleary said the meeting would be an “incredible boost” for St. John’s.

“It shows people that Tom Mulcair and the entire caucus have their eye on Newfoundland and Labrador. It's a great thing,” said Mr. Cleary, who hopes to partake in some cod fishing and kitchen parties with fellow 100 NDP caucus members during their visit.

“You can’t come to Newfoundland without having a Newfoundland and Labrador kitchen party,” he said.