There is an even chance that, when voters in Newfoundland and Labrador go to the polls in their provincial election on Thursday, they will give the boot to the four-year-old Liberal government of Premier Dwight Ball and elect the Progressive Conservatives under Ches Crosbie.
Although a political neophyte – he has been the party leader and a member of the House of Assembly for only a year – Crosbie, a St. John’s lawyer and Rhodes scholar, has the benefit of a celebrated surname. His father, John Crosbie, was a power in the federal Tory cabinets of Brian Mulroney and later became lieutenant-governor of the province; he still lives in St. John’s.
Ches is not the potent campaigner that his father became. His popularity lags about 10 percentage points behind his party’s. Awkward on the hustings, he lacks his father’s speech-making skill and biting wit. But John lacked them, too, when he started out; he had to learn on the job how to be a politician.
Thursday’s election may be cliff-hanger. Polls put the Conservatives about 20 percentage points behind the Liberals when the election was called; as of last week, they were about five points ahead, according to published polls and internal party polling.
Five per cent might or might not be enough to change the government. At dissolution, the Liberals held 27 of the assembly’s 40 seats, to eight for the PCs, two for the NDP with three independents (one of whom is a disaffected Liberal). The province-wide popular vote will matter less than its distribution among vulnerable constituencies.
If the Conservatives do win, it would be not so much a repudiation of the Liberal brand or the attraction of the Crosbie name as it would be the product of the strongest and most unpredictable force in politics: the desire for change. That force elected an NDP government in British Columbia and defeated one in Alberta. It brought the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec to power in Quebec and raised the leftist Greens to official opposition in Prince Edward Island. And it gave Ontario Doug Ford.
Some political strategists maintain governments might as well turn out the lights when desire for change passes 60 per cent. The figure in Newfoundland and Labrador last week was 67 per cent.
Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals – most polls put them five to six percentage points behind Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives – are in the desire-for-change “danger zone” at the moment.
They have the luxury – or burden – of time: five months to climb out of the hole they are in, or to dig themselves in deeper.
The Conservatives may have the upper hand, but they have no momentum. They seem to have stalled in the mid-30s in the polls, with enough support for a minority government but not a majority.
Scheer’s lacklustre campaign style reminds political scientist Andrew Cohen of Lester Pearson, who could never quite manage to put John Diefenbaker away. Pearson had to settle for two minority governments.
Among Conservatives who figure they will never have a better chance to bury the Liberals as deep as Brian Mulroney did in his 1984 landslide, Scheer’s performance is a daily concern. They fear that he will manage to rip defeat from the jaws of victory.
Trudeau, meanwhile, needs to run an error-free campaign (no mean feat for this gang), and to wring every ounce of advantage he can out of a buoyant economy – he can accurately claim that there are 1 million more jobs in Canada now than there were when he took office in 2015 – in the hope that Canadians will vote with their pocketbooks.
Meanwhile, if Ches Crosbie wins in Newfoundland he will achieve an ambition that eluded his father. John entered politics as a Liberal. He wanted to be premier so badly that he ran against the unbeatable Joey Smallwood for the provincial Liberal leadership in 1969. Crushed by Smallwood, he crossed to the Conservatives, then on to Ottawa in 1976.