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Friday, 23 August 2013

The Liberal Leadership: Round 1

It started with a decent size crowd in a warm room and ended with handshakes and smiles, with a few fireworks in between. Overall it was a very successful and positive night for the Liberal Party of NL, and despite a couple of pointed questions and some raised voices the one thing I took away from the event is that the tide has now turned and it's acceptable to be Liberal once again.

Each contestant had a very different approach and they didn't all resonate with the affable audience. While some answers were canned others were a little more off the cuff and in the end I'd put two of the five at the front following this first round, and for different reasons. Dwight Ball came off looking good due to actually answering some questions and holding his own in most of the debates. Jim Bennett looked to be the only one who actually had policy based answers to the questions of the night. And while these two came out on top there was a lot more going on...

In order of their placement on the stage I give you my impressions of each candidate from the 1st Leadership debate.

Paul Antle
Antle looked and sounded like a leader. He was well spoken if a little slow in some cases for my taste, almost dropping to William Shatner speed once or twice. He is obviously a polished speaker and was well prepped on the style of the debate. In one instance on the one on one debates he set Danny Dumaresque up to bash Muskrat Falls, A.K.A. Cathy Bennett, and not surprisingly Dumaresque didn't disappoint him. It was a good job of getting one of the others to do his bidding and was well played.

The downside of Paul's performance was with regard to his answers to pretty much every question. That is to say he sounded great but he didn't actually say anything. Going into the debate I was looking forward to learning more about how he actually felt about issues, but alas after almost 3 hours it still looks like he doesn't have many thoughts of his own. Only two things were clear from his answers; first is that he doesn't have enough information on Muskrat Falls (Really? After two years?) and secondly that he's adamant that the current Government is doing everything wrong. But that's about it. When asked a very important question regarding the fact that he doesn't have a seat in the house and the difficulty related to being a leader outside the house or would he ask someone to step down, Antle's response was basically that he would have to assess the situation after he became leader. Non-answer.

Dwight Ball
Ball also looked and sounded the part for most of the night. He looked comfortable and answered casually never loosing composure. He relied heavily on the growth of the popularity of the Party during his time as Interim Leader, stating that a recent poll put the Party in first place at %46. He answered a couple questions with actual answers including a couple healthcare planks that would focus on smoking cessation work and specific chronic disease (Diabetes) programs.

Unfortunately for Ball his answers weren't exactly up to scratch for those were really paying attention. The substance of his responses was lacking to say the least. It was most obvious when asked by Dumaresque specifically what he would do to reinvigorate the fishery. He struggled badly and came up with little more then marketing and joint management. In addition, his reliance on his track record was also a little off base. While the Party is gaining ground I'm not sure he can claim much success when compared to a Government that continuously shoots itself in the foot. And finally, his debate with Jim Bennett around public support and polling numbers seems to indicate a bad memory or creative story telling. The Party has not been in first place, nor at %46 anytime since Ball has been at the helm. In fact the last Poll indicated the Party in second place at %36, with Ball as leader showing %24 support, exactly what Bennett had said. Edit: I was contacted by Ball with some clarification including the latest MQO poll which puts the Party in first at 46%. Those numbers however were not publicly released until they appeared on CBC's On Point and there are still no media stories on them and no official release information from MQO. Odd. And he also indicated an Angus Reid poll that placed him in first place across Canada tied with another opposition leader. The full report on that poll available here does place Ball tied in first place across the country but that portion does not include other party leaders within the home province. The full report and poll within this province still places Ball second behind the NDP leader.  

Cathy Bennett  
I'll refer to her by first name here simply because there are two Bennetts in the race. Cathy looked the part and many of her answers were well prepared and for her part she provided the answers reasonably well. And to her credit she was able to stay on topic and held her ground and stood by past decisions even when she was being nearly shouted down by two of her competitors.

As well spoken as she was she did stumble a few times throughout the night, not terribly but noticeably considering she was really the only one to do so. Like Antle her answers were terribly vague, but she took a different track. Her response to most every question revolved around consultation and listening. This indeed seems to fit with her general campaign messaging thus far. And while consultation is imperative to government decision making it appears that Cathy doesn't have many real answers beyond consultation. But her largest impediment on the night was her support of the Muskrat Falls project. To her credit she did not back down despite an obviously anti-Muskrat audience. The topic got the most response from the audience and was never in her favor. She questioned Jim, the other Bennett, on seniors housing and the beginning of his response included his concerns for the increases coming for their light bills and how that would impact their pocket books. She just couldn't win and at a couple of occasions her attitude began to slip into defensive territory and she got snippy, especially with Antle.

Danny Dumaresque
Dumaresque is a good public speaker and he's good at pushing those buttons that get people riled up. In the case of this audience it was Liberal pride and anti-Muskrat Falls. He answered some of the questions with actual answers and was one of the few who actually indicated some kind of plan for a couple of sectors. This included a commitment to construct a fixed link to Labrador to increase tourism and broader economic development.

Dumaresque did have answers to most questions but unfortunately almost all his answers were Muskrat Falls. Even when he was asked a direct question about improving healthcare his answer was about how Muskrat Falls was wasting our money. In the end I still don't know much about his platform beyond how he feels about the Party, Muskrat Falls, and the fishery.

Jim Bennett
Jim sounded well informed, spoke clearly and he had obviously done his homework with regard to the majority of issues. He conveyed portions of his platform in most every answer and his references to the work he had completed as a member of the opposition gave legitimacy to his responses. From creating a Special Prosecutor for organized crime, a switch from open to closed aquaculture, and a strong focus on social justice issues he actually answered the questions.

Even with his detailed answers there were missed opportunities for him during the debate. During one 2 minute debate he didn't get the opportunity to speak because the others were talking and he didn't insert himself. And while questioning Ball on his popularity he allowed Ball to get away with his incorrect statistics.

In Closing...
To be honest it was more spirited then I expected and there was a good turnout with some great questions. Full credit to the Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce and the moderator, Darrin Murray, who did a fantastic job of keeping things on track.

I was really hoping to hear more policy. My main criticism of the current Government is that they do not understand how important good planning and policy are to good government. I want a Liberal Leader who understands those things. It's no secret I'm supporting Jim Bennett and his strong approach to planing and policy is a large reason for that support.

I firmly believe that in the end whatever the result of this process the Liberal Party of NL will be well positioned for 2015. I enjoyed the debate and I can't wait for the next one!



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