NOTE: Since writing the column over the weekend, the province and Hydro-Quebec cancelled the NB Power sale. That said, the basic point of this column is still relevent.
Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke University basketball coach, famously said “The only poll I trust is my mother.” While the pun loses some of its punch in print, its meaning doesn’t: polls don’t matter, only results on the court count.
And so it is in politics. In the great scheme of things, the only poll that matters is the one they take on election day. But polls, especially Corporate Research Associates’ (CRA’s) quarterly polls, do offer some insight in the minds of voters. And, based on the CRA polls released Mar. 9, the voters are thinking they’re pissed. And, to a certain extent, both major parties are feeling the anger.
The poll pegs decided support for the Liberals at 36 per cent, holding steady from November’s poll but still not good enough to win another election. But the PCs, who have tried to lead the anti-sale side for the whole campaign, have sunk 4 per cent to 42 – statistically, a dead heat with the Libs. The NDP sat at 18 (up 4), and the Greens have 4 per cent support.
Those figures, though, only reflect decided voters – they don’t reflect to the incredible 45 percent of undecided voters out there, a three point rise from November. If you take undecideds in to account, the Liberals have actually lost support – sinking from 20.9 to 19.8. The PCs fell from 26.7 to 23.1. NDP support rose from 8.1 to 9.9.
More damning is the question asking voters who they would prefer as premier. Incumbent Shawn Graham is the choice of only 25 per cent of voters, down 4 points from November, and PC leader David Alward lost 2 points as well, falling to 27 per cent. More damning, “None of the Above” (“above” including NDP leader Roger Duguay and Green leader Jack MacDougal) doubled to 10 per cent, meaning one in ten New Brunswickers don’t think any of the party leaders are fit to run the province. 23 per cent weren’t sure who they’d prefer.
I’ll talk about Graham in good time, but this poll is just as much an indictment of Alward’s leadership as it is the premier’s. Public unrest over the NB Power deal threatened (still threatens) to propel his party back into government. All Alward had to do was control the debate – admittedly a harder task than it sounds, but doable for a good, confident leader. Instead, he and his party made the debate about how bad the deal was. They called for a referendum. Repeatedly. They grilled the government on things Bob Jones said on the last night’s News. They tantalized the public with half-truths and innuendo (see the alleged Vermont deal). And they didn’t do much else. They didn’t even attack the government very hard on how they came to the deal, which given the Liberals’ record would have been very easy.
Instead, they gave the government a chance to turn the question around. “OK,” say the Liberals to Alward. “You’re so smart, how do you get lower rates and unload NB Power’s debt?” Alward’s answer were mumblings. It’s fine to negotiate a power purchase agreement with Quebec, but you still have to sell the power you make yourself at a rate that reflects production costs – costs that would be higher than Quebec’s. It’s smashing to re-nationalise NB Power after the Liberals sell it, but you’d be paying through the nose to do so. Alward and the PCs are paying for what looks like a lack of self-confidence or imagination.
But Alward probably will become premier by default because Shawn Graham knows nothing about New Brunswickers. He assumed people would ignore three years of rhetoric plugging an “energy hub” as the key to self-sufficiency. He hoped voters would thank him for freezing rates. But he underestimated the importance people put on one important but unsexy thing: process.
If there’s one lesson the Liberals should have taken from the French Immersion, ferry cut, and teacher assistant cut debacles, its that people want to be consulted when government makes major changes in people’s lives. Selling off the province’s public utility, which most New Brunswickers have a soft spot for, counts as a life-changer.
Instead of consultation, the government announced the deal seemingly out of the blue and said they expected not to change it before the closing date. Huge public protest caused them to alter the deal slightly in January. It then announced it was deferring NB Power’s rate increase because it couldn’t finish the legislation necessary for the deal to happen by Mar. 31, leading many voters to wonder why they didn’t defer the increase at the start. After further protests, government then announced public consultations on the deal but said that they wouldn’t substantially alter the deal, leaving me to wonder “what’s the point?” And the PR strategy was a disaster from Day 1, with nearly every claim the spin doctors threw out at least partially debunked by Bob Jones or other intrepid reporters.
People don’t totally hate the deal itself – another CRA poll released last week said 79 per cent of New Brunswickers find some benefit to the deal. But people don’t seem to like every aspect of the deal and they certainly don’t like being treated like whining children being told to go to bed early just because Daddy said so. It’s why thousands have signed petitions against the deal, or at least asking for a referendum. It’s why quite a number of them (the most reliable estimates range between 1,000 and 2,500) protested the deal. And it’s why Duff Conacher, head of Democracy Watch, was the featured speaker at that protest – he has no opinion on the deal or any cause to have one, but he thinks the process stinks.
The worst part is that Graham still doesn’t get it. Last week, he blamed the media for not putting enough pressure on Alward to produce a plan. The media doesn’t have to pressure Alward – not until the election writ is formally dropped, at least. The Liberals, as government, are the only party currently with the power to DO ANYTHING about NB Power and should expect to come under more scrutiny than the Opposition.
It’s little wonder an Angus Reid poll released last week named Graham as the country’s least popular premier – less popular than a premier indicated in a major expenses scandal (Darrell Dexter), less popular than two premiers struggling to explain Harmonized Sales Taxes (Gordon Campbell and Dalton McGuinty), and less popular than a premier whose own party is dissolving around him (Ed Stelmach). And unless he changes his ways – and fast – Graham will have to give a concession speech on election.
I haven’t been posting as regularly as I ‘ve wanted lately because of my other job, Chief Returning Officer of the STUSU. I spent over a month running the elections and another week to write a report and catch up on homework. I plan on posting more through the end of the year, including once or twice more this week. You can also follow me on my brand-new Twitter account, where I tweet about politics, sports, my life – anything I want, really. Just search for SeanDThompson.
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