Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was in attendance at St. John’s Convention Centre Sunday Night as a close vote determined the new leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador New Democrats. A two-way race for the leadership of the provincial party came to an end as St. John's Centre MHA Gerry Rogers defeated economist and university instructor Alison Coffin. Rogers has been an MHA since 2011 and is known as a long-time social activist and documentary filmmaker.
Her victory means Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will see a somewhat familiar face at the head of the provincial NDP and have a voice in the legislature. The party’s leadership race was triggered last September with the resignation of Earle McCurdy who, despite being well known as a past head of the province's fishers union, was unable to secure a seat in the House of Assembly in the 2015 provincial election. McCurdy cited a desire to be with his family in Eastport when making his decision to step down. Gerry Rogers' campaign chair Judy Vanta spoke with Ricochet at the leadership convention.
I have watched Gerry for years now in how she builds teams. And how those teams then achieve things. I watch her, [she has] a vision. Then she draws people into the vision. And then she allows them to see it unfold and they participate. That's what the NDP is all about.
Rogers defeated Coffin, who performed well as a candidate in Waterford Valley but has not yet held elected office, with 971 votes to Coffin's 479.
Austerity and economic fears
Coffin's background as an economist featured significantly in her endorsements and campaign materials. The province, grappling with fallen oil revenues and high costs from the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, faces grave economic challenges and was met with an austerity budget in 2016.
Tyler Downey, Coffin’s campaign co-chair, told Ricochet on Sunday afternoon, before all ballots had been cast, that her expertise was an important factor in his decision to support her.
I know her personally and I know what she's like. I know that she's genuine and I love her energy. I think she's an excellent speaker. But her economic acumen, her ability to actually reason through policy points and sense of a larger picture from smaller pieces, I think, is exactly the kind of politics we need to see in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland and Labrador's aging, declining population and fiscal situation have stoked fears of insolvency and the need for a federal government bailout. While public anger, which reached a fever pitch following the Liberals' 2016 austerity budget, has since receded, confidence in Newfoundland's economy appears to be lacklustre at best.
Dana Brothers, who ran for an executive position representing Western Newfoundland, told Ricochet that Newfoundland's bleak economic situation has actually spurred new interest in politics, including within the NDP.
"I think the leadership race has been fantastic because it's helped revitalize the party,” said Brothers. “And my experience is that people in this province are dying for leadership and change, it's palpable when you reach out."
"[People] haven't seen the NDP as a viable option right yet because it's kind of been in the background,” added Brothers. “But this new leadership race — what I've noticed is that it's bringing in people who've been so concerned with what's happening in Newfoundland. People who come in and join the NDP, because it's seen as an viable option to do something, you know?"
The leadership convention featured remarks by former leader Earle McCurdy, newly elected party president Lynn Moore, as well as former MP and provincial leader Jack Harris and federal leader Jagmeet Singh.
Prioritizing working people
Singh's address focused in part on the economic insecurity faced by Canadians nationally.
“I say it’s not okay. This is not at good as it gets. We’re going to build an economy that is truly inclusive,” Singh told the crowd. He went on to express support for pay equity legislation, small business and small scale fisheries as partial solutions. Singh also called for prioritization of worker pensions when corporations face bankruptcy, citing the plight faced by former Sears workers.
Singh also praised the ability of the NL NDP to fight back against austerity measures seen in recent years, highlighting its contribution to reversing the Liberals' initial plans to close libraries throughout the province. The move proved wildly unpopular and was reversed, after becoming a focal point of the wave of anti-austerity protests that Newfoundland saw in 2016.
Since then, while the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers' Council has pushed for public sector layoffs, the Liberal government under Premier Dwight Ball has often opted to concentrate more on reducing expenditures on salaries through attrition.
Judy Vanta, Rogers’ campaign chair, told Ricochet she believes the NDP’s new leader will remain strongly focused issues of economic concern.
Gerry would always say 'What keeps people awake at night'? And when you start talking to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, what keeps them awake at night? Well, you know what's keeping seniors awake? And young families? 'How am I going to pay that light bill when the time comes? How am I going to be able to live?’
Electricity costs are expected to rise significantly for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the coming years in the face of looming costs related to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. A public inquiry into the decision-making that led to the project, now often viewed as a scandalously embarrassing boondoggle and a result of institutional failure, has been established.
Vanta is confident the NDP is up to the job of championing working people in the province, especially with the renewal of engagement resulting from the leadership contest.
"I think the mood of the party is full of hope and optimism. It's a Jack Layton feel all over again, particularly here in Newfoundland. We're looking at new leadership. . . .There's excitement and all kinds of hope."