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A year he won’t forget

By Craig Westcott/December 20, 2023

When it comes to modern Newfoundland politicians, few have had as interesting a career as Avalon MP Ken McDonald. And that was as a municipal politician, before he even ran federally.

But even McDonald, a former ward councillor and mayor of Conception Bay South, admits 2023 may well have been the most interesting year for him yet, what with bucking the government Whip over the Liberal’s carbon tax, and getting death threats after he was accused of flashing his middle finger at Conservatives in Parliament.

“I think this one stands out, definitely,” McDonald allowed Monday during a year-end interview. 

But there have been many positive moments during 2023, he said.

“On a positive note, I would say one of the biggest things I’ve announced or supported in the riding was the trade corridor fund to the Argentia Port Authority. They got $38 million from the federal government to go towards the upgrade that they’re doing for these mono piles that are going to be coming in and then shipped down the eastern seaboard of the United States.”

McDonald said the money came from a fund that is seldom spent in Newfoundland, the National Trade Corridor Fund. In the past, the money has mostly gone to ports such as Montreal and Halifax. 

And just conducting the regular business of an MP is positive and important, McDonald indicated.

“One of the best projects we ever did and continue to do today is the new Horizons for Seniors program,” he said, offering an example. “That allows a lot of organizations, especially the 50 Plus clubs, to apply and whether they’ve got their own location or whether they’re using a community location and doing upgrades, it’s for kitchen equipment, or ventilation or mini splits to allow the heat bill to be a lot cheaper. I was up to St. Peter’s Hall (in Upper Gullies) Saturday night to an event for the men’s social club and they had been given $22,857 and put in a new exhaust fan system in the kitchen. That’s the type of thing that it’s used for… It could be small amounts of money, it could be up to $25,000, but it is probably one of the most appreciated funds that we do in the run of a year.”

Now for the challenges. The toughest thing he faced this year, McDonald said, was the government’s introduction of a bill to put carbon tax on home heating fuels. McDonald was against it from the beginning. Not a good spot to be when you’re in a government that has made fighting climate change one of its signature election promises.

The crunch came when the Opposition Conservatives proposed a bill to kill the carbon tax. McDonald supported it because it would include killing the tax on home heating fuels.

“I advised everybody my stand on it, before I did the actual vote, right down to even notifying the Minister of Environment and Climate Change,” McDonald said. “I notified the Prime Minister’s Office, I notified the Whip’s Office, and I notified my Newfoundland colleagues. I didn’t want to blindside anybody, and I did that well in advance. There were a lot of phone calls and meetings to see if they could sway me to not vote in favour of the Conservative Opposition Day motion and I told them, ‘Look, I can’t not vote in favour of it. My riding is mostly rural, and people only have one way to heat their homes, mostly, especially older homes, home heating oil. We don’t have public transit, we don’t have trains, subways, buses, not even taxis. So, they don’t deserve to be treated differently than everybody else in Canada. We’re hurting the most vulnerable people in our society by implementing this tax.'”

McDonald said he wasn’t worried the party would punish him for voting with the Conservatives. He just expected that he would be.

“But it didn’t happen,” he said. “It felt very lonely. There weren’t a lot of people anxious to say hello to Ken McDonald when I walked in in the mornings.”

He was nervous though, before the vote.

“When I was walking up the steps to go to the building, and I knew the vote was coming, I had a lump in my stomach the size of my head,” McDonald said. 

He notified the Speaker of his intention just before the vote and asked that the clerk look for him when he stood with the Conservatives so that he wouldn’t be left hanging.

“So, I wasn’t stood up very long with everybody looking at me,” he said, laughing. 

McDonald felt vindicated when the government backed down and excluded home heating fuels from the carbon tax, at least for Atlantic Canada, though others have since claimed some credit for it.

“I totally believe it was me who had to do with it,” McDonald said.

He got tipped the government was going to change its mind during a funding announcement in Placentia when Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Christa Freedland approached him.

“She said to me, ‘Ken, you were right, and I’m going to fix it.’ And she did, and thankfully she was true to her word,” McDonald said.

“She came to me at one point (afterwards) and said, ‘Do you expect us to wipe this out completely and take it off, or would you like to see us push it down the road?’ And I said, ‘For now I’d like to see it pushed down the road so it gives people time to make the switchover or to be ready for what’s coming.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

Before peace was made, however, McDonald received overtures from the Conservative Party to cross the floor.

“I’m a long ways from doing that,” said McDonald. “I was elected a Liberal and I believe people would be happy for me staying a Liberal for however long I’m here in Ottawa. That could change next week, or next month, but where I’m to now, I’m happy to be here.”

After McDonald voted with the Liberals on subsequent votes that saw the rest of the country excluded from the break on carbon tax, the Conservatives, and some taxpayers, turned on him. At one point, he reported getting death threats. He was also accused of giving Conservative MPs the middle figure while they were jawing him in the House of Commons.

But he didn’t do it, McDonald insisted. What happened was when he stood up to vote, the earpiece used to give simultaneous translations from French snapped out of his ear and hurt him, so he rubbed the spot on the side of his head with two fingers. “The other side took it as something else, but I’ve got too much respect for the House of Commons to give somebody the actual finger in the chamber,” he insisted.

Whether the Conservatives still want him or not, McDonald admitted the Liberal government is in a bad spot. A national poll this past weekend showed 69 per cent of Canadians say Justin Trudeau should resign as prime minister.

“The party generally I think still has a good chance to turn things around,” said the MP. “Whether that will happen or not? Parties have a certain (amount of) runway before people start thinking it’s time for a change. And we’re getting to that point as a party. I call it the best before date, and it’s coming, it’s coming quick. If we soon don’t do something to change that tide it’s not going to be easy to change once people get that in their heads that it’s time to vote for somebody else.”

At a recent Atlantic caucus meeting, McDonald said, someone commented that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is not catching on. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be joking. He is catching on because he’s preaching what people want to hear. It’s the affordability (issue), and he will gain strength as he goes and we will lose it because as a government we’re getting to be an old government and there’s a best before date. And we’re doing enough to turn people away and they’re going to go in behind the ballot box, hold their noses and vote Conservative unless we can change it.’ I don’t know if it will change or not, but I feel very confident that if my name is on the ballot in the next election as the Liberal for Avalon, I will win my seat. Without a doubt.”

Other big issues too are affecting the government’s popularity, McDonald agreed, including Canada’s opioid crisis, homelessness, and immigration.

“It’s not just in B.C., it’s not just in Ontario, we have a major opioid problem right here in our own province,” McDonald said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I think we’ve got to start taking a good hard look at it to try and find out what the answer is and do something about it. It’s not just the homelessness, it’s everything that goes with it, it’s a mental health issue, it’s a drug issue, it’s you name it and it’s all building up into this one problem.”

As for immigration, McDonald said he supports it. “We have lots of space, we have lots of land, we have lots of everything really, and I think we’ve got to do our part to accept people into our country and into our province and into our communities, but it has be done at a nice flow. You can’t bring in thousands and thousands at a time and just tell them, ‘Okay, here you are, you’re in Canada, go look for a place to live. Because it’s not there. It’s not there… I think we can still handle immigration, but it’s how we do it will tell if it works or not.”

Will he run again?

“Right now, it would be my intent for my name to be on the ballot,” said McDonald, who will turn 65 in June. “Now two years away is a long time and I think it will go the full two years.”

McDonald said the NDP needs another full year to pay off its debts from the last election and then time to rebuild its finances, and so will keep supporting the Liberal government on non-confidence votes to avoid a trip to the polls.

“So, I think we’re safe pretty well to the end of the term,” McDonald said. “For me, if it goes that long it would be 10 years in Ottawa. I don’t know if I want to sign on for another four.”

McDonald said the hardest part of the job is all the travel between St. John’s and Ottawa and the unreliability of the flights. “You don’t know if you’re getting to Ottawa (on time) when you leave here, and you don’t know if you’re getting home (on time) when you leave to come back. For the most part for me, I fly up Sunday afternoons and I come home Thursday nights.”

You also need a hide on you like a rhinoceros to take the abuse from people who hate and distrust politicians. But McDonald believes that goes with the territory.

“I’ve had people say everything to me and call me everything, but I just walk on and smile,” he said. “You’re not going to win those arguments. If someone thinks you’re a bit of an ass they’re going to think you’re an ass and that’s all you can do about it, you’re not going to convince them otherwise. But I will say, the response I’ve gotten since I did those votes – absolutely fantastic. I never envisioned there would be so many people who would come to me and say, ‘Thank you.’ Whether I’m sat on the plane, and somebody is passing by and they shake my hand and say, ‘Good on you,’ or if I go to church and someone will come over and say something to me about it. Every event I go to, whether it’s here in Conception Bay South or whether it’s out in Branch on the Cape Shore, there will be somebody who will bring it up and say, ‘I just want to say thank you for the way you stood up for us here in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s good to see.'”

His vote of support for the Conservatives’ motion on carbon tax and the controversy that came with it makes it a stand out year, McDonald allowed. “I don’t regret doing it,” said McDonald. “A lot of people tried to talk me out of it after I notified them this is the way I’m going. But they didn’t hold any grudges. It was lonely for a while, as I said earlier. Even my own Newfoundland crowd, they didn’t want anything to do with me for a few days, I guarantee you.”

As for next year?

“Look, I will keep doing what I’m doing as long as I can and as long as I want to, to represent the people who put me here in this position as best as I can,” McDonald said. “I may not get everything done that people want done or would like to see done. But I go back to the first time the Prime Minister ever spoke to us at in 2015 after the election. He told us your first responsibility as an MP is to your family. Your second responsibility is to the people who put you here. Your third responsibility is what goes on here in Ottawa. And I’ve tried to live by that, and I’ve told that to the prime minister several times.”

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