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'We're not a zebra party,' Newfoundland Grit leader says with latest additions

Newfoundland and Labrador interim Liberal leader Dwight Ball is shown in a recent photo released by his office, released on Friday Nov. 15, 2013. Ball says the addition of two former NDP members to his party is not about opportunism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

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Newfoundland and Labrador interim Liberal leader Dwight Ball is shown in a recent photo released by his office, released on Friday Nov. 15, 2013. Ball says the addition of two former NDP members to his party is not about opportunism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - If politics makes strange bedfellows, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals are now tucked in under a crazy quilt with former Tories and New Democrats alike.

Still, Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said Tuesday that his party's principles are intact as he welcomed once staunch NDP members Dale Kirby and Chris Mitchelmore into the fold.

The latest Grit additions come just two weeks after Paul Lane, a Tory backbencher who shot from the lip, ate his once biting criticism of the resurgent Opposition Liberals to become the second former government member to join their ranks.

Tom Osborne, who quit the Progressive Conservative caucus in 2012 over concerns about former premier Kathy Dunderdale's leadership, sat as an Independent for almost a year before donning Liberal colours last August.

Ball downplayed Tuesday any criticism of blind ambition heading into the next election expected sometime in 2015.

"We're not a zebra party," he said when asked if the most recent moves smack of opportunism.

"What we have here are core values within the Liberal party and people are attracted to that."

Mitchelmore and Kirby left the NDP caucus in October to sit as Independent members after their internal push for a review of Lorraine Michael's leadership erupted into a public fight.

Both men said Tuesday that their values align with Liberal tenets.

"I don't really see it as a monumental shift," Kirby said, standing beside Ball at a news conference.

"We have to have a broad-based political party that appeals to a broad base of voters."

It's quite a leap from last October, when Kirby said in an interview that switching stripes after 16 years with the provincial NDP, including as party president, would be jarring.

"It's like you're a plumber and you decide you're going to be an accountant," said the member for St. John's North who, along with Mitchelmore, was elected in October 2011. "It would be a significant change."

Mitchelmore said he based his decision on feedback from constituents.

"I do not see this as being opportunistic," he said from his district of the Straits-White Bay North in northern Newfoundland.

With Kirby and Mitchelmore, the Liberals will have 11 seats in the legislature compared to 34 Tories and three New Democrats.

Ball said all members seeking re-election will face open nomination contests.

"There are no free rides," he said.

Disruption in the Tory and New Democrat ranks over the last year has spurred Liberal momentum.

The Progressive Conservatives have seen once stellar approval ratings plummet under Dunderdale, who resigned as premier last month, since they won their third consecutive majority government in 2011.

Details of a spring or early summer leadership convention are expected Wednesday.

Michael, whose impressive popularity gains over the last year were hammered by last fall's messy dispute, faces a leadership review in May.

And the presence of several former NDP candidates and executive members at Tuesday's Liberal event raised eyebrows.

There was laughter and then applause from the crowd of mostly Grit faithful when Kirby was asked if New Democrat organizers will follow his lead.

"I'd like to bring as many of them as possible," he said.

Former NDP candidate Geoff Gallant, who finished second to the Tory winner in the Cape St. Francis district north of St. John's in 2011, quit in November as the provincial party's associate president. He declined to publicly discuss if Michael's leadership was a factor.

Gallant said he was there to support Kirby and hasn't decided if he'll run again or for which party.

"I'm really kind of enjoying what Mr. Ball is saying about being an open and inclusive party," he added.

"They're all friends of mine," he said of New Democrat organizers. "But you know they need to really look at why people are being attracted to the Liberal party."

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