Leadership Vacuum

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Premier's departure creates problems for his party

The Williams Government is no more.

This is the hard fact now facing the Progressive Conservative Party in Newfoundland and Labrador, which had hitched its wagon entirely to the popular appeal of Williams. The government failed to attract outspoken, outstanding individuals, so we are left with a string of 20-watt bulbs in caucus.

The strength of government – the aggressive, intimidating leadership style of Williams – is now, with the premier’s resignation, its greatest weakness. We are left, in fact, with a severely weakened party and government, with an election bearing down fast.

The premier says he is leaving because he wants to give the party time to choose a new leader, prepare a budget and, presumably, a reinvigorated policy platform, in time for the next election.

But I don’t buy that. If he really cared about the party, he would stay on to win the next election – which he most assuredly would – then resign at some point in the next mandate. This would allow the party time to recruit fresh blood, which it would need going into the next election. It’s too late for that now. What you see is what you get. 

If the premier really cared about his last big achievement – the so-called Lower Churchill deal – he would stay around to see it through. By leaving now, he is handing the opposition parties a potent weapon, in the form of a power deal that will see a doubling in the cost of electricity. Are people willing to sign up for that? Can a weakened Tory party sell it?

I think Muskrat Falls is dead in the water. Already, people are suggesting the premier slapped the deal together so that he could make his exit, checklist complete. I don’t know enough about the terms yet to comment on that, but I don’t think government or Nalcor have done a good job explaining it, thus far. As we get closer to an election, this uncertainty will prove fatal to the deal.

There is also the issue of health care in the province. The acting premier is going to inherit a system in crisis, including the resignation of 14 doctors, and counting. If these specialists are permitted to leave, there will be a price to pay in human lives. This is not the sort of legacy the premier should be leaving for his successor.

Of course, the Opposition parties have to get their act together, as well. Both the Liberals and the NDP must recruit some top-drawer candidates; people with a high public profile who have distinguished themselves through their business, career or community activities. The incumbent Tories, on the other hand, are well known for knuckling under and kissing the premier’s behind. Indeed, many were swept in on the premier’s coattails, and their seats are not a sure thing at all in the next election.

The premier’s departure creates a leadership vacuum within the party. You can bet that a handful of Cabinet – and even some caucus benchwarmers – are contemplating a run at the top job. However, who else in the government is fit for it?

Jerome Kennedy, the minister with the highest public profile, was looking pretty good last year, during the H1N1 crisis. However, he has blown it completely, in his heavy-handed, mean-spirited handling of the dispute with doctors (not to mention the air ambulance in St. Anthony). Everyone I’ve spoken to today – and I have been out and around – says Kennedy doesn’t have a chance. He is not liked.

Darin King? Shawn Skinner? Ross Wiseman? Tom Marshall? No. They’re all sidekicks. Subservient ‘yes’ men. They’re fine as Smithers, but could never pull it off as Mr. Burns.

There are not many other options. The party may need to pull in some fresh blood from outside caucus, the way the Liberals did with Clyde Wells in 1987. In fact, the Liberals might consider doing this again – I do respect Yvonne Jones, and she has come a long way these last few years, but I’m not sure she can capitalize on this development enough to win it for the Liberals.

One interesting outcome of today’s news is the fact that all three political parties are led by women. That’s an exciting first that is going to make for interesting discussion in the House. And, of course, we have the province’s first female premier. For this, Premier Dunderdale deserves recognition and congratulation.

However, unless I am mistaken, Dunderdale’s ascension to acting premier status precludes her from running in the leadership race. Which means she can’t be the province’s first elected female premier.

Actually, the party lost its best chance to claim the first elected woman premier years ago, when Williams’s meddling brought about the resignation of Beth Marshall. In my view, Marshall – now in the Senate – was the only member of the Williams Government who truly deserved to be premier. She is strong-willed, experienced, principled and smart. However, she also has an independent streak that did not mesh well with the Williams style of governing.

Those are traits the Tory caucus could really use right now. Unfortunately, the premier’s leadership style has driven away – and failed to attract – the best talent.

I do know this: the 2011 election is now a wide open game, and will be one of the most interesting political races we’ve seen in a long time.

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Recent comments

  • Jack Dreaddy
    February 10, 2011 - 22:21

    1) 10 months is ample time to craft policy and prepare for the next election. 2) Most MHA's are going to be incumbents, so "fresh blood" can wait 3) The opposition is very very weak and cant take advantage of anything. They cant match anywhere near the money the PC's have, and thats also taking ito account their (huge)debt. They cant attract new blood, even if they actively recruted (which they or may not be doing). Theyre still relying off the "old guard" such as Jones, Parsons, etc and until recentl Dumeresque. 4) The party can still maintain its numbersits had for sometime after Williams has left. 5) and continuing from the last point. For the last while the PC's have had numbers which have been abnormal, even for the runaway statistics of Newounland politics. With Williams gonetheyre going to settle back down to "average" which by mainland standards still means weilding huge majorities

  • PoscStudent
    November 27, 2010 - 23:29

    I think there is still some great talent in and outside caucus that would make great Premiers. There's been talk of Rick Hillier coming forward and running, Ed Martin has been mentioned, Beth Marshall could possibly come back. I doubt Danny would leave if there wasn't someone he thought was going to come forward and lead. The fact is to that even if the PC's made a bad choice when chooising the next leader that person would still be better then what the other parties currently have.

  • Shannon Reardon
    November 26, 2010 - 23:32

    Jake, newsflash: The media covers politics.

  • andrew waugh
    November 26, 2010 - 17:07

    Geoff, Have to agree with "Jake" on this one. Why not change the title of your blog? I don't mean that in any negative way - you're a great writer, I love reading your stuff, but it's a sham to suggest that you are focusing on the media. That's not saying you haven't written about the media and won't do so again, but why not widen the scope of your blog via the title? That way you wouldn't have to wade into debates about what you should and shouldn't be writing about every other time you post. Just a thought. Best Andrew

    • W McLean
      November 28, 2010 - 00:15

      A "sham"? Do a topic count.

  • Pierre Neary
    November 26, 2010 - 11:20

    I also agree the Muskrat Falls Term deal? will never see the light of day. Just not feasible. As far as a replacement for Premier Williams he made the right choice in Minister Dunderdale. Minister's Dunderdale and Marshall are the only ones left with a shred of credibility. Let’s face it Minister’s Kennedy/Johnson/Burke/O’Brien/etc/etc/etc just don’t have the chops. The talent pool is pretty shallow. Whether the Tories know it or not they just found themselves in big trouble with the departure of the Premier.

  • Willi Makit
    November 26, 2010 - 09:23

    Massachusetts just signed on for a 450 MW, 15 year wind power project for only 2.5 billion - or over 20% less per MW than the Muskrat Falls proposal. The economics of Muskrat Falls just don't cut it - the proposal is too expensive, and will increase our debt level to crippling levels. We can build smaller, cheaper, and with less impact on the rate payers. As this information becomes widely known, the governing PC's will be pressed to defend the project. To add to their misery, they are running deficits and the level of spending is unsustainable. They will not be able to buy this election as has been the practice in the past. When Williams leaves, he will be taking whatever political capital that the party has with him. Williams had a habit of using his ministers as human shields. Unfortunately for the PC's, that's going to hurt them now that he's gone. The table thumping PC caucus are in for a rough ride. It's about time that they earned their keep.

  • David W
    November 26, 2010 - 07:43

    1. I agree with you on Beth Marshall. In fact I think the Tories would be smart to encourage to be their leader as I think the general public would be behind her. 2. It is good to see all three parties being led by women. 3. I agree, Jones doesn't have the whole package to win and should/will step aside if a prominent person now shows interest in becoming Liberal leader. 4. Of the limited talent pool in cabinet, I don't think Burke has a chance, King, O'Brien and Skinner are not leaders, and Kennedy would need to quickly soften his image. But I think Wiseman and Marshall are smart enough, just that Wiseman unfairly took too much of the blame during the Cameron inquiry. 5. Just wondering what you mean when you say you don't know enough about the terms to comment on Muskrat Falls but two sentences earlier you state Muskrat Falls is dead? 6. Finally saying Danny should have stayed on to recruit some fresh blood doesn't make much sense given the fact that the fixed election schedule does not apply if a premier steps down. An election has to be called within a year.

  • Jake
    November 25, 2010 - 19:40

    Tell me again what this has to do with the media?

  • Tim
    November 25, 2010 - 18:59

    Although this entry is about the impact of Williams' style on the PC party, I want to focus on the other side for a second. If Williams' leadership style has driven away prospective talent from his own party, then what is keeping the same away from the Liberals in droves? If certain people believe so deeply that the current Government's policies are in error, they why aren't they stepping out en masse and offering their roles as potential Agents of Change? btw saying the Muskrat Falls deal is believed to be "dead in water" loses a bit of credibility when it is stated right after that you haven't seen the terms of the document. It will be interesting to see how it does play out, that is for sure.