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.