Two different TV news stories on the same subject, but with different messages.
That’s what happened yesterday, when media questioned former Premier Daniel Williams, on why he wouldn’t be attending the tribute dinner being held in his honour. Media were at the airport for a federal funding announcement, Williams was there to catch a flight, so reporters from CBC and NTV asked him the same question: Why wasn’t he going to the PC Party tribute?
The interviews were one-on-one, not a scrum, and the answers Williams gave to one were markedly different from the other.
Here is what Williams told NTV, when asked why he wasn’t attending the dinner:
“It’s not a good time, basically. The timing is not right. There will be a tribute at some point down the road. I’ve asked the party for an alternate date or dates that they can suggest… because it is important to me that I do a proper farewell to all the people in the party who supported me and my government, my ministers and caucus members over the years. So, you know, there will be a tribute dinner and it will be at a later date, as soon as the party decides what it is…”
Sounds straightforward. A scheduling conflict. However, it doesn’t align with what he told CBC, just a few minutes earlier. And it does not follow the story that aired the night before (Tuesday), on Here & Now. Here is what Williams said yesterday, to CBC’s Glenn Deir:
“I’ve said before, I have no comment on that, and I really still have no comment on it. It’s not something I’m interested in commenting on. I’m sort of out of public life now and I’m on the way out now for a brief holiday, so I’d prefer not to have any comment on it.”
“You do see how awkward it looks, though, do you?” Deir asked.
“Well, there will be a tribute and it will be at another date.”
“Someone suggested that there has been some sort of falling out, between yourself and the Dunderdale administration,” Deir replied.
“I’m not interested in getting into that. Ask the premier.”
Williams knows how to talk to media. If there was no rift between Williams and the current premier, he most assuredly would have said so. It’s a fundamental rule of media interviews: when presented with a notion that is wrong, you shut it down immediately with a strong denial.
And if there was some truth to it, one might have expected the premier to deny anyway, in the interests of party unity. Backroom squabbles are, after all, best left in the back room – especially in an election year.
However, by saying he is “not interested in getting into that,” Williams is openly acknowledging something. He is aware that “no comment” is evasive, and will be perceived as such. And his flippant re-direct to “Ask the premier” is surprisingly saucy.
So what’s really going on? As noted, CBC Here & Now carried a story about this the night before. It was a stand-up with David Cochrane, and here is a transcript of what he said:
“When I tried to contact Danny Williams yesterday for an explanation I got a very simple ‘no comment’ in reply, but in speaking to a significant number of Tory sources, it appears there is evidence of friction in the relationship between Williams and the PC Party right now, and it all starts with that controversial appointment of Elizabeth Matthews to the Offshore Petroleum Board. This became a real flash point in provincial politics and the controversy eventually forced Matthews to walk way from the job. Well, sources tell me that Williams is annoyed that the party, the caucus and the Cabinet didn’t do more to publicly support Matthews throughout that controversy, and that, in his view, not enough MHAs or Cabinet ministers expressed public support by doing things such as phoning open line shows to back up Matthews. Now, late yesterday, I also heard from some other Williams loyalists that there may be a growing issue between Williams and the current Dunderdale administration, and in the view of people close to Williams, the new premier’s office has been too quick and too eager to cut ties with the former premier and distance themselves from Danny Williams and some of his key supporters. Now, most recently, they point to yesterday’s throne speech. This was a high profile, invitation-only affair. Danny Williams wasn’t there. That’s because Danny Williams wasn’t invited. Now, party insiders tell me they think all of this will eventually blow over. But right now, it’s the chief reason why Danny Williams will not be attending a tribute dinner in his honour, on the very weekend when Kathy Dunderdale is officially sworn in as the party leader.”
I had a brief email exchange with Cochrane about this yesterday, in which he stressed the accuracy of his information. “I’m right,” he wrote. “Dead right.” And I have no doubt of that.
And why should we care? Why is this worthy of a media blog item? Because it is a media story that will bear close monitoring, with a provincial general election looming.
If this sore point can be healed, and the rift closed, it will be a non-issue. However, they’d better get moving on that – the election is just seven months away.
If the division keeps growing and becomes an abyss, this could do serious harm to the PC Party. For the last seven years, they’ve been describing themselves as “Williams Government.” And it’s no secret that the majority of MHAs are considered by many as “coattail clingers”, swept in on the popularity of Williams.
What will become of them, if Williams abandons the party? Some terribly unremarkable MHAs will be left to fend for themselves. Imagine, a campaign where Williams doesn’t show up on the hustings to sprinkle pixie dust on the local candidate (as he did in the Humber West by-election).
Then there is Muskrat Falls. Tough, unrelenting questions will be asked about this deal, and, when the truth sinks in – that power rates are going to double, and possibly triple – the public will start agitating. If MHAs feel the heat from constituents and polls show flagging support, the deal will be in trouble. Without Williams’s vocal support, MHAs will cave to public pressure and abandon the deal, like rats from a sinking ship.
And there’s the possibility that Williams will go public, and openly criticize the party. This would be fatal to the party’s interests, as the saying goes. It’s an unlikely, though not impossible, scenario.
After all, Williams already acknowledges something is up, by saying “I’m not interested in getting into that.”
Can you imagine him saying something like, “Oh, that? Yeah, they took their eye off the ball, and that’s too bad. But, you know, I did what I could and left the party in strong shape. But they insisted on cutting all ties, and, you know, I think they lost their way.”
Yes, a long shot. But stranger things have happened.