Who could have predicted such a mess?
Just a few short months after Danny Williams resigned, Premier Dunderdale is up to her neck in political quicksand.
And the more she struggles, the deeper she sinks.
One problem would be expected. Two would be a challenge. But this? It’s a trifecta of trouble, a perfect storm of controversy that could sink Premier Dunderdale, come the next election. All three were either caused by Dunderdale, or exacerbated by the way she is handling them.
These three issues have been well-covered by media. However, I have not seen any discussion about how they will work, in concert, to affect the popularity of Premier Dunderdale and her government, when we go to the polls in October.
Let’s jump right in, beginning with:
Siding With Stephen Harper
Supporting Stephen Harper was a gross miscalculation – and a major credibility hit – for the premier.
Who can forget the ABC campaign? And that’s the problem – no one can drop it as easily as Premier Dunderdale and her government have, by throwing their full support behind Stephen Harper. And for what? Stephen Harper has agreed to give us a loan guarantee – in other words, co-sign our loan on the Lower Churchill – as long as the project meets certain criteria. To paraphrase Danny Williams, the holes in those criteria are so big, you could drive a Mack truck through them.
The biggest joke? This promise, even if fulfilled, will not cost Harper a single penny. In 2008, the broken promise was supposedly worth billions to us, in lost equalization. Now, Harper pays nothing, but is granted full forgiveness and a political endorsement from Premier Dunderdale.
It seems to make sense to the provincial Tories, but the public is not buying it. People were persuaded by the aggressive ABC campaign, backed by irrefutable evidence, that Harper is a “liar” and a “fraud”.
They know that nothing has changed. Less than three years later, Harper comes to town and makes another promise – one that costs him no money but still has strings attached. Rather than celebrate this guarantee, the public have been flooding open line shows and online message boards with criticism of what Dunderdale is doing. These are – or were – the grass roots supporters of the PC Party. Now, they are confused about Dunderdale’s flip-flop, and angry that she would side with the enemy.
This phenomenon is also evident in the election campaigns currently being waged by CPC candidates in this province, who are encountering a persistent heartburn from ABC and a lingering contempt for Stephen Harper. Their battle is an uphill one.
Since backing Harper, Dunderdale has cottoned to her mistake, claiming that she is asking for promises from the other parties as well. However, it is clear where her allegiances lie.
While it’s significant, there is more at play here than the ABC campaign. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador are starkly aware that the Conservative Party of Canada is not the PC Party of old. It is the Reform/Alliance, a party we’d be wise to regard with skepticism and distrust. Some people confuse “CPC” with “PC”, and this is what the Harper Conservatives are counting on. But most people in this province aren’t fooled.
Bottom line: the mistrust for Stephen Harper runs deep in this province. If Premier Dunderdale thinks she can change people’s minds on ABC overnight, she has dramatically underestimated her political influence. People are not joining her on the Harper bandwagon. To the contrary, they are now looking askance at Dunderdale herself, and thinking twice about supporting her in the next election.
The Muskrat Falls Deal
Mark my words on this: the Muskrat Falls term sheet is dead in the water.
Premier Dunderdale and her government have been talking it up, making it sound like it’s “all systems go.”
But remember, this is just a term sheet. The final deal won’t be inked until November of this year. And we’re going to the polls before that, in October – which means 43 Tory MHAs have to explain to constituents why their electricity bill is going to double (if the project stays on budget, which we know is highly unlikely).
I am not the only person asking questions. Last week, John Collins, formerly a finance minister in the Peckford Government, opposed the Muskrat Falls deal. In Saturday’s Telegram, Ed Hearn, a former director with Newfoundland Hydro, criticized it, as did business consultant Ed Power. Oh, and columnists Russell Wangersky and Randy Simms gave it thumbs down. Since then, Richard Cashin has also come out against the deal.
You can feel the temperature rising on this, and it’s going to get hotter as the election approaches.
At some point, I will offer my own reasons for rejecting this terrible deal, though they align with what others have been saying. In the meantime, suffice to say that more and more of the populace will reject Muskrat Falls, as they begin asking questions of their own.
The Liberals have already made it an issue, and you can be sure they will ramp up the pressure, as the election approaches. Incumbent MHAs are going to feel the heat in their districts – serious heat – and will be bringing their concerns to Dunderdale, who will be forced to either disown Muskrat Falls, or park it until she can come up with something that actually benefits, rather than shafts, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Either way, Muskrat Falls is threatening to bring down the premier. It can only diminish, not enhance, her popularity.
The Split With Danny
Regular readers know I was not a big fan of Danny Williams. However, I was in the minority. Williams was – and continues to be – enormously popular in this province.
Which is why the rift that has developed, between Williams and the PC party, is so incomprehensible.
Williams ruled his party with an iron fist. It really was the “Williams Government.” There was no room for strong-willed, opinionated people. As a result, we are left with a caucus of coattail clingers; a choir of bobbleheads. Those who think Williams’s popularity can be bestowed upon Dunderdale and her caucus, like the pass of a baton, are wrong. People are willing to give Dunderdale a chance, but will watch closely to see what she does next (and, as noted above, buddying up to Harper has already cost her some equity).
Dunderdale had an opportunity at the recent PC party convention to mend the rift with Williams, simply by showing the farewell video he had prepared. This would have given Williams his last goodbye, and allowed both sides a bit of public closure.
But, no, the video was struck from the program, and shown at a closed session the next morning. The official reason was timing, but the video was only 100 seconds long. I have a feeling the party was unhappy with Williams’s decision to go public with his snit, and decided to shut him out. And Williams can only be pissed about that.
Of course, the party has every right to disown Williams. There is a new regime in place. It may be that Dunderdale is in the right, and Williams is being petulant and bitter. However, Williams is loved and revered by the people of this province. In terms of shaping public opinion, he has more influence than the entire Cabinet and caucus. If the rift continues, unhealed, the situation could spiral into a crisis for the Dunderdale government.
Imagine the impact if Williams goes public with complaints about Dunderdale’s cozy relationship with Stephen Harper. What if he speaks out, denouncing Harper as the same liar and fraud he was in 2008? What if he aggressively attacks Dunderdale for aligning herself with Harper? For bungling the Muskrat Falls deal? All these scenarios are within the realm of possibility.
The three pressure systems outlined above could combine to form a perfect storm. If Dunderdale doesn’t make some major course changes, her government could easily founder on the rocks of the next election.