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What to make of the meteoric crash of the PCs?

Years from now, pundits and authors will still be dissecting this bizarre time in our political history.

How did the Progressive Conservative (PC) government plummet from its heady days under Danny Williams to its current low point in the polls?

The crash was meteoric and, in the grand sweep of time, occurred virtually overnight. Williams was the most popular premier in the country before stepping down in 2010, handing the reins of power to Kathy Dunderdale. 

To her credit, Dunderdale won her own majority in 2011 with 37 seats and 56 percent of the popular vote, the first woman to be elected premier in this province.

But it started to go downhill from there, beginning with Bill 29, which was designed to choke the flow of information from government. That was the widely-held view of journalists – who took government to task repeatedly for Bill 29 – and the public seemed to agree. 

There were other factors at play, of course, minor skirmishes that on their own would cause barely a flesh wound but cumulatively were sapping the lifeblood right out of the PCs. The more government struggled, the deeper it kept sinking.

Dunderdale’s decision to stand on-stage with Stephen Harper during the federal election campaign didn’t seem to hurt at the time – she went on to win her own election just months later – but that photo opportunity was burned into the public consciousness and raised repeatedly on talk radio whenever the Harper Conservatives, who remain hugely unpopular in this province, made headlines. (The right course: endorse Harper in writing, if she felt that was necessary, but avoid the on-stage photo-op.)

One of Dunderdale’s biggest mistakes, in my view, was her refusal in May 2012 to embrace the grandmother of the late Burton Winters. A meeting had been scheduled but, when the premier learned that the family was bringing along an expert in search & rescue, she cancelled. Big mistake. To the public, the premier seemed afraid of tough questions and came across as cold and heartless. (The right course: meet with the family, let her officials answer technical questions, but put her concern for the bereaved above all else.) 

The March 2013 budget was another torpedo in the already leaky Tory boat. Government was correct in its attempt to rein in public spending but the decision to cut 1200 jobs and valuable services was clearly made in haste, resulting in public outcry and a number of humiliating climbdowns. It really was the death of a thousand cuts. (The right course: make cuts based on intelligent program review, and share that reasoning with the public.)

In the midst of that post-budget controversy, in an apparent attempt to ‘change the channel,’ Darin King stood in the House and accused Gerry Rogers of supporting a Facebook page that contained comments advocating assassination of the premier. That stunt backfired big-time, revealing King and the Speaker of the House as the most Facebook-illiterate people in the province. And then the premier got sucked into it when it was revealed that her Twitter account was following an X-rated site. It was silliness, all of it, but it seriously damaged government’s credibility. (The right course: don’t light the fuse on a bomb of unknown incendiaries unless you’re prepared for it to explode in your face.)

Finally, who can forget DarkNL, that period of extended power instability, when the premier “came down” from the eighth floor and insisted that this was not a crisis? The public, mired in all manner of personal crises, would have none of it while the premier stuck fast to what she said. This whole episode caused serious damage, at a time when the premier desperately needed a good news story. Alas, it was completely unnecessary – she brought it all down on herself. (The right course: don’t tell people they aren’t in crisis when they are bound to disagree. Just don’t.)

There were other gaffes, each having a cumulative effect, but Bill 29 seems to be the issue that sunk the ship. (The right course: only a full repeal could have saved the day, but they needed to do it sooner rather than later. And now is way too late.)

The rest of the caucus were caught napping after Dunderdale retired. They deluded themselves into believing that the party decline was her fault, and now everything was going to come up roses.

For example, Nick McGrath, minister of pavement, lashed out at media for all of Dunderdale’s problems. In a January 30 2014 Telegram interview, he said that media ignores all the good things government is doing and focuses only on “negative” stories. He was in a state of denial, as public discontent was focused on the entire party – not just Dunderdale.

Nobody was really surprised when Dunderdale finally stepped down in January of this year after Paul Lane, her prized attack pooch, suddenly turned around and bit his master.

As much as I disagreed with much of what she did, I felt bad for Dunderdale when she announced her resignation. Whenever someone decides to step down from public life – a fishbowl existence with considerable personal sacrifice – I think we should thank them for their work and let them move on with a bit of dignity. Instead, a lot of commentators piled it on. I wasn’t one of them.

Then came the PC leadership race, where things went from mildly weird to totally wacky.

Right from the start there was something off about it, with a steady trickle of high profile Tories pulling out of the race. The brightest stars – the most likeable of the bunch with the least amount of political baggage – were Paul Davis and Charlene Johnson. Yet, despite their leadership- and election-winning potential, both were among the first to withdraw. Darin King, Keith Hutchings and the rest were wise to pull out when they did, though their running would have made it interesting. A few, such as Steve Kent and Shawn Skinner, seemed very interested but held back, obviously waiting for that last-minute decision from Frank Coleman.

In the meantime, first out of the gate was Bill Barry. He said something dumb about the caucus he wanted to lead, was slapped down hard by Danny Williams and was pretty much out of the race at that point.

A young fellow from the west coast announced he was running but wasn’t taken seriously by anyone due to his lack of political experience, summed up best by the VOCM commentator who asked, “Is this guy related to Kurtis Coombs?”

And there was Wayne Bennett, formerly of the defunct NL First Party, who shot himself in the foot immediately by backing NDP candidate Sheilagh O’Leary in the Virginia Waters by-election, because PC candidate Danny Breen was backing Frank Coleman. Bennett went on to claim that his Twitter and Gmail accounts had been hacked by his opponents, who he called “terrorists,” and made some offensive and racist slurs against Muslim women and children. The PC Party was right to disqualify him from the race.

Bill Barry soon pulled out of the race, announcing that “the fix was in” for Coleman, and that was the end of the race. Other Tories made unhappy noises and tut-tutted him for turning the race into a coronation but clearly Barry did the right thing – he didn’t stand a chance and wasn’t willing to play charades.

So what exactly was “the fix”? Many suggested that Danny Williams was pulling the strings; that Coleman was Danny’s boy.

As people who know me are aware, I’m not one for conspiracy theories. And without a smoking gun, who can say for sure? However, based on the facts that we can see, I would say the odds are 10 to one that Williams had a major influence on this outcome.

Look how fast Williams smacked Barry down when he announced his candidacy. First, Williams criticized Barry for saying something rude about the Tory caucus – which is laughable, given how often Williams said rude things about other people.

This doesn’t prove anything but certainly doesn’t contradict the oft-repeated theory, that Williams wanted direct access to - and even some control over - the premier’s office. (Williams did complain in 2011 that the party was distancing itself from him.)

And then, Williams accused Barry of planning to privatize Nalcor, as well as our health and education systems, based on a letter Barry wrote to the PC caucus. I have read that letter, and I don’t see that. It is actually quite articulate and somewhat bold, challenging the Tory caucus to open its mind and embrace some new ideas. Sounds like a PC election slogan to me. Williams was absolutely wrong about that letter. He spouted the kind of inaccuracies and nonsense you would throw at the opposition, not at a credible candidate in your party’s own leadership. But don’t take my word for it – read the full text of the letter for yourself by going here and scrolling down.

Seriously. Barry was proposing nothing so outrageous that it couldn’t have been debated on the convention floor. Since when did Williams become the arbiter of debate within the party? The nerve of him to shut that down, to declare certain issues off limits! And this is the same Danny Williams who mused in 2010 about selling off (yes, privatizing) large chunks of Nalcor and snuck off to Florida for private health care.

My question is, why did Williams interfere so aggressively in a leadership contest that had just two credible candidates? Why did he slap Barry down for policy positions that should have been aired as part of the ongoing leadership debate? (And has anyone asked how Williams he feels about Coleman, now that he won’t rule out privatizing the liquor corporation?)

Going back to that PC leadership race: wasn’t it odd how Kent and Wiseman didn’t declare themselves out of the race until hours before the deadline, when it was finally clear that Frank Coleman was in? After all, they both – for that matter, everyone in the PC caucus – has a higher public profile and is more media-savvy than Coleman.

Are we really to believe that some potential candidates willingly pulled back from the race, sacrificing their own leadership ambitions for the unknown Frank Coleman? Or was some faction within the party working to avoid an open race, as apparently happened before Dunderdale was appointed premier?

Are we really to believe that they withdrew because of Coleman’s earth-shattering charisma or incredible business acumen?

Or were they holding back because someone with god-like status in the party – someone who is no longer an elected politician – told them to back off? No one can say for sure. We can only deal in probabilities based on known circumstances, and you know where I stand on that.

So what about this Frank Coleman fellow? Does he have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning his seat – let alone the premiership – in the next election?

I will grapple with these and other questions in part 3.

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