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Frank Coleman may be replaced before next election

Frank Coleman is dead in the water, his hopes of being elected premier smashed to smithereens on the shoals of terrible communication, tactical errors and a pretty significant scandal.


A political unknown, Coleman was supposed to be a messiah for the PC Party. Instead, he has become their biggest liability.


It began with the botched up leadership “race,” which Bill Barry claims was fixed and John Crosbie says was derailed by meddling from Danny Williams. I covered a lot of this in Party Animals-2, but a journalist friend wrote soon after it was posted to make another observation on the race:


“(Danny) Williams’s iron fist during his time in the big chair eliminated any real contenders for the job once he bolted. Any time someone in the party stood on principle or dared suggest an alternative to his own vision, he gave them the push. Beth Marshall is just the most glaring example of how he failed the party and the province by isolating someone apparently smart and capable. By the time he was done there wasn’t a member of caucus fit or even with the confidence to stand in his place.”


That does account for the lack of horsepower that we see in the current PC caucus (and it’s a point I made in this blog at least once before). Nonetheless, I side with those who think that Williams had a major influence on the race itself, as outlined in my last post.


That bit of comedy created an awkward situation for Frank Coleman, who became heir-apparent to the premier’s office sooner than anyone expected and without the benefit of a convention in which he and other contenders would put their ideals, beliefs and aspirations on the line.


Instead, we learn that a total stranger is about to be acclaimed premier. The PC Party had made its choice by default, through a process about as inscrutable as Pope selection. And this is where Coleman made his first mistake. Really, he needed to come out of his den immediately with an all-out ‘get to know me’ campaign, conducting public speaking engagements and media interviews with whoever asked. At this point, we needed information overload on Coleman.


But we didn’t get that. Instead, we had nothing. Coleman, apparently a wealthy and respected guy, was also a shy hermit. He did virtually no media at first. In fact, he blamed the media for how badly he was looking. You can count on two hands the speeches, media scrums and interviews he’s done even now, months later. He looks to me like a reluctant premier – one who seems to have been pushed rather than leaping on his own.


Nature and the Newfoundland and Labrador public abhor a vacuum, so the media rushed to fill the void with whatever information it could find, beginning with the abortion rally.


I don’t need to rehash the whole awkward story. Coleman admitted that he and his family had participated in anti-abortion rallies outside the hospital in Corner Brook but assured us he would not impose his views on others.


This places Coleman in a lose-lose situation. He has lost the support of pro-choice advocates across the province but especially in St. John’s, where the party is already in trouble. And Coleman could lose the support of many pro-life advocates if, as premier, he doesn’t act on his own convictions.


Coleman couldn’t seem to win for losing. The abortion story was still making headlines when news broke of the Humber Valley Paving (HPV) contract. And that’s when things really went pear-shaped.


I dislike it when columnists recite the entire background of the story, the stuff you already know, before finally getting to the point in their last two paragraphs. If you’d like a refresher, click here for a good summary.


In a nutshell, Coleman sold his interest in HVP just days before announcing his intention to seek the premier’s job. And scant days after that, the provincial government let HVP out of a contract that could have seen government calling in a $19 million bond. At first, Coleman said he had no further interest in the company; later he admitted to CBC that he did stand to benefit from the release of the bond. Premier Tom Marshall has asked auditor general Terry Paddon to investigate the whole murky affair, which has a strong whiff of scandal about it – one that could be as damaging for the party as it is to Coleman.


What makes all this so questionable is the fact that, according to pavement minister Nick McGrath, there is no paper trail to clearly indicate what happened here. It was done at his sole discretion.


I have a real problem with that.


The Public Tender Act was brought into law by former premier Frank Moores, to end Joey Smallwood’s greasy practice of awarding major contracts to partisan cling-ons. The act set out criteria that were intended to level the playing field and bring clarity to the tendering process.


And now we are to believe that Nick McGrath was able to circumscribe the various stipulations in the act and, with the swipe of a pen, release a contractor from a $19 million bond? And to do all that without written legal opinion or correspondence with the deputy minister, the premier, and so on? That would be contemptuous of the purpose and intent of the Public Tender Act.


If the minister can indeed do that at his sole discretion then why do we have a Public Tender Act at all? Why don’t we just scrap it and go back to handing out contracts exclusively to political cronies? Have we come nowhere since the 1960s?


On May 23, according to a CBC story, staff in the premier’s office was “gutted ahead of Coleman’s arrival,” with the departure of chief of staff Ross Reid to be replaced by Coleman’s man, and other personnel changes. With his people now running the show, Coleman is essentially in charge of the premier’s office.


Am I the only person who has a really big problem with that?


It’s bad enough that an unelected, unknown person can take charge of our province, due to party protocols (a problem that needs to be fixed) but even worse when that person takes power before they have been sworn in.


Right now, Frank Coleman is not the premier. He has not been formally declared leader – that won’t happen until July 6 – and it’s still not clear when he will be officially sworn in as premier.


In the meantime and until that swearing in, Coleman has absolutely no executive power in the premier’s office. Yet, he is already in control of the office. It was a major mistake for the PC Party to allow this to happen and an equally bad mistake for Coleman to want it. It leaves them wide open to questions about who is responsible for what. Now that he’s pulling strings on the Eighth Floor, has Coleman moved all his assets to a blind trust? I don’t know about you, but I seriously don’t like these blurred lines of power.


For example, if Coleman can purge the premier’s office from a distance, what’s to stop him from calling a minister and ordering him to waive a $19 million bond?


Coleman’s first battle will be winning a seat in the riding being vacated by a retiring Tom Marshall. I do talk with some people from the west coast, and many of them roll their eyes at the mess Coleman has made. When I ask if they will vote for him, all I get is a shrug.


That’s far from scientific, but I will say this: Coleman has a fight on his hands in Humber East, where the voters are in a position to bring down a government. That is, if they reject Coleman, the PCs will be thrown into complete disarray, a headless chicken cut off at the knees. If I was a voter in Humber East that’s how I’d vote, just for the spectacle of it (and knowing that the party's days are numbered anyhow).


If Humber East elects Coleman, they will continue to have a premier representing their district – which is always nice – but just for a year or so, until Coleman faces an even bigger challenge: the provincial general election. Barring divine intervention, things don’t look good for the PCs next year. Frankly, I don’t think Coleman will win the next election. It will be a miracle if he can pull it off against a likeable, more assured and confident Dwight Ball, who has the wrecking ball of political change swinging in his favour.


Appointing Coleman was a long shot for the PCs, intended to revive flagging party fortunes and return them to power. Instead, it has backfired – as things so often do with these guys – and Coleman has now joined the long list of problems plaguing the Tories.


Let’s assume Coleman wins the by-election. He has to call an election within a year. In the interim, we will be humoured by at least three CRA polls. If those polls reflect poorly on Coleman, watch for grumbling in caucus, more floor crossings and a repeat of what happened to Dunderdale.


That would leave the party leaderless and rudderless, scant months before an election. At that point anything could happen – and this is where we venture beyond the border of “what if” and into the realm of wild speculation – but I would not rule out the return of Danny Williams to provincial politics.


This is a man who loves the public eye, a virtual megaphone with feet who is still – according to some sources – enormously popular with the province’s populace. He also has a big ego, hates to lose and is quick to insert himself into a political fight, such as the Virginia Waters by-election. What’s more, he gets relatively no media attention anymore… and I think Williams misses that.


Seriously. If Coleman met an unexpected, Game of Thrones-like demise, who else could step into the breach so quickly, with the unanimous approval of the party? Danny is the only person who could pull it off.


Would he save the day and win the election? I don’t think so. But I’m probably isolated in that opinion. I’m one of the people who think that Williams’s intervention in Virginia Waters hurt the cause, rather than helped it. Williams claimed that he brought up their numbers in that by-election, but did you see the polling information to support that? Nope. I’ll eat my hat (with gluten-free, peppercorn gravy) if the party can produce such a poll.


Because they won’t. Or maybe, they can’t.


Tory days in Newfoundland and Labrador are waning like spring floodwaters in August. I predict that the party will lose badly in the next election, no matter what the extent of Danny Williams’s involvement.


If he cares about his party, Williams will retire, move on and allow younger, smarter, less verbally-abusive people to pick up the flag and move the province forward.


In the short term though, I think the Liberals are going to have their day in the sunshine. This is, after all, the life cycle of NL politics.

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Recent comments

  • Pierre Neary
    June 12, 2014 - 21:00

    That about sums things up.

  • Doug L
    June 11, 2014 - 12:53

    Well written commentary Geoff! The facts have been out there for viewing but your Blog has summed it up nicely and may have helped pull the wool from some voter's eyes!