The outsider who derailed what was shaping up as a smooth coronation to replace former premier Danny Williams says “feudal” politics of intimidation in Newfoundland and Labrador must end.
Businessman Brad Cabana, 46, is appealing the Progressive Conservative party’s rejection of his bid to challenge Kathy Dunderdale for its leadership. Dunderdale became premier last month after Williams suddenly quit politics to resume his business career.
Cabana, a former small-town Saskatchewan mayor who has lived in Newfoundland for a year, is the sole challenger to Dunderdale’s ascension. And he said he won’t bend to strong-arm tactics.
“I find a lot of people here are scared to talk about politics,” he said from his home in Hickman’s Harbour.
“They’re frightened,” said the political blogger who was drawn to the province through ancestral ties and the way Williams fought for a fair share of offshore oil and hydroelectric profits.
“It’s like a feudal kind of political culture. And that’s one of my goals to break. It’s an outrage that people are afraid of politics here.”
Cabana’s appeal of his leadership snub is the latest twist in a bizarre political saga. His last-minute entry into the race has been the talk of provincial politics. It has also exposed divisions between Tories who say he’s a nuisance candidate and those who say stonewalling him sends a risky closed-party message.
A provincial election is slated for October.
Cabana is a former military captain who has accused a cabinet minister’s aide of coming to his house earlier this month and threatening him with character assassination if he pursued his long-shot campaign.
Environment Minister Ross Wiseman has confirmed his assistant, Chick Cholock, tried to dissuade Cabana from running. But he denied any threats were made or endorsed by party brass.
Cabana said he hopes “sober second thought” will prevail and that the party’s three-member rules committee will uphold his appeal and let him run after it hears his case today.
Otherwise, he said he’ll ask a court to consider whether the Tories unfairly interpreted vague membership rules to shut him out.
“They’re in for a fight if they want to fight.”
At issue is the credibility of the nomination signatures Cabana gathered as bona fide Progressive Conservative members. A three-person credentials committee disqualified him, saying he didn’t have the minimum support required of 50 recognized party members.
The provincial Tory constitution says all provincial residents “who support the principles and aims of the party are eligible to become members of the party.”
It further defines party members as individuals belonging to a district association, the provincial executive council or other affiliated group.
Cabana argues the mere support of party principles and aims should be enough to meet any membership test.
Former premier Tom Rideout is among Tories who agree that such an open interpretation applies to membership. He has publicly said Cabana should be allowed to run.
But Natural Resources Minister Shawn Skinner, who is also co-chair of the party’s convention committee, said leadership nominations aren’t open to people of all political stripes.
“It’s like a feudal kind of political culture. And that’s one of my goals to break. It’s an outrage that people are afraid of politics here.” - Brad Cabana
“In terms of voting for the party leader, we further define the qualification to ... allow people who are members of the party to vote for that person,” he said in an interview. “We feel there is a distinction there in that the leader of our party represents like-minded people.”
In other words, Cabana needed 50 signatures of people linked to a Tory district association or other wing.
“Mr. Cabana is welcome in our process,” Skinner said. “He just has to meet the same rules and regulations as everybody else.”
The party’s membership definition may be tweaked, he said. “There’s obviously some confusion with some people.”
The rules committee has three days to release its decision after today’s hearing.
Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, says the Tory constitution appears to be vague enough that blocking Cabana may not be the best move.
“This is kind of a first test for the premier almost by ricochet,” he said. “The fact that a challenger is being silenced is going to be something that doesn’t make the party look good. And it starts off her time in office with kind of an ink blot on the page.”
Cabana blames a small circle of senior Tories for thwarting his leadership bid. But he stressed that he does not believe Dunderdale is among that group.
Dunderdale has said she would welcome competition and will not tolerate threats or intimidation.
Cabana, a married father of two, was born a middle child among seven siblings in Winnipeg. His father worked as a hydro engineer, moving his family from Hudson Bay to Victoria before settling in Saskatoon where Cabana spent most of his childhood.
He graduated with a political science degree from the University of Saskatchewan and wound up living in tiny Elstow, Sask., where the population fluctuates around 90.
He said he decided to run for office over problems with the town’s water quality.
“I was worried about the children that were there. They were bathing in that water. It smelled like sewage.
“I said, ’Let’s fix this. I’ll run for mayor.’ ”
In the early 1990s, he also joined a national political campaign against the proposed Goods and Services Tax, rubbing shoulders with provincial and federal politicians.
Cabana was briefly a card-carrying Saskatchewan Liberal in his 20s, but since then has been active in Conservative politics provincially and federally, he said.
He and his wife Katie were building up their local painting and interior design business when Williams quit.
“No one was coming forward,” Cabana said of the lack of even one challenger to Dunderdale. “I just felt the province needed a very strong, fire-in-the-belly, but intelligent, reasoned leadership.”