Veteran politician Tom Osborne shocked the province’s political community Thursday afternoon when he abruptly announced he’s leaving the PC party to sit as an independent in the House of Assembly.
Osborne told reporters and supporters that he never backed Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s leadership, and he felt he’d been muzzled and forced to support policies which he could not endorse.
For the moment, he’ll go his own way, but Osborne isn’t ruling out throwing his lot in with either the Liberals or the NDP.
He said in recent months, he’s been approached by many constituents encouraging him to leave the PC fold.
“For the next number of months, we will decide together whether you feel I’m best able to represent you as an independent, as an NDP or as a Liberal or maybe even go back to the party I’ve come from,” he told supporters Thursday afternoon. “But things are going to have to change in that party before I go back.”
The reaction was swift. Almost immediately, PC MHAs and cabinet ministers were questioning his motives, and closing the ranks, saying the party is stronger without Osborne in the fold.
“Tom supported Premier Dunderdale 10 months ago, he ran on our party platform and the vision that the premier laid out for this province,” Fisheries Minister Darin King said. “I think you need to ask: Why? And why now? Tom has been around the party a long time. Is this really about a policy issue or does this have something to do with the fact that Tom at one point was in cabinet in a previous government?”
Osborne was the PC Party’s longest-serving MHA, and under former premier Danny Williams he was in cabinet, taking portfolios including Justice, Environment and Health. He was demoted to deputy speaker, and eventually stripped of that role.
He comes from a family with strong Tory roots; multiple family members have been MHAs in the PC Party including his mother, who retired just ahead of last fall’s general election.
Osborne said he did not support Dunderdale right from when Williams resigned in 2010, and it was no secret within the PC caucus.
“I didn’t feel she had the strength to keep our party at 70-plus per cent in the polls,” he said. “You know, I know that Danny Williams is a tough act to follow, but I didn’t feel she had the ability to do what needed to be done, and to have a strong following in the province.”
The last straw seems to have been Bill 29, the controversial ammendment to the province’s access to information legislation which broadly increased government secrecy and limited the public’s ability to access government records.
Despite voting for the legislation at the end of a four-day filibuster in May, Osborne said he wasn’t comfortable with it.
“Bill 29 is when I realized I just voted for something I just couldn’t support, didn’t support, and did it because of fear of repercussion to constituents,” he said. “I knew then that it was time for a change, it was just getting my head around the fact that I needed to make that change.”
Osborne also talked about increased control over MHAs from the premier’s office, and more political control within government. At one time MHAs were able to take constituents’ issues directly to the bureaucrats who could get things done. Recently they’ve been forced to go through government ministers’ political staff instead.
“For a politician who’s represented the people who I represent for over 16 years, I was always able to pick up the phone and phone the bureaucrat, and believe me, I know most of the bureaucrats who are able to get things done,” he said. “I know the bureaucrats who are able to get results for my constituents.”
Within political circles, Osborne is legendary as an MHA who works for his constituents. At his announcement at the St. Patrick’s Parish Hall Thursday, he a crowd of around 50 people turned out who interrupted him with applause multiple times during his announcement, and gave him a standing ovation when he finished.
Both the Liberals and the NDP were prepared to welcome him in with open arms.
“We share many of the same political beliefs and there’s no question, we’re interested in talking to Tom and we’d love to have him as a member of our caucus,” Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said.
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, similarly said she’s ready to talk to him.
“He gave some very concrete reasons for doing so, and it seems that he has made a decision based on his conscience,” she said. “From that perspective, I’m sure it took a lot of courage for him to do what he has done.”