It was a weekend of celebration for the PC party as members gathered in Gander for their annual general meeting, but also a weekend to regroup after a tough year.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale delivered a fiery, partisan speech in her keynote address Friday night, deriding her political opposition and saying the PC party should take full credit for the province’s economic prosperity.
“We should never cease to remind ourselves that our strength as a province is not an accident. It did not just happen,” She told party members. “It is not some other party’s legacy. We made this happen.”
The next morning, though, speaking without notes in an intimate, matter-of-fact speech to the membership, she struck a very different tone.
Dunderdale acknowledged that it’s been a tough year, politically, and warned the next year or two will be a “bit of a roller coaster ride” as the party moves towards its 10th year in government and tries to make the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project a reality.
Muskrat Falls loomed large over the weekend, to the point that in a moment of levity Saturday evening, when the band played “Muskrat Love” by Captain and Tennille, Dunderdale and Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy shared a dance on the convention floor.
But in her stark assessment of things Saturday morning, Dunderdale explicitly acknowledged the government is overspending, and she made it clear that the next 10 years of Tory government won’t be the same as what they’ve just come through.
“Let me tell you, we’re spending too much money,” she said. “Do you know that in Newfoundland and Labrador, we spend almost $5,000 per person more than any other province in Canada in providing services to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador?”
Dunderdale also said the government is too dependent on offshore oil revenues, and because people are paying low taxes, they don’t put the same value on government services.
“When people don’t pay a whole lot of income tax and so on, then sometimes you can get a little benign about your advice to government. Yes, give ’em a higher raise. Yes, build that. Yes do that. Yes, yes, yes,” she said. “Startling fact for you now: we are all so dependent on oil and revenue from our offshore and our mining and our fishery and so on to keep this place going. Nineteen per cent of the people in this province pay 70 per cent of the taxes.”
Dunderdale defended many of the government’s spending as infrastructure investments that drive the economy, but said the government needs to “ratchet back” on spending, and focus more on paying down debt.
The weekend’s convention comes after a tough year for the PC government, which has been slipping in the polls.
Dunderdale has said the government needs to do a better job of communicating what it’s doing, and why it’s doing it.
A thread running through the weekend from other PCs was that the public doesn’t know the real Kathy Dunderdale.
In separate speeches Friday night, both Finance Minister Tom Marshall and Health Minister Susan Sullivan said Dunderdale’s personality and strengths don’t come across in brief sound bites and newspaper quotes.
“This is a woman who cares passionately about the province, first of all, who has a love for this province that I think is an uncommon vision, and I think it’s unrivaled,” Sullivan told The Telegram. “We worked very closely together from the very early days of my involvement in politics … so I have gotten that opportunity to know her.
“As for the whole of the province getting to know her in those same ways, it’s very difficult, and so I think that’s something that happens over a period of time.”
Rank-and-file party members were eager to show their support for the premier, though. In her Friday night keynote, they interrupted her speech 32 times with applause breaks, and gave her three standing ovations.
“The speech by Kathy Dunderdale was out of this world,” longtime party member Don Dooley said. “Everything about the convention this year was enthusiasm and upbeat and I was certainly glad I came out after being 60 years a member of the PC association.”
Dunderdale said that getting back to work after the weekend’s festivities, members should remember that the PC party is based on vision and principles.
“The day will come when they kick our ass out the door and so they should, so they should,” she told party members. “But when you’re going out the door and you know that you did the right thing for the right reasons, then you can go out with your head held high, and this party will always hold its head high.”