Penashue reflects on his time as Labrador’s Conservative MP
Peter Penashue says he has fond memories of being Labrador’s MP, albeit for only a little more than two years. He says he is adjusting to his new life — a much quieter and less hectic one than when he represented Labrador at the cabinet table in Ottawa. — Labradorian file photo
Three months after his byelection defeat to Liberal Yvonne Jones, former Conservative cabinet minister and Labrador MP Peter Penashue says he doesn’t know what his next career move will be, or whether he will venture into politics again.
“(I’m) trying to ease my way into my new life,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Labradorian. “As you can imagine, two years (as MP) is a very hectic, very busy life as a federal cabinet minister. So, I’m just taking some time off to enjoy the summer.”
Penashue said his life has changed since the byelection.
“I’ve … been through what I would refer to as information withdrawal,” he chuckled.
“Because when you’re an MP and cabinet minister, you certainly have a lot of access to information. … Then, suddenly, the next day it stops. You don’t have access to that information anymore. Certainly that’s been a big change.”
Penashue said he respects the decision of Labradorians to elect Jones in the May byelection, but he’s of the opinion that Labrador is now at a strategic disadvantage with a Liberal MP in Ottawa.
“There’s no question I was disappointed with the decision of Labradorians,” said Penashue.
“I think we had it really good. We were able to deal with issues that concerned Labradorians and accomplished a lot in the last two years and certainly put us on the map.”
“Nowadays, you don’t hear about Labrador and I’m certain it’s not discussed around the (cabinet) table as it once was,” Penashue continued. “So there’s a lot of downside to the decision that we made as Labradorians. But that’s the decision that we made and we have to accept that.”
Penashue’s election win in 2011 was dramatic and it was considered a major upset over incumbent Todd Russell, who was then the Liberal MP for Labrador. The difference between victory and defeat was fewer than 100 votes. And it was the first time in decades that Labradorians didn’t elect a Liberal in a federal election.
Penashue said he believes he accomplished a lot for Labradorians in his two years, such as obtaining federal funding for the Trans-Labrador Highway, getting broadband Internet into the region, encouraging the growth of Labrador’s mining industry and making sure that 5 Wing Goose Bay was discussed at the cabinet table.
In March 2013, Penashue resigned as Labrador MP amid controversy over some of the donations his campaign received in 2011. Months before, it had come to light that more than $45,000 of campaign contributions were illegal or ineligible.
Penashue said he has taken responsibility for the ineligible donations.
Penashue entered the 2011 election two weeks late. He still insists that his campaign manager and official agent, Reg Bowers, made honest mistakes during a rushed campaign, which led to the ineligible donations.
“We’re trying to raise money. We’re trying to run a campaign at the same time. ... Things were just absolutely hectic,” said Penashue.
“One thing led to another. My view is: I don’t think Reg had any intention for things to unfold the way they did. It’s just too many things going on at the same time.”
Questions surrounding the donations followed Penashue constantly between Labrador and Ottawa. Penashue believes some Liberal MPs went too far in attacking him in the House of Commons.
“It was frustrating. … There’s no question about that. It was frustrating how I was treated in the House of Commons. I have very strong views of some of the Liberal MPs, such as Gerry (Byrne) and Scott Andrews — they absolutely went too far. … They became bullies.”
Penashue said he feels worse for what Bowers went through than for himself.
“It was an absolute mess. I felt really bad for Reg. I felt bad for his family. … It was the worst outcome for an event like this.”
After Penashue resigned and a byelection was called, there was never any doubt that the campaign would be an uphill battle.
Everywhere he went Penashue was reminded of why a new election had to be called in the first place.
Penashue also admitted he made mistakes during his campaign. One was revealing his method for obtaining provincial funding for the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Penashue claimed in a campaign speech that he withheld funding for a project on the island until the provincial government agreed to fund half of an $80-million Trans-Labrador Highway project.
An investigation by The Labradorian revealed that repairs to the Sir Robert Bond Bridge was the project Penashue delayed.
He anticipated being patted on the back by Labradorians for making a bold move to ensure the Trans-Labrador Highway got funding for upgrades and was surprised by how many Labradorians resented his tactics.
“There’s obviously issues that, probably, I mishandled,” he said.
“One thing that I noticed from going door to door is that my comments about holding a project in Newfoundland to advance the position of Labrador (were not well-received). I was surprised with how many people didn’t appreciate that.”
The primary thrust of Pen-ashue’s campaign was reminding Labradorians of what he accomplished in his two years in office. When voting day came on May 13, 49 per cent of Labradorians voted for Yvonne Jones, ending his short career as Labrador MP and federal cabinet minister.
Penashue said he’s still loyal to the party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He thinks despite optimism of a Liberal resurgence under Justin Trudeau, Canadians will still see a Conservative majority in 2015.
“I still believe in the Conservative party and I’m still a member of the Conservative party,” said Penashue.
Penashue said he will always be grateful to Harper for giving him a chance, despite some mistakes he made as a young man.
“I have a very colourful past. … I drank quite a bit and I’ve also been in jail,” he said candidly.
“I walked in thinking I was going to be a regular MP. … I was pleasantly shocked to find out I was going to be appointed to the cabinet.”
Despite the controversy during his two years in Ottawa, Penashue has fond memories of being Labrador’s MP.
“The experience has been wonderful. There’s no question about that. It’s equally been very difficult of the way politics is played. I certainly felt that I made a contribution to the national discussions (and) I certainly did represent my constituents.”