It’s an interesting play: faced with the departure of a longtime caucus colleague, Premier Kathy Dunderdale and her me-too caucus have decided to drag former Tory MHA Tom Osborne through the mud. He’s bored. He’s lazy. He’s disengaged.
It’s been a bit of a full-court press — and while the governing Tories may feel justified in the piling-on, they might stop and consider things a little more carefully. Why?
Because Osborne’s got more than a little cred and plenty of ammunition.
More on that in a minute. But first, you’ve got to stop and look at where Osborne fit with the Tories before his Thursday announcement.
He was, until a blowup with Danny Williams, a high-profile cabinet minister running one of the largest departments in government as minister of health. He was moved out of the cabinet and, to his credit (at least as far as the party is concerned), didn’t talk about what led to the departure. There are clear indications that the row was over the way the Tory establishment wanted to handle the optics of the breast cancer testing scandal — perhaps even who they wanted to take the political fall. But Osborne wasn’t talking and hasn’t pointed fingers. Often considered a possibility for reappointment — and with a broader skill set than several who sit in cabinet now — Osborne didn’t just sit on his hands.
Moving in another direction, he build a modest reputation as deputy speaker — and in that role, was the logical replacement when House Speaker Roger Fitzgerald decided to retire.
He even put his name forward for the Speaker’s job, only to withdraw his name from consideration at the last minute. He hasn’t said whether he jumped or was pushed.
Word was that the Tories wanted a soft, full-salary landing for Ross Wiseman, who was coming out of cabinet. Even though Osborne had more qualifications for the job, the establishment had spoken. (To add to the irony, there was nowhere near the same amount of rancour and character-assassination when Wiseman himself crossed the floor, going from the Liberals to the Tories in 2001).
Osborne didn’t speak publicly about that, either. The good Tory soldier kept his own counsel and kept his complaints in-house.
There are particular concerns, of course, in Osborne’s case: he was uncomfortable with Dunderdale’s leadership, and she knew it — not exactly a recipe for upward mobility. Not only that, Osborne’s seat could rightly be looked at as a spot the NDP could target for potential growth. In the last provincial election, Osborne won his seat by just under 1,000 votes (2,967 for Osborne, 1,994 for the NDP’s Keith Dunne and a measly 163 for the Liberal candidate). Compare that to the 2007 election, when Osborne took 79 per cent of the vote with 3,887 votes, compared to the NDP’s 571, and you can see a real change. As well as his problems with Dunderdale, there may be some good old-fashioned political pragmatism involved.
But there are clear problems with the way Kathy Dunderdale and her caucus have decided to turn the defection into a full-court press against Osborne. To them, it may seem like their regular happy sport of vigorously kicking helpless puppies tied up in a sack. That is, after all, the tried-and-true method they have used against anyone who sits in opposition — or anyone who speaks out.
They might think more carefully about that decision.
Right now, Osborne is taking the high road — it’s not hard to imagine that he will continue to do that, especially if you’ve ever stopped to talk to the soft-spoken politician as he stood in a grocery store, buying cartloads of groceries for a constituency barbecue with his own money.
But the Tories have to keep in mind this is no ordinary puppy. The longest-serving Tory MHA, Osborne knows where things are buried.
If he chooses to join his former comrades down in the gutter, it could get very messy indeed. This puppy’s got teeth.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.