“Sometimes there is a greater lack of communication in facile talking than in silence.”
— Faith Baldwin (1893-1978), American author
Premier Kathy Dunderdale was about halfway through her 40-minute speech to the St. John’s Board of Trade on Monday when she suddenly deviated from her written script.
In a moment oddly reminiscent of Peter Penashue’s “I will tell you a secret” revelation in April, the premier divulged that she had been pressured to make concessions on the fishery before Ottawa would finalize the promised loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls, but she adamantly refused.
“You know what I told him to do with the loan guarantee?” Dunderdale asked, the saucy answer to that question clearly implied.
The premier’s seemingly spontaneous confession in front of the business crowd was an obvious political strategy.
Like Penashue’s boast that he put Newfoundland projects on hold in order to extract provincial funds for Labrador projects, Dunderdale’s comments were meant to be divisive, putting distance between her own beleaguered government and the scandal-ridden Harper administration.
She’s morphed into the quintessential fighting Newfoundlander, ready to wage war with mean old Uncle Ottawa, consequences be damned.
It’s the very strategy Danny Williams often employed to great effect, despite Dunderdale’s suggestion in her speech that she’s chosen a more diplomatic approach.
“The easy thing to do would have been to walk away from the loan guarantee, in terms of political capital, and stand up for Newfoundland and Labrador and hammer my fist on the table, and that would have done me a lot of good and I’m smart enough politically to know that — I’ve been at this for awhile. But it wouldn’t have done the people of the province any good.”
Nor does it sound like smart politics. In fact, it would not have been easier to walk away. Imagine the icy reception the premier would’ve gotten in this province if she hadn’t been able to secure the loan guarantee — a guarantee she assured us repeatedly would mitigate the financial risks of the project to taxpayers.
Perhaps a better diplomatic and political strategy would have been to stand tough and refuse to make concessions — which she says she did — but then not brag about it afterwards. You can be an effective leader without sounding like you’re trying too hard to convince everyone that you are.
Now, I’m all for the release of information and it’s nice to know what goes on behind the scenes, but so far we’ve only had a one-sided account.
Dunderdale is taking a gamble by publicly berating the feds and, as the Canadian Press reported the day after the speech, her comments set Ottawa abuzz. A source inside the federal Conservative party and a political science prof both said her words could come back to bite her, calling the political tactic “a risky proposition.”
It makes you wonder just whose advice Dunderdale was heeding or whether she took that plunge on her own.
It’s easy to play to the friendly hometown crowd, and to whip up support for the underdog, but it doesn’t sound very stateswoman-like to gloat about having “smacked the phone up” in the ear of the PM’s chief of staff.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the province should have kowtowed to Ottawa. The loan guarantee was a promise made and the premier made them keep it. Bravo.
But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to negotiate successfully with the federal government and then boast about what a hero you were, no matter how badly you need the brownie points. The premier is clearly trying to bolster her image, but at what cost to the rest of us?
The only thing consistent about the premier’s political strategy since she took office has been its lack of consistency.
In January 2012, Dunderdale closed the provincial government’s office in Ottawa, saying the relationship with the federal government was so cordial, there was no need to have anyone there on the ground. This was despite the fact that only six months earlier she had vowed to keep it open, saying it “serves a great purpose.”
She also stressed the delicate nature of the federal/provincial relationship.
“The thing is, at this point in time, we’re being heard,” she told The Telegram in June 2011. “They’re listening to what we’re saying, whether or not they’re going to agree with us. But while they’re listening to me, I have to make the most of that opportunity.”
So, what happens if the federal government doesn’t like what it’s hearing and stops listening? We have no Conservative MP from this province in Parliament, which the premier herself admitted would strain the relationship.
That’s why the political equivalent of kissing-and-telling may not have been a good move. Loose lips sink ships, and all that. We’ll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, the premier acknowledged she’s not telling us everything.
“Some day I look forward to being able to tell the whole story,” she said coyly, during her speech.
Well go ahead, Madam Premier. If you’re feeling in an expansive mood, we’re all ears.
I just hope your latest stratagem doesn’t mean that now it’s only the home crowd who’s willing to listen.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at