It may sound like Nero’s fiddling away, but it’s too early to say just how much of Rome is burning.
This week, Kathy Dunderdale’s government got its loudest wake-up call yet: continuing a popularity slide that has run for more than a year, the party — and its leader — are now polling lower than all of their competition.
They are officially in last place.
Does it mean that the government will fall in the next election, set for 2015 unless Dunderdale resigns first? No.
It especially doesn’t mean that when the opposition parties still have so many missing pieces, critical pieces that they’d need to actually form a government.
The NDP may be doing well in the polls and may be performing well in opposition, but they still lack critical skills. Who is likely to come forward and be able to fill critical portfolios like those of the minister of justice, minister of natural resources and minister of finance?
The Liberals don’t even have a leader yet. Dwight Ball, as interim leader, is probably pretty pleased with where the numbers are, but his is still a party in flux, trundling along with what feels like the slowest leadership race ever invented — the party’s leadership won’t end until after mid-November. (Candidates have to pay a $20,000 nomination fee and the rules say you have to make your intention to run known by July 5. Is Turtle leading? Hard to know. Snail’s a tough competitor — if Snail’s running. We’ll find out. Eventually.)
On the same front, the NDP could face the potential of pretty-imminent leadership change: Lorraine Michael has not indicated how long she intends to stay in politics and, at 70, is likely considering her options.
Leadership aside, with their respective poll numbers strengthening, the NDP and the Liberals are likely reaching out to prospective “star” candidates (it’s remarkable how people can come out of the woodwork when the heavy lifting in opposition is already done). But that’s all in the future. Right now, it’s hard to know what you’re going to have for dinner when the menu’s pretty much blank.
So the Tories are not without options, and not without chances.
They’d do well to start taking some advice, starting with realizing that they have to be able to take advice — and that ability is something that has been absent for the last five years or so.
Used to being top dog at the pet show, the Dunderdale government has continued the Williams model of insulting and bullying both the opposition and any critics who might pop up.
Someone asks a question of a cabinet minister in the House of Assembly?
The answer is something like “the member obviously does not have a lot of knowledge about education. It is obvious in his question. It is all part of the collective bargaining process and notification. I cannot say anything else other than that. He just does not know the system.”
Or “Mr. Speaker, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador takes its responsibilities very, very seriously. This is a very serious issue for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and there will be no rhetoric and spin on this side of the House and if there is none to be on the other side of the House, I recommend that the member stay in his seat.” (Actually, those are both real answers in the House.)
Someone complains about government policy in a letter to the editor?
A cabinet minister writes in to dismiss the concerns outright, without ever bothering to point out where any errors were.
What is clear is that some pretty significant changes have to be made, both in substance and style.
Can they be made?
The problem is that it’s a little like a hockey team that’s taken an early lead and then tried to hold onto the lead, playing defensively. If the other team catches up, it’s hard to break out of a defensive style and actually go back to trying to score.
Right now, they’re still playing defence.
The government has taken to complaining that no one understands or appreciates the good that they are doing — if that’s the case, they have no one but themselves to blame.
They have the tools, the cash that comes with government, the ability to garner the most ink and television and radio time.
So here are some suggestions. First, if there are senior staffers who are continuing to recommend that the premier and the government should stay this particular course, get rid of them.
Thank them for their service and their dedication, but show them the door — because if you don’t, you’re going with them.
Tell cabinet ministers to get
off their high horses: stop being unavailable for interviews and demanding that reporters file their questions by email. Refuse a telephone interview by saying “come on in and let’s talk about it instead.” Stop defending the indefensible. Drain any hint of condescension from your voice and your pen.
Make letters to the editor — and news releases — about politely clarifying issues rather than attacking whoever raised them. (Two supposedly “non-partisan” news releases that went out last week were headlined “Irresponsible and Misleading Statements Do Not Help New Ferolle” and “Minister Responds to Inaccuracies on CETA Negotiations.”)
Leash the Twitter attack dogs — if the junior members of your party can’t play nice, take away their toys.
Don’t take my word for it: the PC party has experienced campaigners who know just what’s happening, and chances are, they’re clamouring for just the same kind of change.
Can it be turned around? I don’t know.
One thing I do know: continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again won’t help.
For MHAs, we’re rolling into a summer of barbecues and constituency events.
For government members, a heaping serving of humility better be on the menu.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.