A crisis of confidence

Pam Frampton
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“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
— Abraham Lincoln

When the power outage struck last weekend, I did not experience a personal crisis.

It was no fun for my husband and I to try to shovel a massive, rock-hard wall of snow in the driveway and then retreat inside for a break only to be met with frigid temperatures in the house.

It is difficult to keep a 15-1/2-year-old dog with dementia snug under a blanket instead of wandering. Even after the power came back on, we had to refuse an invitation for an evening out because we couldn’t leave him alone with the possibility that he could have been plunged into darkness at any time.

So, yes, there were chills, inconveniences and worries.

But a crisis? Not in our case.

That’s not to say there wasn’t one in the province, however. When a widespread power outage means people are killed, injured or left homeless by fires or are poisoned by carbon monoxide; when health-care options are restricted and food supplies are limited; when there are those with no means of light, heat, water, cooking, transportation or a functioning landline; when schools are closed and warming centres are necessary, gee, call me alarmist, but that’s a pretty bad situation.

Whether you prefer the term “emergency,” “crisis” or “critical situation” doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that someone in a leadership role acknowledges the true extent of the problem, what actually caused it and all that’s being done to address it.

And that’s where Premier Kathy Dunderdale dropped the ball.

Taking charge

As a citizen of this province, there was nothing I hoped for more when all this mess began but that the premier would step forward, take charge, inform us of the actual situation and offer whatever practical reassurance was possible.

Kind of like then health minister Jerome Kennedy did during the H1N1 outbreak a few years ago. Now that was leadership in

a crisis.

I actually thought that while there was nothing positive about the hardship that many people found themselves in, the situation at least offered Dunderdale an opportunity. It was her chance to gain back some of her administration’s lost momentum, to seize the moment and to inspire people with her confidence and warmth.

Instead, all we got out of the gate was the same old, same old.

On Jan. 4 — arguably the worst day of weather we’ve had in the past 12 months — with hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the cold, what we heard from our premier was a deafening silence.

Her office staff took to Twitter with messages such as, “Please stay safe and warm and check on friends, family and neighbours,” “Follow Minister @stephenkent @NLHydro and @NFPower for updates” and “It is important that we all do what we can — if you are among those who have electricity, please conserve where you can.”

But they weren’t messages from the premier herself. Based on her Twitter feed, the last time she had tweeted in person was to offer condolences at the death of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 6. She would not tweet again until Jan. 6, noting then, “On behalf of the people of NL I thank the employees of Newfoundland Power for their very hard work. I am immensely grateful.—PKD”

Too little, too late.

Late address

But back to Jan. 4. The premier was nowhere to be seen or heard that day, and it wasn’t until the public started clamouring for her to make an appearance that she addressed the media on Jan. 5, accompanied by utility officials and cabinet ministers — and defiantly proclaimed there was no crisis.

The best reassurance she could give was the promise of Muskrat Falls, years down the road.

“After 2017 hopefully we’ll never find (ourselves) in this kind of circumstance again because of the redundancy that will be built into the system,” she said.

Days later, after being pummelled in the court of public opinion for her administration’s response to the situation, she still wasn’t getting the point.

“Would I have done things differently? Absolutely not,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

By Thursday she had done a complete about-face and was calling for an independent review of the province’s electricity system — which is welcome news, but does that mean she acknowledges there is a crisis?

From the very first days of her administration, the premier has consistently squandered opportunities to prove herself a compassionate leader and an effective communicator.

This was pretty basic, really; when many of the people you’re charged with governing have their lives (and, in some cases, livelihoods) turned upside down and their safety and security is in jeopardy, you don’t tell them there’s no crisis.

Too often, it takes a public outcry — such as the one that followed the gutting of the Justice Department — before the premier realizes the error of her ways and changes course.

“I want people of this province to have the confidence in our system that I do,” she said in a news release issued Thursday.

Well, at least she’s finally acknowledging that some of us don’t have confidence in the electrical system.

And it will be fascinating to discover why in this “have” province we cannot reliably expect — in the depths of winter, with the chill wind howling outside — that when we turn up our thermostats, the heat will come on.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.

Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Newfoundland Power, Justice Department

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Recent comments

  • Fred Penner
    January 12, 2014 - 12:26

    The Culture of Defeat is alive and well it seems. Many Newfoundlanders appear to believe that their lot in life will not change unless the government changes their lives for them. According to Thoreau: "that government is best which governs least"..... with the exception of Newfoundland anyway. We have apparently become a rather dependent and, in turn, pathetic group of people. Unable to pursue our own interests and even to think for ourselves without some higher powers permission. Maybe its the result of generations of poverty and maybe the culture runs a bit deeper than we would like to admit.

  • Cyril Rogers
    January 12, 2014 - 10:47

    Nothing changes with regard to the leadership , or lack thereof, of this Premier. She has consistently dropped the ball in handling every important event since her ascension to the leader's office. The problem, though, is that she continues to try and do damage control over the issue of Muskrat Falls. That one project dominates every aspect of her Premiership, despite the mountain of evidence supporting its abandonment as a viable project. Therefore, it is all about trying to put a positive spin on any electrical power issue as away to bolster her stubborn and arrogant refusal to acknowledge what we know to be a fatally flawed development. Her desperation to see it through has made her and NALCOR dangerous to the financial wellbeing of the province….for reasons that are known only to her and her government. We will rue the day Danny Williams announced this ill-advised scheme that the Premier so gleefully touts….and she will ride off into the sunset with the only repercussion being a shattered reputation. Is she taking "one for the Gipper?"

    • Dolf
      January 12, 2014 - 12:55

      Brian Mulrooney is the most hated ex Prime Minister in Canada. The arrogant Joey Smallwood to the contrary, Madame Dunderdale already wears the mantle as the most reviled Premier in Newfoundland if not all Canada.

  • CS
    January 12, 2014 - 09:39

    Premier Dunderdale made sure she had the heads of both NL Hydro and NL Power with her at most of her public appearances... she also had photo opportunities when she visited the two companies and their employees and thanked them for all their work... There was no such warmth and gratitude given to the people of this province or those forced to go to warming centres to get the basic need of warm food and a warm shelter... She has shown her priority to appease and support is not with the "customers" of this province (her words) but with the 2 electric companies

  • Winston Adams
    January 12, 2014 - 08:11

    Pam, PR spokeperson for Nalcor said during the crisis, that when it gets cold and windy people tend to use more electricity. And you mention wnatint to turn up the thermostat when such conditions. For Nalcor, this is spin. "People" don't tend to use more electricity, what happens is this: Our leaky houses ( most with about 6 air changes per hour, which means our warm air is all pushed out and replaced by frigid outside air every 10 minutes) cools the house and the thermostat automatically triggers the heaters to stay on longer or come on at more capacity, typically doubling the electricity consumption under those conditions. This is NOT "PEOPLE TENDING TO USE MORE ELECTRICITY", IT IS A RESULT OF A POOR "CONSERVATION AND EFFICIENCY PLAN." A proper plan would be promoting air sealing, a low cost effective measure. More insulation in basements etc. More efficient heatings systems. This is the responsibility of : Nfld Hydro, Nfld Power, our consumer advocate Tom Johnson, the PUB, and government policy. It's an engineered solution that negates the tendency to bump up the peak demand under such weather conditions. I suggest you review the shameful performance of our C and E Plan and help awareness for blame where it belongs: failed planning, policy and engineering solutions, not on the tendency of people to use more electricity. The PR spin by Nalcor serves to deflect blame on the people (home owners) rather than the people really responsible.

  • Dolf
    January 11, 2014 - 19:52

    (1). So much for all that euphoria proudly proclaiming the three females at the top of their games. Dunderdale and Michael have imploded and only Lana Payne has survived. (2).Thanks for producing a Weekend Edition under trying cirtcumstances. Here's one who appreciated it while his wife was enjoying the Saturday horse operas on TV.

  • Corporate Psycho
    January 11, 2014 - 17:24

    She still doesn't get it.

  • Graham Bursey
    January 11, 2014 - 16:40

    I think the media should ask for maintenance schedules and what work if any has been done since the Muskrat Falls announcement by Danny Williams and how many millions has Blunderdale cut from Holyrood and redirected to Muskrat. My guess is they were playing the odds and running on a bare minimum and last week caught up to them. This government knows nothing about...OPENESS....HONESTY...TRANSPARENCY and lately they are masters of manipulation. Isnt that right Minister Kent?

    • saelcove
      January 12, 2014 - 11:59

      It all go back to little man dan

    • saelcove
      January 12, 2014 - 12:00

      It all go back to little man dan giving the orders