“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.
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton