It has been said, as it was again last week, that times of crisis define leaders.
The scrutiny during such occasions is intense. Some might say microscopic.
Action, tone, words. They all matter.
Communicating that you are a strong, empathetic leader who is fully in charge is critical. It’s critical because during times of crisis people need strong leadership. They crave it. Reassurance is needed.
Ask Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who certainly understood that the recent ice storm was one such moment for her. Ask the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, who took leadership and compassion to new heights during last spring’s major flooding in the city.
Therefore, as much as the great 2014 island-wide power failure and its aftermath was a crisis, it was also an opportunity — an opportunity for a leader with struggling popularity to turn around her political fortunes.
And in that regard, it was an opportunity missed.
Perhaps Premier Kathy Dunderdale is feeling it no longer matters for her, that no matter what she does or says, it will be met with hyper-criticism. Certainly there were moments in the past week or so when she seemed just unable to connect with the people of the province.
It is true that she has had a difficult time communicating her government’s decisions, some of which have been hugely unpopular. It is also true that her government has not been able to capitalize on the good news.
More often than not, the official tone from the government has been one of condescension. It is lecturing and defensive.
And despite the opinion of some, people had a legitimate beef this past week or so. In these times of so-called prosperity, expectations are that we should be able to keep the lights and the heat on in the middle of the winter.
Instead, elderly people were shuffled from their seniors’ complex in frigid temperatures and housed in a hotel; people relied on the goodness of neighbours. One man died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
What’s unclear is whether this will become the province’s new normal during high-demand months, also the coldest months of the year. Nalcor CEO Ed Martin says there is sufficient power to deal with the needs of the people of the province, despite growing demand as a result of an expanding provincial economy. But it appears that’s only if aging equipment is working well.
Mr. Martin has been calm and reassuring, but the fact remains that the confidence of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in our power system has been tested.
He told us that the power failure and rolling outages were the result of an unfortunate sequence of events: 1. Three broken generators which are not normally under repair this time of year because presumably maintenance work in the summer should prevent breakdowns, and yet it did not; 2. Extremely cold (colder than normal) temperatures; 3. A January snowstorm causing a fire at the Sunnyside terminal — a repeat of an incident a year ago at the same facility.
Stating facts is not always the same as giving reasons or explanations. How three pieces of important equipment (two gas turbines and one of three Holyrood generators) required repairs at the same time deserves detailed inquiry. Is there a problem with Hydro’s maintenance program?
Are we trying to get more years out of equipment than we should? It does speak to the reliability of our power system.
For days, the citizens of the province didn’t know from one minute to the next if they would have power.
For days, emergency workers toiled in extreme weather to get us back to normal. One was injured while doing so.
Schools and other public institutions were closed in order to conserve power. Non-elective surgeries were cancelled and rescheduled. Businesses were asked to limit their power use. We were all told (repeatedly) to “conserve, conserve, conserve” by NL Hydro, NF Power and government officials. We were told: we are all in this together. And yes we were.
Newfoundlanders did, for the most part, what we always do when faced with a crisis in this province. We helped each other. We checked on elderly neighbours. We shared gasoline and heaters.
Those with woodstoves opened their homes up to those without. Municipalities, many of them led by volunteers, did what good local government does — acted to make life a little easier for their residents.
The questions from everyone about the stability, security and reliability of the province’s power system were not the stuff of whiners, but fully warranted.
It is often said that leadership is about being able to rise to the occasion that the times present. In that regard, the people who rose to the occasion and who deserve our many thanks are: the hydro and power crews and utility staff (including their stellar communications people) who worked around the clock to ensure our safety; the many, many volunteers, municipal workers and officials and firefighters who never hesitated to get the job done; and the media.
They stepped up. Thank you for all your efforts.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for
Unifor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Twitter: Jan. 25.