Kathy Dunderdale and Lorraine Michael are not bosom buddies, and, indeed, are not members of the same political sorority, but you’d think the NDP leader might still have been inclined in recent weeks, if only in empathy, to whisper a bit of advice to the beleaguered premier: “Listen here, Kath, if you know what’s good for ya, do not, under any circumstances, take a vacation, especially one that takes you beyond Port aux Basques.
“That’s when they’ll come after you,” Michael could have said, speaking from experience, the nasty back wounds she suffered while on her own respite from politics still painfully evident.
Because come after Dunderdale they did, her caucus having waited for their leader to take leave of the filthy snowbanks of St. John’s for the beaches of Florida before deciding that while the cat was away, the nasty mice could play, a game of “Bring Down the Leader,” as it turned out.
Now, certainly, what transpired the other day may appear to many to have been a scummy way of handling a deep disenchantment with the boss, especially when the call for Dunderdale’s head on a platter reached her ears around the same time Paul Lane, the poster boy for legislative partisanship, switched political allegiance in the same profound, discriminating, thoughtful way a bull in Montana might choose its next partner.
Much more than Lane
But this wasn’t about Paul Lane. Dunderdale didn’t decide to start collecting a pension simply because a politician with elastic scruples decided to jump aboard the ship he felt had the best chance of transporting him to the government wharf in the next election. (A crackie for one caucus one week, a crackie for another caucus the next week).
As has been noted by numerous reporters this week, Dunderdale called it quits because she was being told there were just too many members of her caucus who knew they had the chance of a snowball in hell of winning the next election if she remained in charge, and that she had to go.
So, it was a nasty piece of business, this launch of a revolt while Dunderdale was having a well-deserved rest from the public whipping she was taking at home. Only the very naive would suggest, of course, that politics is anything but scummy. (Latest piece of evidence: the before-mentioned Mr. Lane).
But the way in which this rebellion took place shouldn’t provoke any sort of bleeding-heart response for Dunderdale; the fact is she authored her own misfortune, and she has no one to blame for her ignominious exit from politics but herself.
And this was not some noble, principled departure; this was not, as she tried to suggest, the appropriate time for retirement, that she had done her part for Newfoundland, that it was her time to “step back” and ride into the Newfoundland sunset.
Dunderdale was dumped, booted out, unceremoniously kicked from Confederation Building, by her colleagues, who saw the writing on the wall, were looking out for their own arses and knew they were going to sink into oblivion with Dunderdale at the helm.
Too much has been made of the fact that Dunderdale’s departure comes only a couple of years after she led the Tories to a resounding election victory, that, somehow, her fall from grace was a shocking turn of events.
Fact is, Dunderdale had little or nothing to do with that election result. It was still the residue from the Danny Williams years, the decade of the messiah, that brought the PCs back to power.
And there’s no doubt she had big shoes to fill. But that excuse for poll numbers indicating she was the most unpopular premier in Canada was growing awfully tiresome. Dunderdale had plenty of time to carve out her own identity, but she failed. Miserably.
Obviously, her failure to even maintain a grade of mere mediocrity was the result of basic, fundamental mistakes of policy: those foolishly concocted, politically stupid, democratically archaic access to information constraints; the decision to hop (metaphorically, of course) into the sack with Stephen Harper, enemy No. 1 in Newfoundland at the time; the reluctance to engage the federal government in battle over the reduction in search and rescue capability; the inability to properly deal with critics of Muskrat Falls, and, finally, her snail-like response to Blackout 2014. (A sharp politician, or a politician with sharp advisers, would have found a way to exploit that event; the PR gods couldn’t have created a better scenario. Instead, she and her crowd blew the opportunity).
But, aside from her mistakes of governance, I think Dunderdale was destined from the outset to go down for the count. It’s one of those near-intangible matters that can make or break a politician, and it has to do with style, not substance. Whatever it is that makes it easy for some political leaders to connect to voters, a built-in talent that cannot be invented or created, Dunderdale did not have.
Williams had it in buckets, of course, though there were a few, like me, who found the unconditional fawning over Danny Boy to be rather unhealthy and even nauseating at times.
Call it charisma, the gift of gab, pure charm, street smarts; just about every successful premier in Newfoundland has had one or more of those talents. Dunderdale had none.
She came across as unsure of herself, nervous, uptight, insecure; it sometimes translated into
a super-sensitive, overly defensive posture that came across as arrogance.
Not debilitating, necessarily, if you happen to be a cabinet minister working with a strong leader, but disastrous traits, the kind that kill careers, if you’re the head of the government.
People can say it’s shallow; well, yes it is. But it’s the nature of politics, especially in this technological age. It’s the nature of the beast.
Now there’s no doubt Dunderdale will certainly be remembered for having been the first female premier of Newfoundland.
And that was, to be sure, a matter of historical accomplishment.
But, it must have been a profound disappointment, as well, for all those women in Newfoundland who’ve fought for decades for gender equality and a much more pronounced role for women in politics, to watch as one of their own finally reached the top of the mountain, only to come tumbling down, in embarrassing fashion, a colossal flop.
Dunderdale, by all accounts, is a decent person, with a big heart and a laudable social conscience.
But that and a buck or so will get you an extra large, double-double at Tim’s.
It doesn’t make you a successful politician.
In any case, Dunderdale has provided a cautionary tale for prospective leaders who hear that the night of the long knives is upon them: save those Aeroplan points for another time.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.