Every circus needs a clown, and in the race for the provincial PC leadership, Wayne Bennett played the part with remarkable facility.
But the curtain has finally descended on the Howley town councillor. Following the provincial PC party’s decision to kick Bennett to the curb last Thursday — the result of alleged racist comments he made on Twitter — the spotlight is gone, and the 15 minutes are up.
Bennett had been a sideshow to the leadership race since the beginning of his campaign. In the battle for PC leader — and thus premier — no one expects anyone but Frank Coleman to emerge victorious at the leadership convention this July.
Bill Barry, Coleman’s only other challenger, not only publicly criticized the competence of current government members — assumedly the people he would share the House of Assembly with were his leadership bid to be successful — he also received Danny Williams’ kiss of death last month after the former premier categorically denied giving him his endorsement.
But if Barry is the distant second in the race for the PC leadership, Bennett is the also-ran of the also-rans, the candidate nobody ever expected to make a legitimate run for the party’s top job.
With Thursday’s announcement, Bennett’s (some would say) inevitable path towards self-destruction is complete. After all, his campaign, which included a thoroughly confusing endorsement of NDP candidate Sheilagh O’Leary in the upcoming Virginia Waters byelection in St. John’s, was a colossal face-plant from the outset.
But if there ever were to be an impact from Bennett’s run at the provincial PC leadership, now a footnote in Newfoundland and Labrador’s political history, it would be the tragic consequences of underestimating the power of the tweet.
Most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians first learned about Bennett through his incendiary, frankly bizarre Twitter activity, which became a fixture of his campaign strategy and his main means of communicating with the public.
Bennett announced early on that Twitter would be the foundation of his campaign. Unlike the other candidates in the race, he said at the beginning of his leadership bid, he would use Twitter as a place to create an open discourse on issues with the public — a noble, timely campaign strategy if there ever was one.
But for a candidate to make Twitter the crux of his campaign demands at the very least a good understanding of the medium and its challenges. Social media is undoubtedly a fantastic tool for instantly connecting with thousands of people, but it must be rigorously monitored and treated with an understanding of its reach, its profound influence and its limitations.
Tweeting is not the same as campaigning door to door, nor is it similar to calling in to talk radio or doing a TV interview.
It is an impersonal, context-free, heavily scrutinized medium, and the public, especially if deciding the merits of a politician, will be exceedingly harsh in their criticism of crude, unpolished, shabbily put together pictures and remarks.
We live in an era of communications personnel and PR spin, where the PMO produces Stephen Harper highlight reels verging on propaganda and where statements are meticulously revised and rehearsed to ensure the right message gets out and the right image shines through.
Is it misleading? Sometimes. But it is the reality we’ve become accustomed to and it is the reason pictures of Bennett working social media while barefoot and pyjama-clad on some resort in Cuba strike the wrong note with voters looking at a potential candidate for the province’s highest public office.
On social media, the audience is limitless and the influence momentous, but politicians’ ability to control the message and dictate the flow of content remains their own. Failure to do so by way of sloppy social media management turns people away from any sense of meaningful political dialogue.
Bennett’s tweet comparing youth “trolling” his account to Muslim women and children may have kicked him out of the race prematurely, but it was merely the blow that hastened the fall.
An amateurish, cringe-inducing social media presence had already sealed his fate.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton
University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.