The governing Progressive Conservatives have undergone an extreme makeover.
Tom Marshall’s Tories are a kinder, gentler group, perhaps finally humbled by plummeting poll numbers.
Marshall, Newfoundland and Labrador’s interim premier, is calmly trying to turn the page.
There is no doubt that his cabinet and caucus definitely got a memo. The attack dogs have been silenced.
The tone of government has changed in a significant way. No more angry tirades. No more hyper-partisanship. No more talking down to people. No more hard edges.
Listen to debate in the House of Assembly. It is more respectful, at least for now. The heckling from the front and backbenches has been muted.
This is a column that I almost didn’t write, not wanting to feed the sexist backlash against women leaders and, in particular, against former premier Kathy Dunderdale.
It’s no surprise that I disagreed with Dunderdale’s governing style and many of her policies.
But it is extremely depressing — and such a sad commentary — when you hear remarks that conclude that Ms. Dunderdale’s era will set back the cause for all women in political leadership. No one would think to make the same statement about a male politician. Who would dare say that a man’s leadership style would turn back the clock for all male politicians?
Recently, I had a conversation with a Newfoundland and Labrador author about this very issue. She recalled a similar comment being made to her by a family member who said he’d never vote for another woman for premier. She replied that she understood his conundrum as she hadn’t voted for a man since the days of Joey Smallwood.
Feminists have had a tough time dealing with Dunderdale’s premiership, wanting to be proud of the milestone, but at the same time searching for ways to be critical especially where criticism was warranted without feeding the gendered tone of the backlash against the province’s first female premier.
I heard it over and over again. She’s not up to the challenge. She doesn’t have what it takes. This quickly became equated with women aren’t up to the challenge. Women don’t have what it takes.
The sexist commentary about Dunderdale and her leadership has been insulting and unacceptable and has no place in today’s public discourse. The remarks, many
of them mean-spirited and nasty, remind us just how deeply ingrained sexism is in our society. We ought to be able to be critical of a government’s policies or a leader’s particular leadership style or lack of compelling leadership characteristics without resorting to gender bashing.
Dunderdale forgot the main tenet of good governance — something described by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Great leaders, he said, have one characteristic in common: the willingness to confront unequivocally the anxiety of their people in their time.
In other words, great leaders lead, but are also in touch with citizens. In today’s world, being able to communicate that empathy is also critical.
This is not a matter of gender. Many, many men are unable to accomplish this. Many of them make it far in politics despite their numerous flaws and lack of real leadership abilities.
Many men have failed the test of true leadership. Yet those failings are never viewed as a setback for their gender.
There is little doubt that the current PC government is not the same government that led a personal and vicious attack against Gerry Rogers, the NDP MHA for St. John’s Centre. This is not the same government that, from the outset lacked patience and compassion. This is not the same government that forgot how important it was to actually have relationships with people in the community — people other than those at the Board of Trade. This government is less defensive.
The tenor of leadership has changed and Tom Marshall can take a lot of credit for that. He has given the Tories new life, and perhaps a fighting chance. It’s not because of his gender. It’s because of who he is as a person.
Marshall, known for his fair-mindedness and pride in public service, is trying to lead a government concerned with governing, working hard at building and rebuilding relationships with civil society, and with repairing his government’s embattled image.
The big question is, will it be enough?
And will the new premier —
political neophyte Frank Coleman, i — be able to continue the hard climb back?
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director
for Unifor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns May 3.