In the absence of a real PC leadership race, with the Tory succession already settled and Frank Coleman’s ascent to the premier’s office already assured, lately there’s been no story to tell about the premier-to-be unless he does something noteworthy.
Now the sole candidate in what was already a dull PC leadership contest, the cameras are no longer a given when Coleman steps out in public, and as such, it’s only been his brushes with controversy that have landed him media hits in recent weeks.
Frank Coleman speaks to reporters at Confederation Building. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram
Two controversies have garnered Coleman headlines since he became the last man jostling for the PC crown.
First, it was abortion (hardly any politician’s dream topic), stemming from Coleman’s personal anti-abortion views and whether they would influence or alter the province’s current abortion laws.
Second, it was his former company’s cancelled contract to pave the Trans-Labrador Highway, a decision apparently verbally negotiated between the minister of transportation and Coleman’s son, which resulted in no penalty for Humber Valley Paving despite the work being incomplete, and which occurred only days after the premier in waiting left the company.
Transportation Minister Nick McGrath and Coleman maintain nothing untoward happened between the government and Humber Valley Paving, but the opposition has been quick to point to the surprising lack of any paper trail, especially given the multimillion-dollar scale of the deal. Coleman’s suspiciously timed exit from the plot line has also been a prominent point of contention between the government and the opposition benches.
In both controversies, Coleman’s responses have been predictably muted, given his outsider-looking-in position with regards to debate in the House of Assembly and his continuing, frustratingly low profile. Coleman’s uninspiring public reactions to both issues have marked the continuation of a disappointing trend.
Over the past week, the PCs have struggled to fend off attacks from the opposition parties on Coleman’s involvement, if any, in the cancelled contract and the government’s handling of its relations with Humber Valley Paving. Both the Liberals and NDP have savoured the controversy during the past few days, capitalizing on Coleman’s inability to defend himself during question period and the circumstances surrounding the nixed deal.
Thursday, following mounting pressures from opposition members and increasing media scrutiny, the premier called on the auditor general to investigate Humber Valley Paving’s dealings with the province.
For all we know, the AG report may very well come up dry, clearing the government of wrongdoing and wiping clean allegations of conflicts of interest and preferential treatment.
But the problem for the Tories is that auditor general’s reports usually take months, leaving ample time for allegations against Coleman — who will almost surely become premier before the AG releases his findings — to filter into the public domain and shape voters’ understanding of a man they’re still having trouble figuring out.
Thanks to the opposition parties, who, to their credit, have milked the paving contract controversy for all it’s worth, accusations against Coleman and the government will remain in the public domain for many weeks.
Even if the AG clears the government and Coleman, by then the damage may have already been done. The perception of wrongdoing (or at the very least of the government having something to hide) will have been well established.
That said, at this point, with an abortion controversy and a paving contract investigation as the only headlines Coleman has garnered in the past weeks, the problem for the PCs will soon be more about perception than anything.
Going into July’s leadership convention, unless Coleman can make something positive happen — and soon — those will be the stories dogging the new premier as he enters the House of Assembly and gears up for the next provincial election.
And that doesn’t bode will for a party looking to rebuild its embattled image.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.