In the spring of 2008, a testy Danny Williams was answering questions during a media scrum at Confederation Building.
Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman speaks to reporters in the lobby of Confederation Building Wednesday following a meeting with the PC party caucus. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram
CBC reporter David Cochrane was prodding the then premier about a controversial fundraising dinner being held in honour of outgoing St. John’s mayor Andy Wells. Williams suddenly snapped.
“You’re cut off,” he said, looking at Cochrane. When the scrum ended, the premier turned to his communications director and pointed at Cochrane. “Make sure he gets cut off.”
In the annals of politicians threatening journalists, it was not the worst thing that could have happened.
In fact, lashing out at the media is nothing new. When things aren’t going well, it’s always tempting to shoot the messenger.
A new premier will be taking the reins in a few weeks, and he obviously has no experience handling the slings and arrows of public scrutiny. When the questions get tough, he doesn’t know how to handle it, other than to follow his mentor’s lead.
It’s no secret Frank Coleman and Danny Williams are kindred spirits. Williams endorsed Coleman for the PC leadership, and the premier-in-waiting has even started to talk like Williams.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Coleman told The Telegram Monday in attacking CBC coverage of the controversial Humber Valley Paving contract.
If the interview were an episode of “Scooby Doo,” someone could have pulled an elaborate disguise off his head, revealing the former premier underneath.
Coleman says the CBC offered a “gross misinterpretation” of his connection to Humber Valley Paving and the fact that the company was excused from finishing a project in Labrador without penalty.
Transportation Minister Nick McGrath waived a pair of bonds valued at about $19 million when the contract was cancelled in May. Coleman has maintained he was free and clear of the company by this point.
But in an interview with CBC aired over the weekend, he said he was a personal guarantor for the bonds put up as insurance. That means he would have been on the hook had they not been released.
Coleman told CBC that cancelling the contract was not the only course of action available. “The company would have had other options, either to complete the work or to sell the work,” he said.
But that isn’t what happened. And that’s the whole point.
Talking to The Telegram’s James McLeod, Coleman countered that the government wasn’t in a position to call the bond. He said the job was about two-thirds completed and the company could have finished the job.
“There was maybe six or seven million dollars left on the job. We could have finished the job. It was not in default,” he told The Telegram.
But CBC hadn’t suggested the entire amount was at stake. In its online story, the broadcaster said Coleman and other shareholders “could have ended up paying up to $20 million.”
Meanwhile, Nick McGrath is receiving no end of heat on the matter, both in the House of Assembly and out.
Surety Association Canada issued a release Monday saying the minister’s understanding of how contract bonds work is muddy at best.
Essentially, bonds are there to reimburse the government and/or subcontractors if the company defaults on its obligations. The Association says McGrath is wrong to suggest calling in the bonds would have caused extra delays and expense. In fact, it would have been the other way around.
There is one important mitigating factor in all this. Humber Valley’s work was impeded by forest fires along the route. So there was at least one reason to perhaps give them a break.
But people really need to start getting their stories straight. And when they don’t, bashing the media is hardly going to solve anything.
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael had perhaps the best take on the matter. Let the auditor general sort it all out in his review, she said.
Let’s hope she’s right.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
Twitter: @pjackson_NL. Follow his daily forum Naked Lunch, 12:30 weekdays