I’ve waited a few weeks to write about this, just in case I decided to reconsider.
I was on vacation when it happened, my mind a thousand miles away from work, when I tripped over the fact that the Liberal Party had chosen Kevin Aylward to lead that party into the next provincial election. My mind was far from the job, more taken with what felt like the first sun I’d felt on my skin all summer and my eyes chattered over the front page of this newspaper without fully latching onto the words.
I spend a fair amount of time on provincial politics, and I was completely gobsmacked by the choice. In fact, when I saw the news first, I thought I had misread it. They wouldn’t — they couldn’t — they didn’t — they did? I know this is harsh and that it comes mere weeks from a provincial election, but I still have trouble understanding the choice.
I say this not because Aylward isn’t a capable politician — he certainly is that, and more. You don’t get to spend 18 years as a consistently elected provincial politician if you don’t have the tools, the skills and the smarts.
And in some ways, Aylward might be exactly what the party needs: an experienced political operator who can pick up the levers of the party quickly and call in old support for what looks an awful lot like a sacrificial election.
But the key word is “old” — by making the choice, the executive of the Liberal Party has taken one small step forward and one full decade backwards.
In some ways — and I’m dating myself here — it’s like having Eugene Whalen picked to run a post-Trudeau federal Liberal party.
Problem is, the Liberals seem to have forgotten — and maybe the public has, too — that Aylward comes with a load of baggage.
An entire baggage-car full, to be precise.
Aylward started in politics at 24 and spent plenty of time in government. In fact, by the time he “retired” at the age of 42, he was firmly ensconced in what you could safely call “the entitlement years” Liberals: they saw themselves as the natural governing party for this province and treated the public and everyone else accordingly. Interviewing cabinet ministers was like talking to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s version of Marie Antoinette: “The people are complaining about the lack of services? Let them eat cake.”
It’s a time that people writing letters to the editor and open line phone-in callers still cite with fair regularity — and equal amounts of disgust.
Aylward was also a poster-boy of a different kind: the youngest of a slew of retiring Liberals, he was the focal point for reporters calculating how much departing Liberals would soak up in pension benefits. The calculations? That, by himself, Aylward would receive $1.5 million in pension benefits before he even reached the retirement age of 65, including $67,000 in severance payments and a pension of close to $67,000 a year. (Keep in mind that MHAs put in a mere fraction in pension contributions compared to the wheelbarrow-loads they haul out of a perpetually bankrupt fund that’s bankrolled by every other taxpayer. A former cabinet minister who serves for 10 years essentially exhausts all of his or her pension contributions after only about 15 months of collecting a pension.)
But that’s just the beginning: Aylward was also at the centre of one of the darkest times of Newfoundland’s modern politics. In addition to his cabinet post, Aylward was one of the seven politicians who sat on the province’s shadowy Internal Economy Commission (IEC) in 2000. During that time, the IEC — operating almost completely without public oversight — decided to remove the provincial auditor general from auditing the House of Assembly’s financial records and allowed MHA expense claims to be approved without full documentation.
Those two decisions spawned what would later be known as the constituency allowance spending scandal — a scandal that touched Aylward himself when the auditor general was brought back into the MHA accounts, and Aylward was found by the auditor to have double-billed the provincial government for $16,727, and for billing the province for $5,888 of personal expenses.
It’s hard to understand, then, why Aylward was the first choice.
Perhaps the Liberals on the executive of the party felt that people would forget the missteps of the past. Perhaps, as they weighed the choices, they couldn’t find anyone who could step into the role as quickly or as well. Perhaps they were afraid of new faces and the risks of pulling in a leader with an unknown history and the possibility of past missteps, so they chose a candidate with a known history instead.
Aylward left his seat saying that it was the right time and more particularly, that it was time for the party to seek out new faces and new skills.
“It was time to do this, after 18 years,” he said. “This clears the decks for the leader and the party to search out candidates ... I think that’s going to be helpful to the rejuvenation that’s underway.”
You know what?
More than eight years later, Aylward is still right about that.
Which makes his selection as the Liberals’ new leader all the harder to comprehend.
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.