— Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
With one 20-minute news conference, Frank Coleman publicly declined the position of Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, announced his exit from provincial politics and left Newfoundlanders and Labradorians without any idea as to when they might get a vote on their future.
It was, Coleman said, a matter of family.
“A significant and challenging family matter has arisen over the last week that will see me unable to continue onto the (Progressive Conservative party) convention in July and, hence, unable to take the office of premier,” he said, seated before microphones and cameras at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s Monday afternoon.
“I know after this past week that I can no longer offer the undivided focus and energy that I feel would be required of me in this role. As such, I feel I would be doing a great disservice to both the PC party and the people of the province if I continued.”
Coleman refused to provide further details on his decision. He said only that it was a private, family matter, had nothing to do with any political dust-ups over his former company Humber Valley Paving and had emerged in the last five days.
“This is a personal, family matter. It’s my immediate family,” he said.
He apologized for where it leaves his political party.
As victor-by-default in the party’s leadership race — launched following the resignation of former premier Kathy Dunderdale on Jan. 22 — Coleman stood as premier-designate. His exit comes 19 days before the scheduled start of the party’s convention, on July 4, when he was to be proclaimed.
It comes more than four months after the date was first set for the convention and nearly five months since Dunderdale’s resignation.
Just down the road from where Coleman said his goodbyes to public life, there was the smell of freshly mowed grass and the rhythmic clanging of ongoing construction work on the exterior of Confederation Building. And yet there was no word as to when the PC party might see similar improvement to its curb appeal.
More significantly, Premier Tom Marshall could not say when the province might see its next premier or when an election might be called. Nor could he say when the PC party will lay out its vision for the future.
He said he has no intention of reversing his own plans to retire from political life, noting he was elected in 2003 and is a last remaining member of the original cabinet of premier Danny Williams, Dunderdale’s predecessor.
“I gave an undertaking to the caucus that I would stay and undertake a transition from premier Dunderdale to the new premier and I’ll honour that undertaking and I’ll carry on.
“The caucus has asked me to carry on until we complete the leadership process and we have a new premier,” Marshall said.
Informed of Coleman’s decision Sunday night, Marshall insisted the resulting situation — while “embarrassing” for the party — is not an issue for the current government.
“The government will carry on. That has not been affected at all. What has happened is the PC Party has been affected,” he said.
As for the future for members of a “transition team” brought in for Coleman, including new chief of staff Darrell Hynes, he said it will all be dealt with in the coming days, but did not interfere with the work of the office.
The PCs will have to come up with a new leader. That means a new leadership race and convention date.
A meeting of the political party executive has been scheduled for tonight to set out the schedule for relevant events to come.
Once the party has a new leader, that leader must call a provincial election within a year.
Liberal leader Dwight Ball spoke with The Telegram by phone from Lewisporte. He said he had heard something was brewing in relation to the PC leadership, but also that rumours were only settled with Coleman’s news conference.
“Even though we disagree on some things, one thing I will agree is that if you’ve got to choose between family and politics, family must come first. So I wish him well and wish him all the best as he works his way through those personal, family matters that he has to deal with,” he said.
“If there’s anything I would say in this, is we need to establish a clear timeline and we need to do it as quickly as possible,” he added, taking the position the province as a whole is affected by the state of the leadership, not just the PC Party.
“By the time we get to this, we’ll be six, seven months into (the process) and we still don’t know when the next general election is,” he said. “It’s kind of uncharted waters for us right now, but there’s only one way to get through it, is to put the clear timelines in place.”
NDP leader Lorraine Michael said she was taken aback by Coleman’s announcement.
“To say it’s a surprise will be putting it mildly. It certainly is something that I don’t think the people of the province could have imagined,” she said.
As for the future, “maybe the elected members of cabinet will show that they have the fortitude to put their names forward, but right now I think they have shown the people of the province they don’t care about the people,” she said.
Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent told The Telegram he is “very interested” in the leadership role vacated by Coleman, but has not made a final decision whether or not to put his name forward.
Meanwhile, John Ottenheimer, a former MHA and minister of Health, has indicated his intention to run.
Other declarations, one way or another, are expected to be made in the coming days.