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Bob Wakeham: Bullying, blood sports and body checks

Premier Dwight Ball answers questions in the House of Assembly Tuesday about his former clerk of the executive council, Bernard Coffey, who resigned amid controversy over the weekend.
Premier Dwight Ball in the House of Assembly. — Telegram file photo

It’s been quite a while since a political scandal in this smiling land of ours has produced the kind of oh-boy-oh-boy grins and just downright satisfaction (some of it smug) we’ve witnessed ever since the “honourable” members on Windbreaker Hill started to carve each other up recently with allegations of harassment, bullying and intimidation.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

It may, in fact, have been only the infamous constituency spending scandal of a decade or so ago that can give the current pissing match a run for its money in terms of juicy gab sessions at morning coffee breaks in office buildings and happy hour gatherings in drinking establishments around the province, those ideal settings to swap rumours as to who might be the next politician forced to slither away into what might be a permanent cave of humiliation, a legacy rendered ignominious forever and a day.

Now, there may not be the ultimate adjudication in the bullying cases as there was in the spending scandal, the dispatching — as we all recall vividly — of the Convicts Four to three squares and a bed at Her Majesty’s expense, and months of crossword puzzles.

But, when all is said, written and done, this present menu of cannibalism may still generate the kind of guilty pleasure derived when anyone in power or positions of trust — but politicians, in particular — get their comeuppance.

Because any information that validates the perception of the bulk of our elected types as having the scruples of crackie dogs (apologies here to lovable crackies sidling up to fire hydrants and fence posts from Fermeuse to Francoise) has always been embraced in most of the circles in which I’ve travelled over the years, both inside and outside my given profession.

I have to admit, though, that the media, the ink-stained wretches as we were often described in generations past, do take particular delight in howling to the skies, like beagles on the fresh scent of Bugs and company, whenever there is mounting evidence that politicians have been found to have acted in a manner that will cause them no shortage of embarrassment, if not downright expulsion from their well-paid and narcissistic seats of influence.

Some of their legislative colleagues had to have been grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat at the chagrin being endured by the cabinet boys accused of bullying.

There may, for instance, have even been a spot of pleasurable drool on the lip of the CBC’s Anthony Germain as he grilled various residents of the Hot Air Hill at media scrums for a few days running, not the usual spot you’d find a television anchor, but perhaps an assignment he begged for or demanded. (Now before any super-sensitive Mother Corp employees get all hot and bothered about what they might see as a slur against their Main Man in Newfoundland, let me say I’d have knocked over bodies myself in the rush to take part in my day of the cross-examination of politicians, to bark the beagle bark, as it were; it’s only in retirement that journalists can readily admit to the fun of the chase).

But it was far from just reporters and the consumers of their work who were wringing their hands in pleasure as the politicos (Eddie Joyce and Dale Kirby, so far, at least at this writing deadline of mine) were being publicly spanked. Some of their legislative colleagues had to have been grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat at the chagrin being endured by the cabinet boys accused of bullying.

To be fair, there was not much to be publicly noticed, relatively speaking, about Joyce in the past (other than having one of the oddest hairdos in recent House of Assembly history), although he could have had a mean streak a mile long, if we’re to believe what we’ve been hearing in recent weeks.

But Kirby has a track record that has engendered a lack of fondness in and around politics in Newfoundland, especially within the NDP.

I’m pretty sure Lorraine Michael doesn’t have the sort of short memory span that will allow her to forget very easily that it was Kirby who led the caucus revolt that ultimately cost Michael her job as NDP leader, a rebellion that came about at the only time in New Democratic history in Newfoundland when the party was in position to take electoral advantage of the public disfavour in which the Liberals and the Tories had placed themselves.

Michael will probably never voice gratification, at least in any sort of public fashion, with what is happening to Kirby these days — it doesn’t appear to be her modus operandi. But human nature would dictate, it seems to me, that she would derive considerable pleasure at seeing the man who destroyed her and her party’s chances to govern this province, and who expediently chose the Liberals as his new party, forced to vacate his cabinet position.

After all, that mutiny instigated by Kirby could be viewed as an example of bullying and intimidation, given the fact that he was able to coerce his caucus colleagues into following his dishonourable lead.

Having said all that, bullying has long been a staple of Newfoundland politics, a blood sport if ever there was one, right back to Joey’s day, and even further in history, for that matter.

Saying there’s no bullying in politics is akin to suggesting there’s no body checking in hockey.

But there are limits: even the odd body check is egregious and nasty enough to prompt a gross misconduct penalty and a suspension.

And many of us get to cheer from the bleachers.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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