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N.L. politics: it’ll leave you gobsmacked

As predictable in these parts as an ungodly spring blizzard, the Newfoundland political scene always seems to supply a regular, fresh batch of shake-your-head moments.

Just take this past week: the Progressive Conservative leadership race and the Virginia Waters byelection both provided us with examples of the fact that voting confrontations in this province can be punctuated by bizarre and, dare I say, downright entertaining intercessions.

Now, to be sure, the Tory leadership contest probably needed the strange rants of now ousted candidate Wayne Bennett, just to give it a headline or two, a brief boost to a race that’s displayed all the excitement of the Government House garden party.  

Danny Williams, still able to tell puppet-like Tories when to jump and how high, put the kibosh on any chance of the leadership convention generating some desperately needed energy for the PC cause by pumping political bullets into Bill Barry’s knees, IRA style, with his early, crippling denunciation of the fiery fish merchant from the west coast.

And it didn’t help that all those briefly brave cabinet ministers thought to be interested in the job turned into wimps, each deciding he didn’t want to be a caretaker premier for a few months, only to be forced to operate in the wasteland that is the opposition for four or five years before getting another crack at the top job. (Although I suppose there’s always the chance the Tories could buy themselves another term by spending like Saturday night drunks on George Street, as exemplified by last week’s budget brought down by the smiley-faced Charlene Johnson).

But, given Caesar Williams’ thumbs down to Gladiator Barry, and the chicken ways of the cabinet, the province has been left to observe a few dull months of

campaigning and, ultimately, the crowning of Frank Coleman,

Danny’s designate, on a (hopefully warm) evening in early July.

So, at the very least, Bennett’s very odd tweets from his campaign headquarters in Castro country provided the leadership contest with a brief interlude of spice.

At this writing, the pious and saintly Tories have kicked Bennett out of the party’s party; if I was a member of the PC brass, I would have kept him in place just for comic relief, a 2014 version of Hughie Shea, the eccentric who managed to provide a few laughs for Conservative and Liberal supporters in the ’60s and ’70s (and an answer to political trivia quizzes in Newfoundland ever since).

Or even duplicate Dot Wyatt’s laughable participation in the 1979 Tory leadership race, an event in which St. John’s Mayor Dorothy, she of “Dottie’s Potties” and “vote for Wyatt, she won’t be quiet” fame, attracted not a single vote, not even from her father, a delegate to the convention.

That particular convention, the ’79 affair prompted by the sudden resignation of Frank Moores (whose palpable boredom with being premier was being reflected in high polling results for the Liberals at the time) was a rip-snorting event in which it seemed every second cabinet minister was either interested in the job, or sought a vantage point to curry favour with the eventual winner. It was a list of who’s who in Tory ranks: Brian Peckford, Bill Doody, Leo Barry, Walter Carter, Jim Morgan, Tom Hickey and Ed Maynard went at it tooth and nail during an extremely colourful and sometimes nasty campaign and convention, the type that the present-day PCs can only dream about; the kind that can invigorate even the most listless of political parties.

I was on the convention floor and can still recall Peckford, his eyes blazing, angrily warning Barry, “I’ll remember this, Leo,” after his fellow cabinet colleague refused to send his delegates over to the Green Bay “pecker” — the nickname in a few circles for the man who ultimately succeeded Moores. (A few short years later, Peckford and Barry were going head to head again, Peckford leading the Tories and Barry the Liberals, in a provincial election won by the PCs).

Also during that ’79 convention, I can recall Jim Morgan uttering what I’ve cited over the years as the ultimate illustration of political expediency trumping ideology, as he was deciding whether to throw his few delegates behind Peckford or

Doody: “I gotta pick a winner; I gotta pick a winner.”

He did, indeed, pick the winner and wound up in the Peckford cabinet. Now that was down-and-dirty politics, a real show, a convention any political party would hope to see. A little cannibalism, for sure, but you can’t beat the publicity.

The second shake-your-head moment from last week was the revelation that Danny Breen, the Tory candidate in Virginia Waters, registered to vote online in last year’s Liberal leadership contest (as if we needed further confirmation that the philosophical lines between the Liberals and the PCs are blurred).  

Breen tried to downplay his inconsistency, explaining, rather meekly, that he was merely doing a favour for Liberal friend Siobhan Coady. But Breen couldn’t hide from the embarrassment of running for the PCs a relatively short time after participating in a Liberal leadership race, or the fact that he would’ve had to have sworn to adhere to Liberal party principles and policies in order to register to vote.

There was nothing ambiguous about that declaration.  

One question, though, that I

didn’t hear asked: did Breen vote for Cathy Bennett for Liberal leader, one of his opponents in Virginia Waters?

Love to hear that answered honestly.  

Newfoundland politics; ya gotta love it.  

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

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