20 January 2010

Kremlinology 15: as warm and fuzzy as your old blankie

Last fall was rough on the provincial Conservatives.

Back to back resignations followed by the by-election loss in the Straits and the strong Liberal vote in Terra Nova.  That’s old news to Bond Papers readers.

Things are rough for the Conservatives in Corner Brook as well.

Between the push-back over the Grenfell mess and the possibility that the Kruger mill may shut its doors permanently, there are plenty of reasons for provincial Conservatives to be sweating the possibility of a strong anti-Tory hum on the Humber.

You can tell things are rough because the Premier took the time to head to Corner Brook last week for a party fundraiser – a point the conventional media neglected to point out - encouraged the Kruger unions to give the company whatever it needs to save the mill and pick a fight with people who had pissed him off:  He took a shot at Grenfell principal Holly Pike and others. 

The local paper – The Western Starwarned him about the problems before the speech and then spanked him publicly for his attack on Pike after the speech.

That last bit is a sure sign of how bad things are for the Tories.  What they said was nothing strong at all, but in a province where  - since 2003 - the conventional media like to serve warm milk and cookies editorially, a couple of simple declaratory sentences can come across like  a cross between the 95 Theses and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The real sign of the troubled times in Tory circles is the remarkable change in tone.  Suddenly ‘stachless health minister Jerome Kennedy took the trouble to call an open line show this week when it isn’t polling season and nothing is exploding.

He talked at length about the changes he wants to bring after the budget is over.  Kennedy wants to start travelling around the province, talking to the great unwashed masses in their own native habitat. He wants to get real opinions from real people on things the government could be and should be doing.  

We are not talking complete farce here.  Kennedy spoke in calm tones and used language about including people.  A lesson he learned in the by-elections, so Kennedy said.

That’s right in line with another sign, namely a recent tour by several cabinet ministers of towns along the coast of Labrador.  Even Tommy Hedderson took the time to get out of St. John’s and visit real people in real towns.  Hedderson you may recall was the guy who – during the Straits by-election – talked about how wonderful it was to get back into that part of the province for the first time since 2001.  Yes, the fisheries minister hadn’t been able to visit a district with fish troubles until his Leader dragged him along to go save the Leader from political embarrassment.

And let’s not forget the funding announcements.  Before Christmas it was the new hospital for Corner Brook which – we now learn – may well be a tertiary care centre to rival the one in Sin Jawns.  There is money for Grenfell, the bags of which was something the Premier duly noted as he pointed how some people were insufficiently grateful for his generosity.

One of the Labrador ferries will be relocating to Corner Brook, at least for the winter at least for now.

Now there’s Terry French heading to Corner Brook to make an announcement on funding for the provincial government’s arts centres. That’s on top of the money French already announced for the local stadium.  This was not, the finance minister would assure us, a sign that budget allocations have already been made for 2010.

These sorts of things may be old hat everywhere else in the civilised world but in this province since 2003, they are almost unheard of.  Until now, the whole business of keeping in tune consisted of letting cabinet ministers work from an office set up wherever in the province they happened to live.  And even then, the main duty of the ministers-at-home was to keep an eye on dissent and make sure everyone stayed in line. Think hard hat and shovel and road paving in Labrador if you want a classic example of the cabinet minister without a real portfolio.

Now undoubtedly some wag will point out that Jerome! is just angling to replace The Boss.  Shave the ‘stache, they will say and they are right.

But that doesn’t mean that the cabinet as a whole might not also be working along with Jerome to change their collective political fortunes.  While The Boss is busy tilting at hydro towers in New Brunswick, the guys who actually will be running for re-election in 2011 might be noticing they don’t have much time to shift the whole tone and approach of the administration.

Angry just doesn’t work all the time in politics, as any experienced politician and political scientist will tell you. People grow weary. And when the anger is directed inward, when people get smashed in the head for just having an opinion, it doesn’t take too long before people start to look for an alternative to the anger ball.

That’s one of the big lessons from last fall, if you really are clued in about provincial politics. Things started to shift.

And when the shift started, the local Tories seem to have decided to make a shift of their own.

Coming on like a warm, fuzzy blankie seems to be aimed at making sure that whatever alternative people move toward, it will still be blue.

Just a blue without all the anger in it.