31 December 2010

Connie Leadership 2011: Fear and Loathing in the Caucus Room

Most people now realise that Kathy Dunderdale is staying on as leader and Premier a result of some secret backroom deal within the Conservative Party.

As nottawa notes, the Connies are giving potential rivals a mere 11 days to come forward.  That compares to the couple of months Yvonne Jones’ potential rivals had.  In other words, the Conservatives will go through a complete charade including what they are calling a leadership convention.

Despite this rather obvious political fraud, the people of the province know that they have a new premier thanks to a secret deal – not even a vote – cut by unnamed people in dark rooms.  It is like the good old 1920s all over again when administrations came and went over-night based on shifting alliances and unspoken promises.

And the people of the province can sleep soundly knowing their fate and that fate of the public treasury is determined by shadowy figures and endorsed by the Connie caucus.

Well, virtually all, according to the semi-official news agency VOCM – voice of the cabinet minister.

That word “virtually” suggests that some members objected or at the very least didn’t display the requisite enthusiasm.

Now there may well be nothing to that beyond an inexperienced reporter’s careless use of words.  But then again, there might be a bit more to it.  Politicians are, by nature, an ambitious lot.  Some of them have been forced to curb their tongues for upwards of seven years.  Their personal ambitions took a back seat to the Old Man’s interests and his iron grip on the caucus and the Confederation Building. Now they are told to sit on their ambitions yet again for another period of time.

Some other members of the Conservative caucus may well be uncomfortable with the decidedly anti-democratic way that Kathy Dunderdale is getting the job.  Some may recall the anointed Connie kingpin Danny Williams’ attacks on Roger Grimes over a far more democratic selection in the Liberal Party in 2001.  Hypocrisy never bothered Williams like it does others, but that is another story.

That lack of unanimity may well explain why Dunderdale held such a low-key announcement of her candidacy:  a scrum, attended by none save a single aide and the local media. it had the air of being a lash-up job.

That lack of unanimity, of course, is what this backroom deal is really all about.  Conservatives in St. John’s are clearly afraid that a leadership fight over the next two or three months will make for a Conservative of repeat of what they characterise as the divisive 2001 Liberal contest.

There are divisions within the Conservative Party.  Those divisions must be deep.  They must be deep enough to put the fear of God into the back-room boys.

Were it otherwise, the Conservatives would have a contest as they did  - successfully - in 1979 and 1989.  Instead they are afraid and loathe to tempt fate.

And for the record, the Liberal campaign in 2001 was divisive.  All leadership fights are.

John Efford and his team built part of Efford’s support on discontent over the way Brian Tobin and his close associates supposedly ran the entire party from St. John’s.  The party rank and file were passed over, according to some, in favour of those chosen by the old leader and his cronies.  Whether it is true or not is another matter, but there certainly were Liberals who felt abused.

And yes while Roger Grimes initially had some strong words about John Efford’s man Danny Dumaresque, wounds healed up before the 2003 campaign.  Grimes made a couple of appointments and everyone got on with business.

That’s what happens in politics. People have different opinions.  Leaders get paid to deal with those differences openly and cleanly, if possible, but certainly in a way that doesn’t let grievances fester.  Successful leaders are the ones who can bring a party together after a fight.  If a leader cannot unite his or her party then he or she is really not up to the job of being premier.

It is a simple and irrefutable train of logic.

By cutting a back-room deal, though, the province’s Conservatives have wound up in a very odd, and very troubling spot. 

Yes they’ve taken an anti-democratic approach. That is obvious. But then again their entire administration since 2003 is built on some of the oldest, most backward, and most pernicious political traditions of the province. It isn’t surprising they’d lurch back to the 1920s for inspiration when times got a bit tough.

More importantly, they sought to avoid what they perceived as a Liberal mistake and in the process have blundered into a much bigger one.  They have a caucus that is not united. That is never good.

To compound that, they now have a leader who is – at the very best – a caretaker until after the next general election.  Dunderdale was due to retire:  they all know that.  She is at the end of her political career. 

After October 2011, Dunderdale is gone.  It is only a question of how long she will hang on and then the Conservatives will be back in the same boat again.

In the meantime, Dunderdale has no plans and no ideas.  She is merely holding things together for an unknown period of time.

Kathy Dunderdale is a leader with no plans and – even worse - with no real political authority.

Kathy Dunderdale has her job because other people agreed to let her have it. It is not as though they were given a chance and decided not to run of their own accord.  They were persuaded not to run and that is a very different thing.

In a tough spot, Kathy Dunderdale cannot pull a Danny and lay down any laws to anyone. She cannot even build a consensus based on her own political constituency of supporters. Nor can she truthfully build a consensus based on her savvy.  She has blundered too badly in public too often for that to have any real effect for her cabinet mates. People who thought Roger grimes came out of his leadership beholden to every one of his caucus can now look on Kathy Dunderdale put in exactly the same spot, or a worse one.

Kathy Dunderdale will also have a tough time disciplining those who step out of line. Since she serves at the pleasure of her caucus she can also be dismissed by them as easily.

How much will it take to crack the veneer covering the Conservative Party?

Time will tell.

- srbp -