30 December 2010

Kathy Dunderdale: The New Paternalism

Dunderdale has sought to continue key points of the Williams government, including development of the Lower Churchill megaproject, but she has already shown a different approach on labour relations.

She ordered ministers to settle a 13-month strike involving a small group of support workers on the Burin Peninsula, and later asked ministers to end a nearly two-year negotiation with physicians that concluded last week with ratification of a new pay package.

That’s the way cbc.ca/nl described Kathy Dunderdale on a story Wednesday that did everything but explain that the Conservative caucus met on Wednesday to endorse the deal that had already been cooked up in order to avoid a leadership contest.

Note that last paragraph, though.  It shows how readily conventional news media are already absorbing the new Conservative Party political narrative about the kind of leader Kathy Dunderdale will be.

It’s right in line with a comment by Conservative parliamentary assistant Steve Kent, as reported by VOCM:

Kent describes Dunderdale as a compassionate, thoughtful, and principle-centered leader.

The new premier may well be all those wonderful things but the point to notice here is that in the construction of the whole idea Dunderdale personally directed that ministers clear up not one but two embarrassing situations.  She has the positive qualities.  She personally bestowed benefits.

Incidentally, this is exactly how Dunderdale described her role at the news conference in which she announced the deal with doctors.  There’s no accident to this:  lines like that are worked out in advance and comments don’t wind up on the page in some sort of arbitrary fashion.  They are selected to convey very particular ideas.

Dunderdale’s prepared statement describes opening the lines of communication with doctors as “my first priority…”. According to Dunderdale’s prepared remarks, the two ministers directly involved in the negotiations merely played a role.

This is essentially the same construction used by Danny Williams:  he did things or directed them, especially when they were beneficially. Ministers took orders in a clearly subordinate role.

You can see the same sort of construction in the way his most ardent supporters describe Williams:  he personally bestowed pride, courage and so forth on the poor benighted people of Newfoundland (and Labrador). Take as an example this comment on a post by Nalcor lobbyist Tim Powers over at the Globe and Mail:

2:12 PM on November 27, 2010

I know we have to believe there are strong leaders out there who will step forward and continue the work of Danny Williams. Quite frankly, with the news of his departure, I felt somewhat orphaned, a sense of being left alone surrounded by those who will, again, try and rob us of what we have achieved. …

Williams is a father figure, in the classic paternalist sense.  His departure orphaned his children.

What this political line ignores, of course, is the role that Kathy Dunderdale played in the Williams administration,  She was Williams’ hand-picked Number Two and his hand-picked successor. Like Tom Rideout before her, she represented a direct link to the older Conservative Party and its supporters who predated Williams.

Had she felt strongly about the doctor’s dispute or about the Burin situation she was in a position to change the government’s position. She didn’t. She supported it consistently. Similarly, both Tom Marshall and Jerome Kennedy held ministerial portfolios that gave them both legal and political power to resolve the matters long before the government finally settled both. The truth is that cabinet changed its approach to these two issues for reasons other than the arrival of a new leader who is compassionate.

In other words, the reality of how political decisions get made is considerably more complicated.  It’s also not something politicians really want people to know about, let alone discuss.

Instead, politicians fall back on time-worn attitudes to politics that people quite readily accept without even realising what the words actually mean.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale is no change from the resurgence of paternalism in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

- srbp -