11 September 2012

Polls, Politicians, and Messages #nlpoli

Cabinet is where the real political power sits in a parliamentary democracy. Ministers have enormous power both individually and collectively.

Only the first minister – the prime minister or premier – gets to decide who sits at the cabinet table. That’s a power first ministers are always careful to preserve because it is the ultimate expression of their control over their caucus.  People want to get to cabinet and the only way in is through the premier.

Changes in cabinet are often rumoured but until they happen, they are not real.  Only the premier and her closest, most trusted advisors know what is coming.  They only tell the people involved at the last possible moment.  The expectation  - often a clearly spoken expectation - is that the people who know will keep their mouths firmly shut. 

So when CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane can report that a cabinet shuffle is imminent, attributing information to multiple unnamed but apparently high-ranking Tories, you can understand that Kathy Dunderdale’s administration is in far more serious political trouble than it first appeared.

If the Premier can’t trust you to keep your mouth shut about what you know, you can hardly be trusted as a member of cabinet, where discretion is crucial to the proper functioning of the government. Normally, staff or politicians who show they can’t keep their mouths shut will expect to be banished from the centre of power.  What the Premier giveth, after all, the Premier taketh away.

But if people feel they can leak what is among the most sensitive information in any government without fear of retribution, then you can bet your last penny the first minister’s power and influence is gone.

Regular readers will not be surprised by this observation about Dunderdale’s power.  As they know, Dunderdale got her job as the result of a backroom deal. She has held it ever since not because of her own power and influence but because others have allowed her to hold the job. What we are seeing now is proof of that, as her poll numbers drop dramatically.

There’s a clue to that in the language Kathy Dunderdale used on Sunday when CBC caught up to her at a ceremony for a convention of female police officers from around the globe.  ‘When you take on stewardship…”, Dunderdale began. Stewards look after things on behalf of someone else.  They take direction from others.  They are not leaders usually.

The written statement her officials used in a message sent out to media a couple of days beforehand mentioned in one sentence what “responsible leaders” do.  But the statement used the plural in another spot: “We will continue to govern according to the vision, principles and platform on which we were elected.”

And what wasn’t plural was general and impersonal: “Governing requires responsibility. With responsibility comes difficult decisions.” 

Meanwhile, former natural resources minister Shawn Skinner told CBC’s David Cochrane late last week that the Tories are having trouble with their messaging.  Skinner mentioned the tone of the messages specifically. He also said that some messages had been lost.  He also said that he understood more changes were coming, particularly changes to who is speaking on behalf of government.

He’s right.

To illustrate the point,  of course, Skinner’s own messaging was all wrong, at least if he was trying to project an image of change and recovery.  One of the major problems with Conservative messaging has been inconsistency.  They talk about cuts and then over-spend yet again, for example.

That’s like Kathy Dunderdale saying that she does not govern according to the polls and then word spreading that she will shuffle her cabinet based on the low poll numbers.

The Conservative problems are more serious than the individuals speaking on behalf of government or the tone of what they say.  Events of the past 48 hours or so make that pretty clear.