27 June 2013

Water and beans #nlpoli

You don’t make the kind of telephone calls Cathy Bennett has been making if you aren’t already headed toward an announcement you will go after a political party leadership.

What CBC got was the talking point, nothing more.

What NTV got was the talking point, written down.

Bennett has been calling Liberals like Dwight Ball and Siobhan Coady plus a raft of others.  She’s been looking for support in some cases and in other cases, she has been inviting people to join her campaign team.  That’s not what you do if you are still pondering the possibilities a week before the nomination deadline. 

If Bennett is still on the fence about a run for the Liberal leadership, then Ed Martin is still iffy on Muskrat Falls.

Once Bennett picked up the phone and made her first call, there was no way to keep it quiet or – realistically - to pull back. That’s why she had a talking point ready and, as it seems, delivered it perfectly to David Cochrane, the one reporter who called.

Bennett will announce early next week. She can always back out, of course, but at this point she has nothing to gain by quitting and everything to lose, including her dream of being Premier.

In all likelihood, two of the other rumoured contenders – Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque – will announce on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Dwight Ball will still run and a race will be on.

Cathy Bennett changes both the water and the beans in the Liberal leadership fight.  None of the other contenders -  Ball included  - have done anything thus far to get anyone the least bit interested in the Liberal race.  The recent jump in the polls is unproven thus far and is likely attributable to growing dissatisfaction with the Conservatives and to a lesser extent with the New Democrats.

Bennett could prove to be the catalyst for a major change on the local political landscape.  She is a fresh face.  She offers potential.  As of next week, she’ll be in the big leagues, running a campaign not really for just the leadership but for the job in the Premier’s Office.

Bennett will be under media scrutiny.  She’ll be under attack from the New Democrats and the Conservatives.   Every word she speaks will be up for dissection.  Every gaffe will live with her forever.

Next week, the test starts and people will see if Bennett is genuinely up for the job.  The first thing we will all see is whether Bennett is really only just now getting into the game  - as her talking point implies - or if she has spent the last few months getting ready, as she should have been doing. 

The puff pieces her marketing agency gained for her since January won’t matter if she has no depth to back up the hype.  Bennett has a compelling personal story but she will need more than business success to do the job properly. 

To her credit,  Bennett’s performance earlier this year with the full-day kindergarten showed she has an idea.  That’s a good thing.  The people of the province haven’t had a new idea for a decade. 

To her debit, Bennett’s announcement was a strategic disaster.  She tossed out the idea for an expensive new program at a time when the provincial government is trying to cope with a decade of its own continued financial mismanagement. She had no follow-up plans, and not much detail on her idea beyond a few endearing platitudes. As wonderful as the idea was, the launch was naive.

That’s not a fatal gaffe.  Bennett has had time to fix any problems.   That sort of strategic cock-up, though,  is just the sort of thing that will kill her ambitions if she does it again.  She might go on to win the Liberal leadership even after another comparable flub but the history books are full of sincere people who could win a party leadership but whose intentions couldn’t make up for a fundamental lack of gravitas.

What we are talking about here is not Bennett herself, although she alone will be the one in the public eye, bearing responsibility for everything that happens.  We are talking about the people giving her advice on everything from policy to public relations. She will need them. If Bennett doesn’t have people, she will need to get them.  Fast.  if Bennett has a team, she will inevitably have to add bodies to the crew as she goes. Every campaign does. The telling thing will be how well she picks people and how well they work together. 

The Liberal leadership campaign format is designed to sort all that  out.  This won’t be the 2001 campaign where Danny Dumaresque and John Efford could stack delegate selection meetings and just out-organize the other teams. The new leadership approach will force all the teams to work hard everywhere in the province.  The winner won’t necessarily be the team with the most money or the flashiest marketing.  It won’t be the crew the media endorses.  The winner of the leadership convention will be the crowd who can win a campaign of the same basic form as a general election.  It’s a test of fundamental ability of how well the candidate and his or her team can manage their campaign just as their will have to manage their party in the future.

The aftermath will be just as telling since the successful leader will have to bring the party together for the provincial campaign.  All successful political parties are coalitions of people with different interests and different ideas.  Truly successful leaders bring people together without suppressing dissent. 

Bennett will face a challenge in that respect.  Bennett has no ties to the Liberal Party. .  As some have already pointed out, Bennett has donated about $8500 to the party who appointed her to one of their plum patronage jobs on the Nalcor board.  That’s the kind of job you get only if a big Conservative wants you there.

That could be a liability for the Liberals in that it makes an easy play for the New Democrats:  the Liberals and Conservatives are the same. Only the New Democrats offer real change.  At the same time, that same set of contacts  - like Dean MacDonald’s Conservative and Board of Trade pedigree – could make it easier for disaffected townie Conservatives to support a future Liberal campaign.  If the Liberals start to climb, the Board of Trade crowd could shift their allegiance knowing that one of their own is there.  Which way that issue plays depends entirely on Bennett and her crew.  She alone will have to win people over.  She will have to persuade people to join her.  That’s the essence of politics.

Strategically for the Liberals – as for any party -  winning new supporters is important.  Having a leader who can speak to a wide variety of voters is essential.  The Tories are failing right now because they are relying on the dictatorial approach their old leader used from the time they crowned him until he suddenly bolted for the door.  The New Democrats have a comparable problem in that they need to appeal to more than their old core if they want to win government

Bennett’s potential appeal to the local business community will be important for the Liberals.  The business community is no different from one of the unions or any other interest group.  If a big union figure ran for the Liberals, union members could quietly vote for the Liberals feeling safe.  Smart Dippers understand that. That’s why they are out already pounding away at Bennett just like they will be equally freaked out if the Liberals pick up candidates who speak to NDP’s current constituencies. 

For now, though, let’s see  - first – how Bennett handles her announcement.  The venue will be important as will be the audience.  We also need to see who comes forward to endorse her.  In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll have to see if Bennett puts any substance into her campaign.

Second, we need to get a sense of her team, who they are and how they work. 

Third, let’s see how Bennett and her crew deal with that question of her affiliations in the evitable interviews that will follow her announcement.  If her crew have done their political homework, then she’ll be able to handle anything that comes.

Fourth, let’s see how everyone else  - Liberals and the other parties alike - reacts to Bennett.  Watch especially to see what the other candidates do.  After all, they are facing exactly the same test in the leadership campaign as Bennett will face.

The difference, though, is that Cathy Bennett’s entry to the race changes the potential political significant of the campaign to one every voter in the province will be following closely.