Cathy Bennett’s leadership launch event was organized as one would expect. Her speech was scripted and, hand gestures and all, well rehearsed.
From the start there was the flush of jargon that one expects these days from business people getting into politics. A “decision process’ had led her to this spot. The province must be “best in class”. Things must be “actioned”. We must “start a conversation.” Energy, passion and fire - especially passion – occurred in the speech with as much frequency as “strong voice” used to turn up with others.
She pledged to be “open and accountable” as well as honest and persuasive.”
Bennett didn’t offer much beyond stock phrases on anything, though, except on three points: increased immigration, full-day kindergarten, and Muskrat Falls.
Interestingly, Bennett’s position on two of those are the same as the Conservatives to whom she has been connected politically for the past decade.
The Conservatives want to increase the population through immigration in order to gain the tax revenue to support their spending. So does Bennett and for all the same reasons. Not surprisingly, one of Bennett’s businesses is an employment firm that specializes in finding foreign workers for local jobs.
Full-day kindergarten is Bennett’s idea from the winter. The Conservatives don’t back that one.
On Muskrat Falls, Bennett told us that a “complex interweaving of multiple business cases” support the project. The task now is for the Liberals to make sure the promise of Muskrat comes true. Bennett did not why that task would be for the Liberals and not the Conservatives.
Bennett talked about being a Liberal, what Liberal values are, and how Liberals will win the next election but in the first scrum question from David Cochrane, she fell on her face. He asked how she could reconcile her claim to being Liberal with her record of cash donations and major appoints from the Conservatives.
Bennett said that democracy demands people give their time and treasure. She was now offering her time and had offered treasure in the past. She had hosted Liberal fundraisers for her friends. When Cochrane tried to ask a follow up she skipped to another question.
At this point, let us set the record straight on all this. The figures are available from the federal and provincial elections offices.
Since 2003, Cathy Bennett and the Bennett Group of companies have given a total of $8,650 in donations to provincial political parties. Only $600 went to the Liberals: $100 to Wally Noel in 2003 and two donations totalling $500 in 2011. In 2003, she gave $250 to John Dinn and another $250 to Kathy Dunderdale. in 2001, she gave the Conservatives $2,000.
In 2007, the year the Conservatives appointed Bennett to their plum appointment at Nalcor, Bennett gave the Conservatives a total of $2,050.
CBC’s online report notes that she held a fundraiser for Siobhan Coady in 2008. That was the year of the ABC campaign. The Conservatives targeted Coady’s campaign for support, including campaign visits from Kathy Dunderdale and Paul Oram.. Bennett recorded a $450 donation to Coady that year. In turn, Coady returned the favour by never failing to introduce her federal Liberal caucus colleagues to provincial Conservatives while snubbing the Liberal opposition office.
The only other recorded donation was in 2004 for $600. Interestingly, that was the year that the provincial Conservatives did not officially endorse their federal cousins. Danny Williams was locked in a battle to wrestle increased federal transfer payments. In the context, Williams publicly refused to make a choice federally. He and the provincial Conservatives did back the federal Conservatives in 2006 and after 2008. Bennett’s federal donation pattern parallel’s the provincial Conservative pattern of federal support.
Bennett insisted throughout her answer to Cochrane’s and other similar questions that she was a Liberal all along. And that is where she crashed.
The record speaks for itself. Bennett had a number of possible answers. She could have said, for example, that she did not support the provincial Liberals at the time, just like a majority of people in the province. That would have led her to a second question: why has she changed her position?
That second question was something she apparently wanted to avoid. So Bennett went with the idea that she was a Liberal while she was working for the Conservatives. Was she a double-agent? Was she running a scam on them?
Bear in mind, the Nalcor board appointments have only gone to trusted political and personal supporters of the Premier and cabinet. In a party where even a few hundred dollars in government work couldn’t go until the Premier’s Office vetted the contractor against a friend or foe list, you don’t get to head the Nalcor board if there is any sign you are supporting the other team. Bennett’s successor as chair of Nalcor, for example, is the significant other to powerful minister. He has no other obvious qualifications.
You see the problem with Bennett’s answer. It doesn’t match the record. Bennett’s answers raise more question. For example, given that the Conservatives admitted to financial mismanagement in 2009, why did she continue to back them including a huge donation in 2011?
The last place Bennett needs to be is the one with more questions about her past. In response to another question, she asked rhetorically “how do you define a Liberal?” without giving a serious answer to it. In another, she fumbled around with a reference to the Liberals she has talked to about her candidacy perhaps realising that outside of Coady and few others in the past few days she hasn’t spoken to many. Bennett went into her launch needing to get rid of the question about why she wants to lead the Liberal Party. Instead, she made look like she was trying to avoid what will now almost certainly become a central issue in her campaign.
The issue will not be the fact she was a Conservative supporter. That is incontrovertible. The facts speak for themselves. The issue for Bennett will be why she couldn’t give a simple answer to a simple question. Instead, she appeared to dissemble. The way she skipped past Cochrane’s follow-up to her original non-answer and her responses to similar questions later in the media session won’t help with Liberals or with reporters.
In any given situation, what actually happened - reality, the truth - is not a fault, a failing, or a liability. Had Bennett met the obvious question with a straightforward answer, she’d have matched her commitment to openness, transparency, and all those other buzzwords. Actions matching words = credibility. She would also have given potential voters the chance to look at her and honestly judge her. That sort of openness can build trust and help establish exactly the sort of relationship with voters a candidate like Bennett will need.
Another reporter asked if she would run in the next election as a Liberal if she didn’t win the leadership. Bennett’s answer – an obviously rehearsed line – was that she intended to be an “elected official” in the legislature. She repeated the phrase too many times for it to be an accidental choice of words. The fact she did not say she intended to sit as a Liberal as part of a Liberal team is something that screamed out to people she needed to win over.
Bennett didn’t sound like someone who is a committed member of the Liberal team. She sounds like someone looking for more followers as she works her way down her personal path. If Bennett thinks there is a shortage of workers these days in her restaurants, she may find the job of disciple a hard one to fill after the experience people have had with a recent political messiah turned real estate developer.
On Muskrat Falls, Bennett could have left the issue for the questions from reporters. In her speech, she should have talked about new ideas and the future. She didn’t offer any. Instead, she brought into the Liberal leadership a fight that even Nalcor and its millions of public dollars plus all the massive resources of the provincial government could not win decisively after three years of relentless pounding. Her claim about a some sort of intricate pile of business cases sounds less like the golden BB that will win the Muskrat argument and much more like what it is: another steaming pile of Muskrat crap.
Cathy Bennett’s campaign isn’t dead. She appears to have a good team around her. She lived through her first day. She just has some pretty severe problems to fix. Others have recovered from worse. Bennett is going to have to improve her performance dramatically, though, if she wants to win the Premier’s job. That’s the one she is really after.
As expected, Bennett did make it clear that she will be the main competition Dwight Ball will face for the leadership. That’s how she changed the water and the beans by entering the race.
Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque looked underfunded and underprepared in their launches. They have their own reasons for running and that’s all fine. But they aren’t serious contenders. They will likely wind up picking away at Bennett’s initial weaknesses, though. They have nothing to lose and that is where we might see some real heat early on.
With Bennett formally in, attention will now to turn to Dwight Ball and his formal launch on Friday.