30 January 2014

Competition #nlpoli

When they got up on Wednesday morning, everyone in the province who was paying attention knew that Bill Barry was going to launch his bid for the provincial Conservative Party leadership later that afternoon in Corner Brook.

Barry made his plans clear the week before.  He’s the only one definitely in the race so far.  On Tuesday night,  Barry posted an invitation on facebook for people to come out and join him if they were alienated from provincial politics and fed up with the way things were going.

Any news hunter scanning the radio dial on Wednesday heard about the Barry newser, but just before 8:00 AM,  VOCM news director Fred Hutton played the tape of an interviewed he’d bagged the night before with former Liberal leadership contender Cathy Bennett.  No one had heard from her since the Liberals elected Dwight Ball, but there was Bennett telling the audience of the province’s largest privately owned radio network that she was definitely running in Virginia Waters in the next election as a Liberal.

Gone was the Bennett of her campaign, at times brusque and stiff.  In her interview with Hutton, Cathy Bennett displayed displayed all the skills she’d learned from her hard months on the campaign trail.  She was articulate, confident and professional.  Bennett  affirmed her commitment to the Liberal Party and spoke confidently of the change she wanted to bring to the province as part of a future Liberal government. 

First with the news

By the end of the day,  all the other news media were running stories about Bennett’s candidacy.  The interview was another score for Hutton, who moved to VOCM last year after spending more than 20 years at NTV.  The week before, Hutton broke the news of Paul Lane’s switch from the Conservatives to the Liberals.  Since taking over as news director at the province-wide radio network, Hutton had brought a number of changes to VOCM news programming.  VO does more  live coverage of political events than it did before.  The morning interview slot is a relatively new creation that pits VO against CBC’s flagship morning current affairs shows at a key time of the morning.  Radio audiences are biggest between 7:45 and 8:15 when people are getting off to work and school.

Hutton’s scoop about Paul Lane apparently caused some chagrin at rival CBC.  Once provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane got rolling on Monday morning, his contacts inside the Conservative Party filled in some colour on the impact of Lane’s decision to join the Liberals.  Other than that, though the big story was someone else’s. Not to be outdone, by mid-week, Cochrane was aggressively reporting all sorts of stories from inside the Conservative caucus and posting analysis on the Conservative’s problems to the CBC website.

The episode was reminiscent of NTV’s scoop about Danny Williams’ heart surgery in early 2010.  Cochrane and CBC were left scrambling at the time to add something to a story they clearly hadn’t a clue about until NTV broke it. Adding insult to injury, the provincial Conservatives attacked CBC savagely for invading Williams’ privacy but said nothing about Hutton and NTV.

The new competition between CBC and VOCM for political news has its parallel in the political competition that was the centrepiece of news on Wednesday.  Not to be outdone by Bill Barry,  Corner Brook native Premier Tom Marshall surprised everyone on Wednesday morning with an announcement that he’d shuffle his cabinet on Wednesday at precisely the same time as Barry would hold his launch. 

People knew Marshall needed to find a new finance minister but a day or two early, word had spread throughout St. John’s that Marshall would hold off the shuffle until the following week after the Conservative Party had announced details of the leadership contest. That made perfect sense. Some of Marshall’s cabinet ministers are looking at running and a delayed shuffle would avoid having to make several  trips to see the Lieutenant Governor.

Just having a surprise shuffle timed to coincide with Barry wasn’t enough, though.  Marshall told reporters after the shuffle that he would be launching an early review of Bill 29.  Reporters dutifully tweeted the review as a done deal.  One reporter joked on Twitter about two opponents of the secrecy law celebrating their victory now that  Marshall had announced a review, and by extension conceded defeat.

What review was that again?

The only problem was that Marshall actually didn’t announce anything real.  Marshall said that someone (he didn’t know who) would do something  (he didn’t say what) related to Bill 29. Marshall added some confusion by referring to the statutory review of the province’s access to information law that was due in 2015. 

In his comments to reporters, Marshall only acknowledged that people were concerned about Bill 29.  He told a story about one unnamed person who was concerned but who couldn’t actually identify anything in the Bill that was bothersome.  That’s consistent with the Conservative argument all along that people had been misinformed or, to borrow Susan Sullivan’s words had succumbed to a “mob” mentality. It doesn’t fit with anyone conceding that Bill 29 was wrong.

So after a couple of years denying that Bill 29 did anything wrong, the Conservatives appeared to backtrack.  They hadn’t, of course.  And there’s no coincidence in Marshall’s announcement about Bill 29.  Across the island, in Corner Brook,  Bill Barry announced his candidacy to replace Marshall with the declaration that Bill 29 was the most anti-democratic measure he’d ever seen.

The Return of Felix the Collins

Marshall’s announcement was a painfully obvious effort to take some of the wind out of Barry’s sails.  If it had any effect at all, Marshall’s announcement would likely be a short one.  Part of the cabinet shuffle on Wednesday included the return of the bumbling Felix Collins as attorney general.  Collins was the minister of justice and attorney general at the time the Conservatives pushed Bill 29 through the House.  If justice minister Darin King decides to have a go at the leadership, the Bill 29 “review” will happen with Collins likely back in the same job he had when the Bill went through the House in the first place. 

What’s more, the Conservatives announced in the 2013 budget that Collins would be leaving cabinet as a cost-saving measure.  As it turned out, Collins lasted until October 9, 2013. His time out of cabinet was barely three months.  For some reason, Marshall thought it important to tell everyone on Wednesday that Collins was coming back to cabinet at less than the full cabinet minister’s salary.  Some people reported it as half pay.  Others said it was 60%. If he takes over for King, that won’t make any difference, most likely.

Perhaps in all the fuss of the past week, the Conservatives haven’t made much headway with their other review, the one into the Nalcor-caused blackout crisis that contributed to Kathy Dunderdale’s downfall.  She announced that out of the blue, much like Marshall’s Bill 29 thing.  And like the Bill 29 thing, Dunderdale didn’t know who would be doing it or indeed even what they’d be doing.  She just told reporters someone would do something and that they’d be “independent”.  She couldn’t say what they’d be independent of or indeed when they’d start work, either.

Tom Finds his Kathy

The rest of Marshall’s shuffle was equally uninspiring.  To his credit, Marshall did something that even the Great Emancipator herself could not do:  appoint a woman as finance minister.  Don’t read more into it than that, though.  Charlene Johnson’s only identifiable qualification for the job is her unjustifiable arrogance and her ability to attack people critical of the government whether they be reporters who exposed government incompetence or the distraught parents of a child taken into custody. 

Arrogance.  That’s a common complaint among politicians who have been in power too long.

And it’s also a word that seems to have inspired Bill Barry.  In addition to the usual words  one hears around politics these days – democracy, transparency, accountability – Barry added “humility” to the signs decorating his campaign launch.  Humility is the opposite of arrogance.

Change Versus More of The Same

Barry offers the Conservatives some competition and it evidently worries them.  Marshall’s sudden shuffle and the Bill 29 announcement tell of their worry.  Barry worries them because he opposes the current government policies but is doing so from inside the Conservative Party.  He is aggressive, well-funded and articulate.  Barry also knows the issues that wear on Tom Marshall’s nerves. 

Take as an example Barry’s call for the people of Corner Brook to know what is going on at the city’s paper mill.   Marshall has been the city’s most powerful politician since 2003.  He’s been dealing with the mill issue throughout, most recently as the mill struggles to finish a deal with the province for cash.  The whole thing hangs over Tom’s head like a roll of newsprint.  The longer the deal sits unfinished the more worried the people in Corner Brook become about the future of the major private sector employer in the region.

And if it is not the mill that weighs on the minds of people in the Second City, they are worried about Marshall’s promise of a brand new hospital in Corner Brook.  Marshall and Danny Williams announced Corner Brook an elaborate hospital in 2007 and seven years later the thing is no closer to reality than the day before.

There’s no obvious explanation for the delay.  It’s not like Marshall hasn’t been in a position as Danny Williams’ right hand or as minister of finance to get it done. Perhaps that he is now Premier and the de facto finance minister – Johnson is to Tom as Dunderdale in natural resources was to Williams – something might happen with the hospital.

Exactly as expected, Bill Barry launched a frontal assault not only on Tom Marshall Wednesday but also on the Conservative Party Establishment.  The fight is on.  Now we have to see who the Establishment will rally behind as their own candidate to fight off any risk of real change within the ruling party.

The winter in Newfoundland has been colder than usual.  That changed on Wednesday. 

Competition always makes things hotter.