29 January 2014

The Hobby Garden of Meh, Whatever #nlpoli

What’s so striking about the race to replace Kathy Dunderdale as leader of the provincial Conservative Party is how spectacularly unspectacular it is so far.

Maybe things will change once the Conservative Party executive meets to figure out the leadership contest rules. But so far the whole thing has been decidedly dull.

They’re at the gate!

Things are so dull – in fact – that it seems like local reporters are just dialling people at random through their contacts list to see if they might be potentially thinking about maybe calling someone to see if they should take a run at the job. 

Not surprisingly, many of them are telling reporters they are “seriously considering” it.   The same thing happened during the Liberal leadership contest.  The big difference between the Liberal and Conservative leadership contests is that the Tory winner will be Premier.  That increases the chances people are likely to say they are “thinking it over.”

The way reporting goes these days even people who didn’t return telephone calls can get added to the list of those rumoured to be mulling over a bid.  The whole approach creates a wonderfully entertaining illusion of people lining up for a race, whether they actually are or not. When someone confirms they are in, that’s news.  When someone confirms they aren’t running – even if they never really were serious candidates – well that’s news too. 

Horse-race reporting is a familiar style of political reporting these days.  It’s easy enough to do and lends itself readily to the hype about the latest breaking “news”  that is a staple of modern, ratings-driven news shows even at the publicly-funded CBC. 

How many of them are serious? 

The only one definitely in the race – regardless of rules or anything else – is to be Bill Barry.  He’s the controversial entrepreneur whose name is used to frighten the children in some parts of Newfoundland. Barry will make his campaign official at a news conference in Corner Brook later on Wednesday.

Barry will run a lively race, no matter what.  He’ll be mounting an outsiders campaign, aimed at rejecting the course the Conservative Party is on at the moment and pulling it in a whole new direction.

What’s hard to know at this point is how much interest he will attract among Conservative Party members. There will be a big contingent of ex-officio delegates at the convention.  Barry might not be popular with them.  If he has a good organization – and Barry’s got the money to fund it on his own - he might pick up elected delegates to offset that. 

So far the only definite drop-out is Paul Davis.  The child, youth, and family services minister told reporters he hadn’t even thought about running until some people suggested it to him last week.  Davis knows that if he runs again, he’ll be in cabinet.  He’s performed well so far.

Of the rest, most won’t run as they were never seriously thinking about it in the first place. They are like Paul Davis:  thinking about it because other people tossed their names out there.  Even if some of them were actually mulling it over, they’d be pretty much wasting their time.

Take John Ottenheimer and Paul Oram, as prime examples.  Both quit politics in 2006 and 2009 respectively citing ill health.  They are each a decade past their political prime.  Both represent the party as it is and as it was a decade ago.  They are decidedly not what the party needs if the goal is to compete with the re-invigorated Liberals.  Besides, Oram and his protégé Sandy Collins seem to favouring Bill Barry’s candidacy. It would be odd for Oram to jump into a race he’s unlikely to win unless he was part of someone’s larger game plan.

Of the current politicians mentioned as potential candidates, only Darin King and Steve Kent are likely to give it a go.  Kent is nothing if not a pot of ambition and he’s been restraining his desire to be Premier ever since he had to shut down the “Draft Steve Kent” movement in 2010.  A run now and a decent showing would give Kent a claim to a promotion in cabinet under whoever actually wins.

Ditto Darin King.  He’s also got the ambition to be Premier. While he would have been a stronger contender three years ago, his performance since then has shown he isn’t really up to the job he currently has. Odds are he wouldn’t fare any better running the whole show than he has as justice minister and government House leader. But, as with Kent, a decent showing would keep him in a decent cabinet job.

Derek Dalley and Keith Hutchings lack the experience one would normally expect in prospective Premiers.  That said, they both seem to handling potentially tough departments very well.  They are likely to make it into a future Premier’s cabinet anyway just on those grounds.  They wouldn’t need to rack up a huge deb on a lost cause if they  could get the same spot by backing the likely winner.

In another administration, Dalley and Hutchings  - along with Davis - might well be the sort of up-and-comers a Premier would shuffle so that they can build their skills and broaden their experience.  Unfortunately for all three, the Conservatives under Danny Williams and latterly the figurehead premiership of Kathy Dunderdale didn’t practice that kind of internal renewal.  The party is paying for it now.

Outside the caucus, Tim Powers has a successful career in Ottawa and reputed federal ambitions. That makes it more likely that Tim will pass on the Premier’s job in favour of wielding much more influence as a consultant.   He’s a smart guy.  He doesn’t need the grief.

Shawn Skinner might have a go but he’s got a successful career outside of politics.  He’s doing better outside the old game and, given the problems the Conservatives face, Skinner would be trading a good life for a couple of years of guaranteed pain. 

That said, Skinner could wind up as the Establishment candidate.  If Bill Barry shows strongly from the start or picks up traction,  the Powers That Be will have to find someone to carry their banner.  Skinner is as good a choice to hold the flag as anyone.

Lastly, people are talking about Charlie Oliver.  Put him in the WTF? pile as yet another bizarre candidate with little chance of winning and even less of a chance of running in the first place.

Field of Dreams it ain’t

What’s most remarkable about the Conservative Party leadership is the apparent lack of preparation or lack of enthusiasm of anyone – even King and Kent – to take over. 

It’s not like Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation should have been a real surprise to insiders. Anyone watching outside knew it was a matter of time before she too frigged off to Florida like her predecessor.  Kathy Dunderdale apparently told Tom Marshall last June she was going to pack it in. 

From inside, any ambitious sort should have known something was likely to happen sooner rather than later.  The Party hadn’t changed the constitution since 2010 so the process has been well known for some time. Overall, it’s not like they couldn’t have been getting ready.

Still, it’s only a week in. 

Bill Barry will definitely create a pop out the gate.  People will be watching him to see whose on the Barry team.  They’ll be watching to see if Barry can sustain the initial interest and energy in his candidacy. 

Otherwise,  there’s not likely to be much life in the campaign, at least not if events of the past week are any indication.