28 January 2014

The Jim Bennett Effect #nlpoli

Having tried to slide by without renewing their party,  the provincial Conservatives are now talking up the joys of change.

They’ve talked about everything else. 

Change is the only thing they haven’t talked about.

So now it’s their new talking point.

Problem is that they don’t seem to be doing much to … well… change.

Now that doesn’t mean the Conservatives won’t change.  It just means you have to look at the words and compare them to the actions.  See if they match or, as the Monday morning post noted, there’s a sizeable disconnect between the two. Draw the conclusion the evidence reveals. 

Right now, it doesn’t look like the  Conservative Party crowd are setting up for a real change.

The key words there are “right now”.  Things might develop differently as time goes by. it’s the nature of things when the leader of a political party steps down.  Kathy Dunderdale started out in 2010 as a caretaker Premier.  Even Kathy said that she didn’t plan to hang around.  A few weeks later and, by one account, a leader wannabe banged into another bunch calling around to secure support for the “Keep Kathy For a While Longer” faction.  He changed his plans right away when he found out the new lay of the land.

Things changed.

And they changed really obviously, even though people have since tried to claim that the backroom deal to avoid a leadership fight before the general election never actually happened.

Flip ahead to the past week.  The lesson here is that you should take with a huge grain of salt any comments that purport to be the definitive way things will roll out.  That doesn’t matter whether it is a media report based on the comments on unnamed party insiders or a forecast by a politician like Susan Sullivan this past weekend on CBC’s On Point with David Cochrane that the leader will come in June and then hit the barbecue circuit over the summer.

We’ve already seen a shift of timelines.  Last week, Premier Tom Marshall said he’d shuffle his cabinet this week.  Well, on Monday that shifted to maybe next week because he doesn’t know how many cabinet ministers might run to replace him.  Tom doesn’t know because they haven’t decided.  They haven’t decided because the people controlling the party haven’t decided on the leadership contest rules.

The smartest thing anyone of the reputed candidates said in the past week came – not surprisingly - from Tim Powers.  The others have all said they are seriously thinking about it or no comment or the like.  That’s what future non-candidates will say.  Some of them might be.  Most of them will likely drop out.

Only the perpetual lightning rod Bill Barry has said “Game on!”

But Tim said something else.  Tim said he’ll wait to make any decision until after the party crowd announce the rules.  That’s a smart move given what happened in 2010 and early 2011.  The rules could determine whether someone currently not in the caucus would stand a chance of getting in the race, let alone win.

As we all learned in the last trip down this leadership road,  the Conservative Party constitution is written in plastic words.  That is, the crowd running it can make the words say anything they want.  The party constitution talks about a member-based selection process for a party that hasn’t maintained membership lists in probably 20 years.  They elect candidates in districts at every election.  Anyone qualified to vote in the province can vote in the candidate selection even though the constitution says they must be party members.

So after the backroom deal last time out,  Kathy Dunderdale filed her papers with the party. No other party insider did.  When someone else showed up with a form containing the names of qualified voters in the province, the party insiders met for the better part of a day to chew it over.  In the end, the insiders rejected the nomination based on their claim that the nomination papers didn’t contain the names of enough party members to qualify.  How one would find a list of members in a party with no membership lists was a detail they didn’t volunteer.

So yeah,  Tim Powers and any other candidates would be wise to hold their decision until after the party tells everyone what the rules will be.  No point in getting involved if someone puts in the fix. 

The other important words in that sentence back there were “Conservative Party crowd”.  All too often, people speak about political parties like they are some kind of single voice.  Truth is they are less like the Borg and more like the demon love-children of crows and cats.  They often aren’t what they appear to be and aren’t partial to all going in the one direction without some measure of incentive applied generously to ego or skull, depending.

They aren’t one, like-minded bunch.  They are individuals and factions with different ideas, different objectives, and different amounts of power.  You can likely split them up a bunch of different ways whether it is to understand them or manage them.  What differences matter at what times might also change.  That’s why you have to keep an eye on lots of things, in order to figure out what is going on behind the scenes.

So when you look at the Conservative Party again realise that you can split the caucus into the crowd in cabinet and the ones who aren’t.  And within those bunches there are people who need another election to get their pension and another bunch who are happy coasting to retirement at some point later on.  They don’t all agree on everything as events last week or during the European trade talks showed in spades.

You can also split the elected crowd from the party executive crowd. They might have a couple of different perspectives on something like who should lead the party and what the future should be. It’s not like we haven’t seen that before.The Liberal Party ran a leadership and wound up with Jim Bennett. Caucus had other ideas. 

If you take it seriously that the caucus and cabinet plan to carry on with government  - presumably with a budget and throne speech - while a leadership race is going on, you might be seeing much the same sort of thing inside the Conservative Party.  The crowd who have serious money on their own personal political futures might not be taking too kindly to the idea of someone coming in from the outside and messing with their plans.  They might be peeing on trees, so to speak, to mark their territory.  They might be signalling that they want is a new figurehead to replace the old figurehead,  a new frontman for the band while the people actually making the music stay the same.

They also might be signalling that they remember way it broke down at another delegated convention for another political party.  It’s the leadership contest they all talked about while the Liberals ran their recent one.  In 2001,  the delegates at the Liberal convention split.  The caucus, the former candidates and MHAs, the party executive people and all the districts went with Roger Grimes. The elected delegates went to John Efford. The result was a party and a cabinet that was badly split in a bunch of ways. 

Just as the so-called ex-officios won the 2001 Liberal leadership racket,  the Conservative Party result hasn’t happened yet.  It could go another way:  real change might happen.  That might frighten some powerful, influential people, even if it would be the best thing for the party as a whole.

You see, as much as some people like to talk about party leaderships and local politics as though the leaders are the only thing going on,  what actually happens is more often than not a lot more complex.