22 January 2014

The Second Longest Slow Good-bye #nlpoli

Provincial Conservatives will get together on Wednesday morning and eventually admit the worst kept secret in local political circles:  the local Tories will have a new leader before the next election.

Kathy always was an interim leader.  The original plan was to keep her for a few months to keep the lights on and some heat in the office so the pipes didn’t freeze.  Once the 2011 election came and went, the Conservatives were supposed to dump her, hold a leadership and carry on from there.

As it turned out, Kathy Dunderdale just lasted a lot longer than people originally intended. 

The Backroom Deal

That’s really important to recall because – frankly – way too many people just forget that it ever happened. The Conservatives decided in December 2010 to keep Kathy Dunderdale beyond the original end-date because they feared the internal divisions they believed a leadership contest would inevitably bring.

Maybe they had reason to be afraid.  The last Conservative leadership contest that didn’t end in years of bitter acrimony was in 1979.  The contest in 1989 left Tom Rideout in the Premier’s Office for a mere 43 days but the party suffered for years afterward as the various pretenders to the throne after another stabbed and clawed at each other.  The Conservative response in 2001 was to crown a new saviour.  In 2010, that saviour appointed his replacement and the caucus kept her because – as it seems – those old scars ran very deep.

The Conservatives got through the 2011 election but the result was nothing to write home about.  They won a majority but with only 32% of eligible voters backing them.  They lost two cabinet ministers and the Premier’s parliamentary assistant in the process as well as  bedrock Conservative seats in metro St. John’s.

That was the high point.

By the middle of 2012, the Conservatives were polling in second place to the New Democrats.  That wasn’t a new trend.  The Conservatives had been dropping steadily since early 2010.  Many political observers didn’t see the trend until it got so bad that even Corporate Research Associates couldn’t miss it.

No matter how bad things got, the Conservatives haven’t been able to respond effectively.  They blamed their sorry polling on communications problems but there was obviously more to it than that. By the spring of 2013, things had deteriorated inside the administration to the point that the Conservatives couldn’t even organize a session of the legislature.

Everyone’s in charge.  No one’s in charge.

The problem was much deeper.  Its roots lay in the way the Conservatives operated.  They’d replaced the highly centralized and tightly controlled government of the Williams period with an amazingly decentralized administration that lacked any sort of cohesion or co-ordination. There have been other clues to the internal problems.  For example, the cabinet lacks a planning and priorities committee for the first time in more than 40 years. 

The resulting chaos showed up most clearly in the 2013 budget and the debacle in the justice department under Darin King. His experience corresponds to the comments offered this week by some cabinet ministers about Dunderdale’s loose style.  They are also consistent with the government’s disorganized response to the recent blackouts caused by problems at Nalcor. 

The Premier’s Office initially referred media calls for comment to the minister responsible for emergency management, despite the fact he was in Florida on vacation.  The minister did media interviews and tweeted comments during the crisis without disclosing he was out of the province.  For her part,  the Premier referred to the public emergency as anything but a crisis – despite her staff’s action in referring calls to the emergency minister.

Inaction speaks louder than words

As SRBP noted in 2012, the fundamental problem inside the Conservative caucus is that they need to change but no one can pull together enough power to makes the changes everyone needs. The majority of cabinet and caucus are ROADies. They’ve retired on active duty.

The people controlling things in cabinet and hence in caucus are, for the most part, due to retire or – in Tom Marshall’s case – overdue for the pasture.  They are happy where they are and just want to enjoy their last few years to retirement exercising power and fattening their pensions. 

The people who need to get re-elected in 2015 want changes but they can’t pull together enough juice of their own to make a change.  And in the highly diffused world of cabinet,  they cannot even persuade individual ministers to make changes.  That’s one of the messages that comes clearly out of Paul lane’s flip to the Liberals.

Lane didn’t switch because of some fundamental problems with Kathy Dunderdale.  There’s no evidence to back his claims that he had been openly discontented for some time.  To the contrary,  the surprise evident from his former caucus mates suggests he was one of the team right up until he decided to bolt. 

Lane’s hasty switch to the Liberals looks more like a panicky move by a guy thinking about his pension rather than someone who was deeply concerned about accountability and transparency and fundamental injustice of Bill 29.  His quick flip to the Liberals speaks volumes about his lack of confidence not in the largely fictional Premier Kathy Dunderdale – the figurehead leader – but rather in the ability of his entire caucus to produce the sorts of change needed to turn around the polls and keep Paul as an elected member of the legislature.

They’ve had two years to do something and so far the only thing the provincial Conservatives have done is acknowledge they might need to do something.  Inaction speaks louder than their insistence that all is well and that they love Kathy Dunderdale’s glorious leadership.

Kathy’s Choice

The political impotence inside the Conservative caucus has left Kathy Dunderdale as the only person who could determine her political future. Apparently, she has now decided to go sooner rather than later. 

What happens next remains to be seen.