13 March 2014

All hail the Glorious Leader Trope #nlpoli

Province to deliver on promise of whistleblower law”  read the headline for the CBC’s online story about the provincial government throne speech read Wednesday in the House of Assembly.

About half way down the story,  it says that “Premier Tom Marshall is fighting back  against the perception” that the government he’s been a part of since 2003 is secretive. 

You’ll see the same idea in the Telegram’s story:

In today’s throne speech, Premier Tom Marshall made his most significant signal so far that the government is doing everything possible to be more open and transparent.

quoteLast week, everyone told us that public satisfaction with the Conservative administration went up because of Tom Marshall. Corporate Research Associates certainly credited Marshall with the boost in the news release that covered the release of their poll data. The panel on CBC’s On Point with David Cochrane [March 8]all agreed that Marshall might play a significant role because, after all, he was the guy who boosted that satisfaction number.

What’s interesting about this idea, that Tom Marshall alone did all this, is simply not true.

It helps to read your own polls

In the CRA poll, it’s actually really easy to see that it isn;t true that getting rid of Kathy Dunderdale and replacing her with Tom Marshall boosted the Conservative Party’s “satisfaction” numbers.

Sure, it is true that if we compare the February 2014 poll with the one from November 2013, 15% more respondents reported that they were either mostly or completely satisfied with the government’s performance.  And yes, it is true that Tom Marshall replaced Kathy Dunderdale as Premier in late January, before CRA conducted its February poll.

But take a look at the satisfaction numbers for the two quarters before February 2014.  Satisfaction with the Conservative government went up 11% in November compared to August.  Kathy Dunderdale was still Premier.  No one has explained that.

Now one of the reasons why people paid attention to the satisfaction numbers above other information in the poll results is that CRA played it up in their news release. Right there in sentence number one in paragraph number one:

There has been a marked improvement in overall satisfaction with the performance of the provincial PC government with new leader Tom Marshall

They created the connection between Marshall and the jump in satisfaction.  You can say they created it because, as far as the information in the release goes, it doesn’t appear CRA ever asked anyone why they liked the Conservatives. 

Yet, when asked about it by the Telegram, for example, CRA’s Don Mills told them this:

“That’s a significant message that the former premier was pretty unpopular,” CRA president Don Mills said. “That’s an enormous change. We don’t normally see that kind of shift.”

Evidently Don doesn’t read his own poll results or if he does, he just doesn;t quite understand the simple numbers.  Far from being an enormous shift that “we don’t normally see”,  the February jump was a bit larger than the one in November.

Incidentally, in their release about the November poll, Mills and CRA relegated the climb in satisfaction numbers to the second paragraph.  They made no mention at all of Kathy Dunderdale.

We Love the Leader

To be fair to crowd at CRA,  the other reason people picked up on the Tom Marshall connection took a bit more than Don Mills’ pronouncements.  Around these parts, people are accustomed to thinking that way about politics.  In popular talk about Newfoundland and Labrador politics, the leader is everything.  We love our strong leaders, supposedly. Those leaders pick fights with Ottawa. And when they go, everything changes. Doesn’t matter if it is part of a party change or not: when we have a new Premier, then nothing that went before still applies and whatever happens now is solely to the credit or debit of the current Premier.

That emphasis on the leader has been really pronounced over the past decade.  Look at the way people quickly and easily accepted the idea that Stephen Harper had nothing better to do than wreak personal vengeance on Newfoundland and Labrador for supposed slights against the federal Conservatives.

Then there was the idea, back in 2006, Danny Williams was personally responsible for rooting out the corruption embodied in what became known as the House of Assembly spending scandal.  The misspending actually went up under the Conservatives and continued for two whole years after the Tories took power.  But that didn’t stop people from taking the line out of the official news release about Danny Williams’ personal credit exposing the scandal and repeating it as if it was true.

The old, old story

Part of what we are seeing with Tom Marshall is, in fact, a repetition of what happened when Danny Williams resigned suddenly and unexpectedly and left Kathy Dunderdale in charge.

Cast your mind back for a bit.  CBC reported on December 30, 2010, for example, that Kathy Dunderdale “ordered ministers to settle a 13-month strike involving a small group of support workers on the Burin Peninsula, and later asked ministers to end a nearly two-year negotiation with physicians that concluded last week with ratification of a new pay package.”

That’s a rather curious notion, though.  After all, as SRBP noted at the time, Dunderdale was part of the inner circle of senior cabinet ministers who wielded the most influence in the administration.  Had she “felt strongly about the doctor’s dispute or about the Burin situation she was in a position to change the government’s position. She didn’t. She supported it consistently.”

“Similarly, both Tom Marshall and Jerome Kennedy” – the two ministers Dunderdale supposedly “ordered” around in 2010 – “held ministerial portfolios that gave them both legal and political power to resolve the matters long before the government finally settled both. The truth is that cabinet changed its approach to these two issues for reasons other than the arrival of a new leader who is compassionate,” as the official messaging at the time had it.

The same is especially true for Tom Marshall and the whistleblower law in 2014. Marshall was even closer to Williams than Dunderdale ever dreamed of being. He held Williams confidence from before the 2003 general election.  Marshall remained at the centre of power after 2010, as one of the cabinet’s key ministers.  Had he felt strongly about the need for the Conservatives to keep the 2007 promise on whistleblower protection, he could have easily pushed for it. There’s no sign Marshall had any trouble making his voice heard.

So if the Conservatives have decided to  reverse their position on whistleblower protection completely, odds are that Tom Marshall isn’t the guy who single-handedly saw the light within the past couple of weeks.  After all, as much as the Conservatives tried to claim that Kathy Dunderdale single-handedly secured the European free trade deal, it looks like she was actually out of step with what other ministers wanted and finally got.  The claim about Dunderdale’s great leadership was just the latest re-run of the Glorious Leader trope.

Well, the latest until they swapped out “Marshall” for “Dunderdale” in the Glorious Leader cliche.