31 March 2014

Kremlinology 44: Optics #nlpoli

Media previewDanny Williams appeared in Virginia Waters on Saturday  to campaign for Danny Breen, the Conservative candidate in the by-election.

Breen’s campaign wasted no time in pushing out pictures of The Appearance, like the one above, another one showing him with some young fellows out posting Breen campaign signs in the district, or the one below showing him with some volunteers in Breen’s headquarters.Media preview

Sharp eyes will notice that the shot of the two Dannys is actually from something else entirely, not the campaign, but that’s neither here nor there.

What is important to notice is that this is the first time the Old Man has turned out publicly for His party since Hisself left the leadership in an unseemly haste in late 2010.

That’s what makes The Appearance stand out. 

The Old Man has been content until now to do his work behind the scenes either directly or through agents.  The fact Hisself is out pressing the flesh among the faithful sends a bunch of potent messages.

For those hard-working Conservative volunteers in the picture, a Williams’ sighting will be a tonic to their nerves.  They will feel refreshed and reassured.  They will tackle their door-knocking and phone-calling with renewed vigour.

They need a pick-me-up.  Despite the brave claims you may hear publicly, the Conservatives are hurting and have been for some time.  They remain mired at the bottom of the polls and the seed of any good feeling toward them seems unable to find any purchase on the rocky soil of Newfoundland and Labrador politics. 

Breen stumbles

Conservative morale undoubtedly took a smack from a story in Saturday’s Telegram that confirmed that their candidate in Virginia Waters – Danny Breen – had signed on last year to support Liberal leadership candidate Cathy Bennett, now running for the Liberals against Breen. 

Breen’s explanation for his action was weak:  “Siobhan [Coady] asked me to sign up, so I signed up,”  Breen told the Telegram’s James McLeod.  Coady was organizing for Bennett, as everyone knew at the time. In another part of the story,  McLeod quotes Breen this way:

“I didn’t support the Liberals last fall,” he told The Telegram this week. “There was lots of PCs signed up for the Liberal leadership race.”

Anyone who has been around a political campaign knows that putting your name on a list means you will be targeted in the future for money or votes or whatever the party needs. Signing up to support a party – as you had to do in last year’s Liberal leadership -  is not something you’d expect a politician to do without understanding the consequences. You are going to get calls and if you turn up supporting another party,  you might expect that information to appear in public at the most inconvenient time.

Those are a few reasons why Breen’s decision to sign up as a Liberal for Bennett looks very peculiar.  Here’s another reason: Danny Breen is on the list of people over at the Liberal Party office of those who support the current provincial Liberal party.  Your humble e-scribbler’s name isn’t.  Think about that for a minute.  Breen’s Conservative associates certainly will.

The Breen story will have some legs on the talk shows on Monday for sure.  That may keep him away from the media for a while.  If it has knocked Breen off his campaigning game, then the Liberals will think the story had done a good job for them.

Protesting too much

The Breen story certainly seems to have upset Conservative activists. Lots of them spent Saturday morning on Twitter and a lot of other places trying to rationalize Breen’s actions. They may have said it was no big deal, but the forcefulness of their denials said the opposite.  

It’s a bit like the panic in 2009 when not one but two cabinet ministers quit politics in a hurry.  The first clue to big morale problems in the Kingdom of Dannystan was Tony the Tory’s denial that anything was wrong. He sent a letter to every newspaper in the province to say that.  Well, one by-election loss does not usually trigger the Gotterdammerung.  All the same, Tony was petrified that it did or was so mortified that people might think the end was nigh that he had to tell everyone in the province that the Conservatives were not about to fall apart.

The Cult of Personality persists

As the polls have been dropping and as things have gotten worse for their party, lots of provincial Conservatives have been praying for Danny Williams to come back. They want everything to go back the way it was as quickly and with as little disruption as possible.

Every party in decline experiences that sort of sentiment to some degree or another.  What’s different for the Conservatives is that it is yet another sign that the personality cult around Williams and Williams’ grip on the party remains as strong as ever.

Consider some recent comments by party candidates.  Both Frank Coleman and Danny Breen said publicly that they asked for the Old Man’s advice and guidance before they entered the leadership race and the by-election, respectively. There’s a story making the rounds in Conservative circles that another leadership candidate wanted into the race.  The erstwhile candidate made the mandatory call to the Old Man but was told he was too close to Stephen Harper for Williams to approve.  The fellow dutifully backed out.

Think about that for a second. A leader who has supposedly gone from the scene holds such power in the provincial Conservative ranks that candidates must seek his blessing before running. No other political party in North America operates that way.

The best example of the grip Danny Williams holds on the Conservative Party actually comes from Shawn Skinner. Here’s a guy who supposedly wanted to be the leader of his party and the Premier of the province.  While he has never acknowledged that he spoke to Williams about the leadership, we do know that Skinner deliberately waited until it was clear Williams’ candidate would run before announcing that he too would sit out the race.

The fact that Skinner had to wait suggests that he is not on very good terms with the people controlling the Conservative party these days.  He couldn’t confirm that Coleman was the chosen one. 

Then there’s the reception Skinner got from the caucus.  In his interview with David Cochrane after he bowed out of the race(follow the link above),  Skinner mentioned that while some people listened to his pitch others didn’t. That seems to be part of another part of Williams’ legacy within the party.

They don’t like people who speak out of turn, who don’t do as they are told.  People who don’t fall in line get cut out.  Danny did it savagely to Fabian Manning, seeing to it that the caucus flung Manning out and kept pecking at him.  In the feud with the federal Conservatives Williams was so troubled by the possibility of dissent in his caucus that he publicly demanded that each member of caucus swear allegiance to his ABC campaign.

It wouldn’t be surprising, then to find out that the current bunch of Conservatives have been shunning Skinner.  After all, he’d spoken out of turn a few times both in caucus and since his defeat.  That defeat likely counted against him as well.  Not only did Shawn lose in 2011, but he lost to Geri Rogers, of breast cancer inquiry fame. And Skinner might even have had someone remind him of his role in shagging up something very, very important to Danny Williams.

Any one of those would likely have been enough to kill Skinner’s leadership ambitions.  Three just would have sealed it.  Now that is all speculation, mind you, but past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour, as one ex-politician used to say. Given the way the Conservatives have acted in the past, it wouldn’t be too hard to see them giving Skinner the same treatment others got.

Conservative supporters, especially those who were around when Williams was openly in charge, know that their job is to run with the herd.  Nothing makes them herd faster than word that the Old Man has blessed or set the direction. 

That’s the most likely reason why so many Conservatives have been herding for Frank Coleman even though they know nothing about Coleman.  Few have met him and aside from a couple of brief media appearances they likely don’t even know what his voice sounds like.  They certainly don’t know what he stands for because  Coleman hasn’t announced anything yet.  For all that, though, you’ll see Conservative activists lining up to swear that Coleman is the best possible choice.  And as David Cochrane put it to Coleman in his interview this past weekend,  even some of Coleman’s Conservative supporters believe Williams has put the fix in for Coleman as leader. If the fix isn’t in for Coleman, incidentally, it sure looks that way to some people.  

Screwing over their own

Whatever impact the Telegram story has on the by-election,  it will pale in comparison to damage the Conservatives did to Breen with this week’s budget. Not even a visit from Danny will likely fix it.

Conservative finance minister Charlene Johnson announced the government will introduce full-day kindergarten. Now that wouldn’t be so bad, normally except for one thing:  Cathy Bennett has been publicly campaigning for full-day kindergarten since last winter. When the Conservatives included all-day kindergarten as part of their budget, they gave Bennett a huge victory.

They also gifted her with 24 hours of free publicity.  Bennett appeared on television and in other media talking about full-day kindergarten and why it was a good idea.  She appeared as someone who could bring about change on a provincial scale.  Bennett looked like a cabinet minister in a future administration at least, and a future Premier at best.

The contrast with the Conservative campaign in Virginia Waters couldn’t have been any greater.  There, the Conservatives are running a campaign that is focused exclusively on the local.  They didn’t even bring Breen to the Confederation Building for the budget to hob-nob with his future caucus mates and to talk up the wonders of the Conservatives.  That would have worked in the context of their campaign but for whatever reason, the Conservatives didn’t take the opportunity to follow their own campaign strategy and tie Breen to the Party.

Instead, the best publicity the Conservatives could give to Breen this week was stage a campaign launch, which would have been nice except that it was about halfway into the campaign.  Lots of cabinet ministers.  Lots of volunteers all standing and sitting around listening to speeches, and not much else.  It was a pretty limp thing compared to the boost they gave Bennett. 

This wasn’t a good week for the provincial Conservatives or for Danny Breen.  Danny Williams’ appearance in the by-election campaign sure makes it look that way.