19 April 2014

Legitimacy and Credibility #nlpoli

In the crude, modern way of putting things, shit got real for Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman on Friday.

The Telegram’s James McLeod tweeted Coleman’s response to a question about whether Coleman planned to do this year what he normally does on Good Friday and participate in the anti-abortion march in Corner Brook.

Here’s what McLeod tweeted:

Media preview

And then Twitter exploded.

None of this is surprising.

On Thursday,  all pretence in the Conservative Party leadership contest fell away as Bill Barry dropped out out of the race leaving only Coleman in the running. 

Coleman has been able to run a peek-a-boo campaign until now.  He shows up here and there for a few minutes,  hangs around with Conservatives, and then disappears.  He’s done a couple of media interviews but none have delved into anything about Coleman, his views, and his political plans once in office.

The only thing between Coleman and the Premier’s office at this point is ceremony. Legally, he could take office as early as next week.  Everyone will now want to know everything about him.

Not surprising.

How could they not be ready for this?

What is surprising  is that neither Coleman nor his team seems to have been ready for questions about Coleman’s conservative religious views.  It’s not like they are a secret.  Coleman and his family have indeed marched on Good Friday for years against abortion.  His wife and some of his children actually turned up at the one held this year.  He staunchly opposed the end of sectarian education in Newfoundland and Labrador 17 years ago.

Coleman, private citizen, is entitled to his views.  But these are also major public policy issues.  People have a right to know about his views and how he plans to approach governing.

Normally, a political campaign team would have responses ready for every conceivable question about their candidate.  If they were really on top of their game, they’d be pushing information forward so that they shaped opinions about the candidate before someone tried to create an issue out of some belief or indiscretion.

Coleman’s campaign team, by contrast,  seemed to have some idea that they could leisurely stroll into office without saying very much of anything about anything. More often than not, Coleman has answered media questions with prepared statements. They’ve done nothing to define Coleman for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, at all. 

Define yourself or be defined

And that’s not just surprising, it is gobsmackingly astounding. They are allowing others to define Coleman.  That doesn;t bode well for his political career.

If you want to get a sense of how unprepared Coleman and his people are, take a look at the statementEmbedded image permalink Coleman’s campaign team released after questions came up about his participation in the anti-abortion march. 

The statement just confirms what everyone knows.  They wait, though, for three paragraphs to do that.

After the first statement – that merely confirms this is a statement issued by Coleman’s campaign – there are two paragraphs celebrating the right for people to have opinions.

Then there is the statement of what people already knew. Then there’s another statement of what people know:  Coleman and his family protest against abortion because they share beliefs about “the value of human life.”

The last paragraph confirms that Coleman doesn’t believe in breaking the law. Then it congratulates Coleman for stating that he believes something and affirms that he does not “intend to impose my personal views.”  Normally one imposes views on someone but that bit of the sentence is missing.

The statement doesn’t really say very much, does it? Coleman’s campaign team is clearly concerned that his conservative religious beliefs are a touchy issue.  That’s why the statement spends so much time talking about democracy and differences of opinion before it says what is actually nothing but a matter of public knowledge.

What the statement doesn’t get at is the real issue that many people will likely wonder about.  They are wondering how – if at all -Coleman’s personal views might affect the policies his administration will implement.  On that, Coleman is absolutely silent.  And that’s what will continue to dog him for the next few days.

A timely question

Abortion and Coleman’s potential action as Premier is a timely issue, given recent developments in New Brunswick.  The only private clinic that provides abortions in that province  there will be closing due to lack of funds.  The provincial government in New Brunswick has a policy that effectively restricts publicly funded access to abortion in the province to two facilities, if two doctors agree the procedure is medically necessary. The provincial government doesn’t pay for abortions done in private clinics.

In other provinces, like Newfoundland and Labrador,  the provincial medical care plan covers the cost of an abortion at the province’s Morgentaler clinic. It’s been a provincial government policy since 1998.

A future Coleman administration could change the current funding policy, restrict access to abortion as in New Brunswick, and still remain within the meaning of Coleman’s statement that he will abide by the rule of law and not impose his personal views on others about abortion.  No one should pre-judge what Coleman will do in office, of course, but Coleman and his team certainly know that the statement they issued contains a lot of wiggle room. They deliberately wrote it that way.

Defensiveness sucks

That’s one of the reasons why written statements like this one are the worst way of handling complex political issues like abortion.  This statement reeks of something crafted by a room full of corporate lawyers and bureaucrats. 

The most effective political answer would have been one that cuts the whole issue off, unequivocally:  

Yes,  I oppose abortion and have attended these marches in the past as a private citizen.  As Premier,  I represent all people in the province and as such  I won’t be attending such marches now or for as long as I am Premier.  Members of my family won’t be attending either.

One of our strengths in Newfoundland and Labrador must be the ability to disagree on issues and still find ways to work together in mutual understanding.  Everyone can be assured that, regardless of my personal views,  my administration will do nothing to change current provincial government policy on access to abortion.

Simple.  Clear.  Unequivocal.  Those two paragraphs embody the position of someone who has firm beliefs of his own and who respects choice made by others. 

This is not like some financial issue where Frank might need to change his mind later on.  Abortion is not an issue you want to leave hanging over any candidates head.  Coleman needed clarity.  His campaign team gave him something else. 

Legitimacy and Credibility Deficits

Normally, abortion is the kind of issue that would come up in an election campaign.  That’s the time when candidates pass tests,  when they get to persuade the public to vote for them.  Campaigns are many things,  but in a very real sense, campaigns and the election that come at the end are the way that the winner gains legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 

Coleman has missed that. The result is that while he may be the premier in law in a few cays or weeks, he will lack the legitimacy every leader needs.  He will only get that once he goes to the polls and gets a mandate of his own.

In addition to that legitimacy deficit, Coleman and his team have been adding a credibility deficit.  They’ve been facing relentless questions about the fairness of the Conservative leadership race.   On pointed questions about Danny Williams’ involvement in his decision to run, Coleman has been persistently evasive.

That credibility deficit got wider with his response to the abortion issue.  Adding a tweeted insistence that the statement is “personal” just reinforces the idea that the statement actually isn’t Coleman’s personal view.


If the statement was personal, then Frank could have – should have -  made it in person to reporters using his own voice and his own words.  Coleman’s actions  in sending out a written statement  don’t match his words about the impersonal nature of a prepared statement. That creates an immediate credibility problem.  And for a guy about to slide into the highest elected political office in the province without having the legitimacy of a winning election behind him,  credibility is not something Coleman can do without.

Coleman’s prepared statement schtick can realistically only last for another couple of days.  Once the holiday weekend is over, the local news media will be all over Coleman and his team looking for real comments from Coleman in his own voice.  He will need to close the credibility gap.  If he doesn’t,  if Coleman and his team doesn’t start handling the media with more sophistication than they’ve been showing so, things will only get worse.

A lot worse.