23 April 2014

Strategically Unwise and other political own-goals #nlpoli

Depending on which interview you listened to on Tuesday,  Tom Marshall would be hanging around as Premier until the end of the summer.

At least.

That’s the VOCM story.

Marshall will run the place for two full months after the Conservative convention in early July while Coleman runs around the province attending all sorts of summer festivals.

Meanwhile, on CBC,  Peter Cowan said in his report on Tuesday evening that Marshall expects to hand over the Premier’s job shortly after the Conservative party meeting in early July.

Which is it?

That’s a good question, but there’s no clear answer.

Waiting for Frank: a tragicomedy in two phases

If you want to know where VOCM got its story, check out Paddy Daly’s interview with Marshall. You can listen to the entire 27 minute interview for yourself thanks to Dave Adey’s youtube feed [link fixed]. At around the 11:30 mark, Marshall talks about the leadership hand-over on July 5, followed by Coleman’s plan to travel around the province meeting people during what Marshall calls Phase 2 of the leadership.  It sure sounds like Tom might stay until Frank is finished his tour.

Conservative Party president Cillian Sheahan said the same sort of thing about campaign phases in an interview with CBC’s Here and Now on Tuesday night. Sheahan defended Frank Coleman’s peek-a-boo campaign style.  It would have been “strategically unwise”, according to Sheahan, for Coleman to have spent any time talking to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador generally before actually winning the party leadership. Sheahan said that clearly political science professor Stephen Tomblin just didn’t understand how these things went.

Nice try on Sheahan’s part but all the party president did on Tuesday was confirm two things and maybe a third. First, he confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sheahan had no idea what Tomblin meant by an elitist party that decided for itself what would happen and then informed the public afterward of the fait accompli. If he did, then Sheahan wouldn’t have described such an exclusionary, elitist process and thought he was somehow refuting Tomblin’s argument.

Second, given Sheahan’s description of talking to the public as “strategically unwise”, we understand just how deeply embedded is the Conservative political problem. If leadership candidates talked to the population as a whole during this imaginary, internal Phase 1 Sheahan talked about, then the candidates would actually reach all the Conservatives who would be voting at the convention. Going along to the delegate selection meetings or holding public meetings of their own would just have doubled up their messages.


What’s more, the candidates who spoke to the province as a whole might actually attract new people to the party who found the candidates’ ideas refreshing and attractive. That’s pretty much what the Liberals did and look how well that worked. That would seem to be the essence of party reinvigoration but apparently the Conservatives have some other ideas on such things that normal people - i.e. not party insider elitists - can’t understand.

The third thing Sheahan may have confirmed is what lawyer wrote Frank Coleman’s god-awful speaking notes on abortion. The preposterous idea of calling a protest march by anti-abortion activists nothing more than a parade seems to have been entirely Coleman’s, though, but all that is another story.

Sticking to the Original Plan

Now it’s hard to know if the Phase 1/Phase 2 thing was the original way the Conservatives planned to run their leadership or if it is just an excuse now that Frank Coleman is under fire for his peek-a-boo campaign. Either way, you can see the results of this thinking in the turnout at the delegate selection meetings. By contrast to the tens of thousands of new supporters the Liberals attracted, the Conservative leadership was only pulling about 120-odd people to a meeting in a district currently held by a very senior cabinet minister. That’s about 20%, by the way, of what the Liberals got at a typical delegate selection meeting in their 2001 leadership contest.

What we do know is that the Conservatives won’t let Bill Barry’s decision last week upset whatever timetable they promised Coleman for his hand-over. Legally, constitutionally, and in just about every other way, in just about every other place in the Commonwealth, the Conservatives would be talking about how fast they can get their new leader in place. The faster the new guy is in power, the faster thy can get on with the business of getting their party ready for the next election.

Instead, the Conservatives here are all talking about the leadership as if it hasn’t been settled already. Former Conservative cabinet minister Trevor Taylor and former Conservative communications director Ronalda Walsh both talked with CBC’s St. John’s Morning Show  on Tuesday about Coleman’s need to spend time connecting with people in what Marshall and Sheahan were calling this Phase 2 of summer barbecue events. In talking about what Coleman needed to do to overcome his numerous political problems, neither Walsh nor Taylor suggested that Coleman needed to get into office any time soon.  Kissing babies on the barbecue circuit in order to make up for Coleman’s lack of policy depth was the most profound advice either of them offered.

Elite Accommodation

And that’s really the bizarre part of this story since last Thursday. Some people seem not only willing to accept the idea that a political neophyte should take over the most powerful political office in the province without any test, but are also willing to give him all the time in the world to learn a job he should know how to do already.

One can understand that Conservative Party activists have to support this process no matter how embarrassing it gets. After all, they have no say in who gets to lead their party. That much has been abundantly clear since Danny Williams picked his successor and then later after Kathy Dunderdale quit or was shoved out.

What’s nutso is that people like Liberal leader Dwight Ball don’t seem to have a problem with Coleman taking over the province at some undefined point in the future and then going to the polls at some unknown point after that.  Through a spokesperson, Ball said  that while Coleman “is the only candidate, he will not be leader of the PC party until July. Given that Mr. Coleman is still a private individual it would not be appropriate…to comment on the personal views of Mr. Coleman.”

That’s the same line – that these are personal, private views – taken by all three political parties, incidentally. The implicit meaning is that none of us ought to be discussing Coleman’s views about anything  because he is - as Ball contends - a private citizen or because – as the Conservatives would have it – the whole thing is just too embarrassing for words.

The future Premier’s personal opinions on all sorts of things are worthy of intense scrutiny before he takes office, not afterward. To argue otherwise is to confirm Tomblin’s view that local politics has become once again a matter of elitism. It would seem that the province’s political leaders place a higher value on maintaining good relations among themselves than competing vigorously and exposing incompetence before it moves into the Premier’s Office. 

To get a sense of how much Coleman doesn’t know, in one interview on Tuesday,  Coleman insisted that the provincial per capita public debt was going down when, as anyone with half a clue knows, the per capita debt skyrocketed this year. The Conservatives plan to make it go even higher, something Coleman firmly supports.  Make no mistake about Coleman’s lack of competence: even one of the guys behind Coleman’s coronation – Premier Tom Marshall – said the guy has a “very limited knowledge of politics.”

The idea that the guy who is the leader-in-waiting of the Conservative Party is still a private individual is, at the very best, a very poor joke. It is as credible as the insistence by Conservatives that there was no inside plan to install Coleman as leader.

Inside Out

And it is as ridiculous as the claim that the man who has been - by all appearances - a close confidante and financial backer of the power  group at the heart of the of the Conservative government since 2003 – is a political “outsider”. It is no accident, friends, that Danny Williams handed power to his deputy premier Kathy Dunderdale in 2010, who, in turn,  vacated the office in favour of Williams’ other political confidante  - Marshall  - in 2014, who will now vacate the office in favour of their mutual friend and money bags, Coleman some point later this year.

What all this boils down to is not just that Coleman is a political amateur – that is obvious – but that we have slipped into a far more dangerous place in our political society that it appeared. 

Coleman has been ignoring the public not because of some imaginary political process as Sheahan and Marshall claim but because he knows that the public do not matter.  They are, to his mind and in keeping with an analogy he used on Tuesday, the equivalent of employees in his company. The Conservative description of this Phase 2 barbecue circuit is like a new business owner who is only concerned to get around and meet his workers, eventually.  The Conservative leadership is not a democratic political process: it is a transfer of business ownership.

And as patronizing and as condescending and entirely inappropriate as that notion would be in a democratic society,  Coleman knows in the dark parts of his political soul that he is on the inside of political power in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The ordinary people of the province - the folks who would wield power in a real democracy -   well, around these parts, they are genuinely, unquestionably outside the power structure.