28 January 2015

Acting Like a Leader #nlpoli

In his first major public appearance since cutting public representation in the House of Assembly last week,  Premier Paul Davis flatly rejected the objections of the province’s municipalities and a gaggle of academics.

The cuts to the House of Assembly will go ahead.

When another government asked a commission to go out, ask people and come back with alternatives, it didn’t work, according to Davis.  So this time we set clear rules.

Davis talked a lot about process with reporters during a scrum.  Everything was just the way it was supposed to be and people will get a say, even if the say is all but meaningless.

People can talk about the details of all this until they fall over dead.  This is not about cuts to the House, democratic renewal, saving money, or anything else of the sort.  This entire House cutting exercise is designed to show Paul Davis looking like a leader.

The deal is done

Davis isn’t likely to change his mind even if every single public hearing is chock full of people criticising his move. Davis’ people would love to have the spectacle of the cop facing down the rabble. The decision is made.  There’s no turning back.

You can easily imagine Davis delivering his usual heavily-scripted, carefully rehearsed lines.  “We are here to do what is in the best interest of hardworking Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, not cater to the self-interest of pundits, bloggers, and self-appointed experts.”

Davis started down that road with his line in the scrum about seeing the money in the pockets of ordinary people instead of in the pockets of politicians. It was one of those classic lines designed by his handlers to get media attention.  In his next appearances, Davis will put that line toward the front of his answers instead of at the back.  That way it’s more likely to get noticed.  Plus it enhances the image of firmness. 

The line has a bit of smartass in it.

The fact that it sounds like Stephen Harper is only a confirmation that the local Conservatives are trying to reach the same sorts of voters with the same sorts of messages for the same reason.  They want to drive home the image of a leader, acting decisively on behalf of “ordinary” people in these troubled times.

Danny and Kathy carried on the same way. Danny complained once about how much time he spent dealing with all the negativity and the media out there. 
  It’s pretty insane – my staff and I spend most of our day dealing with THIS instead of progressing our state now.
Sorry.  That was Sarah Palin.

Danny talked about how he spent all his time counter-spinning negativity in a speech that has been disappeared from the website where it used to be.

So what?  People tolerated it from Williams. Williams’ fan club loved it.  The Conservatives still loved it from Kathy.  The rest mostly rejected it,  perhaps because she usually came across as a passive-aggressive anger ball. Davis might be able to pull off the anti-intellectual rhetoric more effectively than Kathy, partly because the context is different.

By context,  we mean Dwight Ball. 

The Conservatives know they don’t have to be the best.  They just have to appear to be better than the alternative.

The Conservatives are already starting to frame the next election as a choice on leadership.  They are positioning Davis as the leader to choose in comparison to Ball.  Davis is decisive.  Ball is a flip-flopper.  Or Ball has no balls, in the testosterone-soaked version.

Listen to what Conservatives are saying. They aren’t saying those things about Ball by accident.  It’s part of the plan to shift public opinion.

Ball’s Two Step Program

Whatever happens with the House of Assembly cuts, the next big item on the Conservative agenda will be the budget.  If the House cuts episode is any indication, you can expect to see more of the leader narrative.  You can also expect the Conservatives to find a way to co-op Ball into supporting the government in whatever it does. They had an easy time of it with the House cuts for two reasons:  First, Ball had already endorsed the cuts on his own and there was no way he would ever change his position. 
Second,  Ball and his people thought the cuts were popular.  They never imagined that they could actually shift public opinion.  Instead, they just blew along with whatever lead came from the government side.

That’s almost a third point, namely Ball’s tendency to go along with the government and its officials.  He’s never staked out a decisive position against the government on anything of substance, except Bill 29, and then only after  public opinion was clearly opposed to the government’s plan.

On CETA, Ball offered to work with the government to get the cash.  He played along with the government’s political scam. Did he have a quickie poll or was there some sort of anecdotal claim among his advisors that the thing would be “popular”?  Danny Williams offered to help Roger Grimes deal with Ottawa.  The difference is that Williams made it clear he thought Grimes was an incompetent idiot. Ball looked like he was following along as Davis led.

On Muskrat Falls, Ball heard from the Nalcor experts what a great project it was.  He was sold from the start.  No matter what anyone else said or how piss-poor Nalcor’s management seemed to be Ball had already bought what they were selling.  People think he opposed Muskrat Falls, but the truth be told he supported it right down the line, and will continue to support the project.

Regardless of the reasons for Ball’s positions, the Conservatives think they have his measure.  They think they have found a decisive weakness.  They are going to work hard on it.  And Ball and the Liberals have given them until October 2016 to work on it.

Looking ahead to the budget

The challenge the Liberals face is to work their own strategy,  one that has been  - at best – unclear thus far.  They need to counteract the Conservative strategy and they need to frame the coming election themselves.  So far, there’s absolutely no sign the Liberals have any kind of strategy to position Ball at all.  The quaint, folksy little ads they’ve been running on Facebook other places online are fine up to a point, but they clearly won’t be as effective in defining Ball in the minds of voters as Balls’ own words and actions every day. 

The budget is coming.  Ball’s already on record as supporting cuts.  Here’s part of what he told David Cochrane last fall:  “No one wants to talk about budget cuts, but we have to be realistic here. We cannot pass debt on to the next generation.”

The year before, he opposed tax increases.  ““My position on that is that it’s not about a tax increase. You know, all the groups that we talk to, they say there’s enough money in the system,” Ball told the Telegram’s James McLeod. “What we really need is better management, and we need to just spend our money wiser.”

Right off the bat, the Conservatives have Ball on the first step of his two step program.

Step two can’t be that hard.  And if they wanted to use that third step,  they’d give him a briefing or find some other way to co-opt him into siding with the government on the upcoming budget.

When you stop and think about it for a second, the Conservatives might have a really easy job ahead of them.  In fact, it would be hard to imagine what possible position the Liberals might take on the upcoming budget given their apparent love of the Two Step.

The most interesting political question over the next couple of months might well be what happens when Paul Davis calls the budget tune.  Will the Liberals follow Davis’ lead and dance to the tune, or will they call their own?