Party leader Dwight Ball announced on Wednesday that the Liberals had rid themselves of the debt the party has carried around since the 2003 election. As Ball explained it, the party negotiated with the three banks involved and persuaded them to write off the interest and penalties. The party had then paid off the $500,000 that remained.
The Liberals’ opponents have used the debt as a rod to beat Grit backs. Can’t manage the province’s accounts if you can't handle your own, the Conservatives joked.
As it turns out, that joke was on us: the Conservatives couldn’t handle the public accounts themselves. They promised to pay down the debt and make everything right. Instead, and starting from Danny Williams, they racked up debt after debt. They spent every nickel the provincial coffers could suck in and borrowed more besides.
The party debt was a big cloud hanging over the Liberals’ heads. Getting rid of it was supposed to be great news.
And it would have been had Dwight not buggered up the announcement.
Then they asked another: how much did they write off?
Ball wouldn’t answer. I’ll have to ask the bankers, said Ball, and see if I can tell you.
That would be a plausible answer except for one small problem: it isn’t true. Ball didn’t need to ask them at all. The debt deal is a matter of public record, by virtue of the 1991 Elections Act. The debt write-off is a contribution. The party will report it to the Chief Electoral Officer who will, in due course, make it public.
Since the money is a matter of public record already – in effect – Ball should have simply told the reporters those details without having to be asked. He should have volunteered it.
Given that Ball has already pledged himself to lead a party and government of openness and transparency, he had a perfect chance to display in actions what his words were already. He didn’t.
The result is that his opponents can peck away at Ball’s credibility. The news stories for the first day or so after his announcement will harp on the fact that Ball refused to disclose crucial information. What’s worse he used a flimsy excuse.
When the party does release the information – even if it is on Thursday – it will look like Ball reluctantly handed out the information under pressure. People had to drag it out of him.
Ball may not be willing to release specific policies but he could be displaying consistent values already. He missed a golden opportunity on Wednesday, one he won’t get back. What’s worse, if Ball keeps racking up these gaffes, people will notice. He shagged up in January on cuts to the House of Assembly and on the election date. He shagged up in April first by disappearing from the province for two weeks and then by switching the party position on the Dunphy shooting without explanation.
Ball shagged up again by changing his position on the fixed election date: he went from casually accepting the idea of a November election – or later – to insisting an election had to happen by September.
Then he let Paul Antle embark on a three month charade.
And now Ball fluffed the money announcement.
The money announcement was an easy one.
It should have been child’s play.
If Ball keeps this up, people will start to notice. They will start to fidget uncomfortably when people talk about Ball, the next Premier. The Conservatives make have rogered Rover so badly that nothing can save them, but when the voters elect the Liberals and Ball to office, they might have their fingers crossed behind their back when they mark a ballot.
That could put Ball in a hard spot if he and the Liberals need to make some tough decisions once they are in office. They need voter confidence to govern. Ball and the Liberals will need the public trust.
Ball and the Liberals might not want to release policies but they should be able to talk about values. Trust is a word Ball should be using a lot. As in, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians deserve a government they can trust. Then Ball would list off a bunch of reasons why people already distrust the Conservatives. Bill 29. CETA. Frank Coleman. Public debt.
The clincher would be the way the Liberals espouse values – like transparency – and then deliver on them. The contrast would be devastating: the Conservatives keep effing up. The Liberals deliver. Actions speak louder than words, after all.
What the Liberals delivered on Wednesday was a leader was obviously unprepared for a news conference he and his people planned. They had total control of it. They knew when it was coming and they have known it since before Christmas.
Yet for all that Ball stumbled.
He wasn't ready.
Even the timing made no sense. If someone in Dwight’s crew thought they could influence the CRA poll, they missed it by a country mile. The time to get the news out was just before polling started or before they got the bulk of the numbers done. Wednesday May 27 was too late. And even if May 27 was okay, a cocked-up announcement wouldn’t do them any good any way.
Go back to January and you will see the simple observation: Ball lacks focus. He should be obsessed with getting elected. Instead, in every single major episode since January ball seems to be thinking of anything but getting elected. The result is that his actions are disjointed and definitely not co-ordinated either with his party or even his own words.
Actions speak louder than words.
The message Dwight Ball’s actions send don’t match his words.
He needs to fix that.