ALL EYES ON THE BACKBENCH, PLEASE.

The Muskrat
Falls project, in all its complexity and potential for negative outcomes, is
akin to a bomb with multiple warheads for politicians.  Political fallout could occur from several
directions, perhaps even at once.  Weaknesses
in decision making will be exposed as cost projections continue to increase, the
price of oil remains weak, and low natural gas prices and power conversions to
that form, continue to dominate the energy news in other jurisdictions. Look
for a number of Cabinet Ministers and
backbenchers alike, to become uncomfortable. 

By the time
Muskrat Falls is sanctioned, it will be interesting to see whether any of the
current Ministers have the courage exhibited, in another time, by John Crosbie,
Clyde Wells, Alex Hickman and Val Earle, who sought the Opposition benches
(Wells became an independent MHA) when the Smallwood government engaged in
reckless behaviour with the finances of the Province.

Will any of
them follow the example of Tom Rideout or Jim Hodder, who left the Liberal
Party in the mid-1980s, because of the Party’s failure to back the Peckford
Tories over natural resource issues and revenue sharing with the Feds?

Now, it’s
the Tories who are in government and who are playing fast and loose with public
policy and the public treasury. 

But even
before you take notice of how guarded certain Ministers will become, you would
do well to watch the Members sitting in the government’s back benches. 

In a caucus
of 37 men and women, one might expect the behaviour of the Premier and certain
Ministers to cause serious cracks in caucus unity in the days before project
sanction.   

The real
question is: will each and every one of them hold fast to their jobs rather
than take a principled stand?  Will they
insist that Nalcor’s vision of ‘le grand projet’ be halted or are they prepared
to stick it out and risk going down with the ship?  Once voters get a handle on the costs of the
project and the fact that they are tied both to the debt and to high power
rates for 50 years, they will not be amused over how glib the government has
been on this issue.

Muskrat
Falls, alone, may not spook the backbench. But, there is one thing more
important than a giant risk laden project.  What could be more important than a huge
financial debacle?  Well, re-election, of
course!

The
backbench is a group typically ignored especially when the electorate is
happy.  But the leader ignores the
backbench, at her/his peril; the price for such carelessness is paid when
things go awry. 

Dunderdale’s
polling numbers have been in steady decline since the election.  According to Corporate Research Associates
Inc., a polling firm, numbers for overall satisfaction with the provincial government
is at the lowest level since 2004.  Satisfaction
is down by 13 points    (60% from 73%) in
three months.  Support for the P.C. party
is now 49% down from 54% in February, 2012. 
Significantly, Kathy Dunderdale’s personal popularity declined from 48%
three months ago to 44% in May/June, 2012.

Historically,
party members are not pleased when the ‘Party’ is propping up the Premier. Nothing
spooks a backbench more than a failing First Minister.  Nothing will keep them in line when political
oblivion is the pollster’s only forecast reward for their disciplined silence. If
Premier Dunderdale thinks that muttering in the backbench has not already begun,
she is clearly out of touch!

The
Premier’s numbers are critical. That simple fact was a constant reminder for
Frank Moores, whose popularity descended into swift decline following Joey’s
tortuous but final defeat in 1972.   Liberals were prepared to park their loyalty to
effect Joey’s departure; but party loyalties endured, and that fact together
with an empty till, and innumerable demands from MHAs, high unemployment and
poor infrastructure, helped keep Frank’s approval numbers low and his back
bench unsettled. 

You might be
surprised just how frequently Moores was called back into town to deal with caucus
discontent.  With good reason!  Only Smallwood’s Liberal Reform Party, which split
the Liberal vote, could guarantee the Tories return to power in 1975. 

Brian
Peckford and Danny Williams enjoyed high approval ratings throughout their
tenure, so trouble in the backbench, for them, was not an issue. In Peckford’s
case, notwithstanding his solid poll numbers, he, unlike Moores, always engaged
backbenchers on a personal level, never giving them reason to stray.

As the cost
of Muskrat Falls goes skyward with the inexorable trajectory of an overpowered rocket,
and as average Newfoundlanders and Labradorians start to understand they are
expected to underwrite Alderon’s power requirements, things could start getting
hot and heavy. 

The other point
to consider is that the backbench gets none of the respect and few of the
benefits of a cabinet minister.  Some of
the smart ones will sense that the leadership is losing control and will line
up new work; others will simply jump ship, especially if Dean MacDonald, offers
greater promise, that is to say, a greater chance of re-election.   

Note, too,
that the Muskrat Falls debate in the House of Assembly will not conclude with a
vote.  Hence, dissenters on the
government side will have to either speak or walk, or both.

The other
group Dunderdale has to be conscious of are the Cabinet Ministers who have been
around awhile and whose pensions are secure. 
Some will not want to spend the rest of their days having friends and
family, and just about everyone else, pick at the festering scab that each will
wear for nodding approval of Muskrat Falls.  

Yes, Premier
Dunderdale, Jerome Kennedy and Tom Marshall will receive the greatest
vilification, but every Minister is responsible for cabinet decisions; none will
escape the burden of history for having participated in what will likely be the
worst economic decision on record.

The scenario
to watch, as Dunderdale’s numbers continue to slide, is the likelihood of her early
departure due to stress or for some other reason. The back bench will be behind
some of that stress.  A suitable
replacement in Cabinet, someone who shares the same blindness for Muskrat Falls,
that Dunderdale possesses, will have to be at the ready.   

A new leader
of the Liberal party has already been chosen, if he wants it.  Dino is also a friend of Danny (a Liberal, who
knew!).  He will certainly be Opposition
Leader, should unforeseen events not facilitate a suitable (electable) and
timely replacement for Dunderdale.  Danny
can assist that process.
He is already seen by many as the ‘puppet master’.

But the most
important question is: will the current Tory leader have the skill-set to stem
a caucus revolt over bad polls? 

Danny has a
lot of work to do, too.

Beware the ‘puppeteer’.
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. It's so very clear to a lot of us what this Government is doing, how and why are they getting away with it. We had family members and there are family members now, fighting for Democrary. The hardship this is going to cause,to so many Newfoundlanders,to our chrildren and their chrildren and their chrildren, it's just unbelieveable. How are they making sence of this, their just so ruthless. How do they sleep at night knowing what they are about to do to us. Over this pass year I've learned that to be a PC you have to be cold and callus, you have to have no empathy, no heart, no feelings, no compassion, you have to be stone cold. These are the people we have working for us, and the PC up in Ottawa all have the same charateristics. This is so frightening. The future is very dark with this PC Government.