The announcement by the MHA for St. John’s South, Tom
Osborne, that he is quitting the Dunderdale P.C.s, had me recalling my June 25th
Post, entitled, “All Eyes on the Backbench, Please”.
Since posting that warning of the political cost of Dunderdale’s declining popularity her personal Poll numbers have been in free fall. Her comment, that ‘strong leadership’ does
not govern by Poll results, was unconvincing.
Everyone knows, Premiers can’t let a single poll result or
two cause a reversal in decision making.
But a trend will. And what
Premier Dunderdale is experiencing right now, is exactly that, a trend.
First, when the Premier’s popularity descends into free
fall, the authority of leadership is the first casuality. Most Premiers have
enough personal IOUs with caucus members that they can survive periods of voter
displeasure, especially when it occurs early in the mandate. This is a crucial
test which Dunderdale has failed.
uncontested Tory leadership position, she all but shunned him. It was one thing not to appoint him to
Cabinet; that is her prerogative. It is
quite another not to make him feel welcomed inside the Tory caucus and attempt
to gain his confidence. That is an error
Third, Osborne’s departure signals that the Government’s
failing fortunes go deeper than bad polls.
strategic direction, as any government must. In large measure, the last
election was fought on residual energy from the William’s administration (though
some of it had a destructive component) and enough oil revenue to permit the
government to say “yes” to virtually any demand for infrastructure and
A policy mandate or even a philosophy of leadership was
never defined during the campaign or since. Hence, the public has no sense of
what her administration wants to achieve other than build an expensive and
risky hydro project.
The Fourth point is an extension of the last one. Right now, only Muskrat Falls and Bill 29
defines Dunderdale’s leadership. She took an awful political beating on Bill
29, especially once Opposition parties realized that they had the public’s
attention. Her failure to realize that the public would connect the Bill with its
desire to hide critical information on Muskrat Falls showed the deft hand of an
the P.C. Caucus, some unusual and destructive force has a grip on the same Party
that defeated Smallwood and turned years of struggle into the historic
“Atlantic Accord”. Something very
fundamental has changed.
Osborne is no newbie when it comes to the Tory party. He
learned the art of politics from his very partisan parents when he was in short
pants. He, his mother and his Uncle held seats in the William’s government, simultaneously. His father served on City Council and was a
dedicated Tory since before the Moores’ era.
The Osborne family’s organizational skills are legendary in the P.C.
Party. Hence, Tom Osborne’s loss is not
of one individual but of an entire organization. Tory organizers in St. John’s will surely take
launch of former premier Brian Peckford’s autobiography, “Someday the Sun will
Shine and Have Not Will Be No More”. Neither
the Premier nor a single Cabinet Minister or any other backbench MHA came to
congratulate him on his achievement. Dwight Ball and other Opposition MHAs and
Senators found the occasion worthy enough to be present.
This was an expression of small-mindedness by Dunderdale and
co., to the man who, in no small measure, helped define her Party, played a key
role in Constitution building at a critical juncture in Canadian history, and
who won, for the Province, the ‘Atlantic Accord’. It was an unfortunate reflection on her
character; it magnified the fact that she had neither the capacity to display
common courtesies or that she had ever learned the art of politics. Certainly,
she does not understand that all disagreements are not personal.
rather than paying him the deference he was due. In snubbing Peckford’s Book
launch, Dunderdale and her Ministers not only missed an opportunity to be ‘one’
with enough Tory partisans to hold a rally, she reminded them of why she is a
failing Premier. Leadership is not
always about the things you do; more often, it is about the messages you convey.
Tom Osborne understood this better than the Premier.
If Dunderdale does not change her approach to governing,
there will be more resignations and defections. The sense of unease that this
first defection will create, the public struggle with higher cost estimates on
Muskrat and the growing public alarm will not go down well with MHAs who like
to deal with constituents without reference to their ill-suited leader.
is ready to try things differently.
Otherwise, Osborne will not be the last caucus member to defect.
There is another aspect to this story that has little to do
now with Premier Dunderdale. Given that
only one seat keeps the NDP from having equal status with the Liberals in the
House of Assembly, the question is both obvious and important: in which
opposition party will Osborne be comfortable?
A subject for another day.