Cochrane | Penashue's resignation was inevitable

Nothing about Peter Penashue's now-interrupted stint as a federal politician has been easy, writes On Point host David Cochrane.
Peter Penashue narrowly won the 2011 election in Labrador, and intends to win it again in a byelection. (CBC)

Nothing about Peter Penashue's now-interrupted stint as a federal politician has been easy. On election night, it seemed so certain that Liberal Todd Russell had been re-elected that the CBC decision desk called the seat for Russell, who even did an interview thanking his supporters for sending him back to Ottawa.

But then the last ballots came in and flipped the seat. Penashue won by 79 votes.

At first it was hailed as a major breakthrough for the federal Conservatives. After a resounding shutout in 2008 as the targets of former premier Danny Williams' ABC campaign, the Conservatives finally had a seat in this province — and this province finally had a seat at the federal cabinet table.

The political narrative focused on the end of the Cold War between the federal and provincial Tories.

Watch On Point

On this week's episode, the political panel of Siobhan Coady, Shawn Skinner and Russell Wangersky discuss Peter Penashue's resignation and other issues. On Point airs after a short newscast each Saturday at 7:30 p.m. NT.

While the personal narrative focused on Penashue's battle to achieve sobriety, his rise as perhaps Labrador's leading aboriginal activist, and finally his history making appointment as the first Innu to sit in the federal cabinet.

It was a story of triumph.

But nobody has been speaking of Penashue in those terms for quite some time. Not since my colleagues Laura Payton and Peter Cowan uncovered a series of documents that raised devastating questions about Penashue's election finances.

The scandal grew with each new financial revelation until a cocktail of questionable loans, discounted flights and dubious corporate donations earned Penashue the nickname "Peter the Cheater." He didn't just win by 79 votes. He also won with the help of what appears to be $30,000 in ineligible donations.

Bungling the finances

Penashue pinned it all on an underling, blaming the relatively unknown Reg Bowers for bungling the donations and expenses. Bowers served as Penashue's official agent during the election and was later handpicked by the federal government to serve on the executive of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. 

It was a nice reward for the winning campaign's top man.

But in the wake of the scandal, Bowers was described as an "inexperienced volunteer" who struggled with campaign finances — even though his official bio described him as having "graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador with a Bachelor of Commerce" and having done "extensive postsecondary work with the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants."

Bowers resigned from the C-NLOPB Thursday night, just hours after Penashue quit the cabinet and his seat.

Bowers won't get his job back. But Penashue seems to think he can.

Ex-minister maintains he did nothing wrong

Not only will he run in the suddenly looming byelection in Labrador, the federal Conservative party has already announced that Penashue will be the candidate.

In his resignation statement, Penashue said he was stepping down because he must be accountable to the people of Labrador. But in that same statement, Penashue continued to blame the "inexperienced volunteer" and maintain that he, personally, did nothing wrong. Even as Penashue claimed to accept responsibility nothing has really changed.

In the months during which this scandal unfolded Penashue refused to speak on his own behalf. He gave one laughable interview to Peter Cowan in which he repeated a version of the same statement nearly a dozen times, no matter how the question was phrased. 

While in the House of Commons, Penashue rarely rose to speak in his own defence. Instead, he sat quietly while MPs such as Pierre Polievre took the heat in Question Period.

Can you possibly imagine regional ministers such as John Crosbie or Brian Tobin doing something like that?

Was Penashue muzzled?

Penashue's supporters claim that he wanted to speak out all along. They claim this strategy of silence and deflection was being orchestrated by the Prime Minister's Office and was going against Penashue's better instincts.

He once promised to return to Labrador to explain everything to his constituents, but during the trip said nothing. Penashue had wanted to speak out, his supporters say privately, but he was muzzled by his superiors.

And now Penashue is asking for a second chance. A Conservative Party spokesperson says — without a trace of irony — that Penashue should be re-elected if the province wants "to continue to have a strong voice within government."

The road back won’t be easy, despite federal money to pave the Trans-Labrador Highway. The taint and smell of scandal will still be thick in the Labrador air when the byelection is called and Penashue’s competition will be fierce.

Already former provincial Liberal leader Yvonne Jones has announced that she will seek the Liberal nomination, while Russell says he is considering a comeback. Either stands an exceptional chance of winning that seat. This is especially true of Russell, as he can convincingly argue that he never would have lost the seat in the first place if everybody played by the rules.

The stakes are high. Do Labrador voters want a federal cabinet minister? Or do they want to send a message to Penashue that running an incompetent campaign and blaming others for critical mistakes simply isn't good enough?