Cochrane: Tory problems are about more than Dunderdale

Regardless of who takes over the reins of the Progressive Conservatives, a change is needed in tone and how the government deals with the public, writes David Cochrane.
During her year-end interview with On Point in December, Kathy Dunderdale described 2013 as her toughest year ever. (CBC)

When Premier Kathy Dunderdale visited the On Point studio for a year-end interview in late December, she told me she no longer watched local TV news, listened to local talk radio or read the local newspaper.

She said the constant negativity was simply too much to take, so she relied on her staff to brief her on media coverage of key issues.

As Dunderdale spoke, On Point director Rod Dobbin whispered into my earpiece from the control room, “Man, she is done.” I agreed. It was obvious at that moment that Dunderdale had decided she was ready to quit.

This was just days before Christmas. And the weeks between that moment and her resignation were punctuated by island-wide power failures, another dismal poll and the surprise defection of the suddenly backsliding Tory shock trooper Paul Lane to the Liberals.

It was a bad run. But now it is someone else’s problem to fix.

For months now, Tory insiders (caucus, cabinet, political staff and organizers) have whispered about the need for change. They all claimed to like Dunderdale personally and largely felt she had been an effective and competent premier — at least when it came to running the government.

The issues they complained about were Dunderdale’s inability to effectively communicate complex issues, to resonate with voters and to gain traction in the polls. They all felt there needed to be a leadership change by the 2015 election, but they would let Dunderdale pick the time.

Whispers turn to a roar

But when Paul Lane held a news conference at a pancake house to announce he was flipping sides, those whispers turned into a roar that Dunderdale could hear as far away as Florida, where she was on vacation.

Paul Lane blamed Kathy Dunderdale for not listening to her constituents. (CBC )
There would be no need for a caucus revolt or an ultimatum. Dunderdale had decided before Christmas that the time of her departure was near. The political disasters of January simply accelerated the timeline.

So now those Tories who whispered for change have got what they wanted. But the departure of their internally popular but externally unloved leader doesn’t solve all of their problems. The lack of resonance with voters and the lack of traction in the polls weren’t just about Dunderdale.

As I wrote last June, this government’s tone has long been a blend of dismissiveness and exasperation that borders on condescension. If that doesn’t change, neither will the polls — no matter who the Tories pick as their new leader.

Trouble out of the gate

The ballots were still being counted on election night in October 2011 when the re-elected PC government started to lose the public trust. Within minutes of her historic breakthrough as the first woman to win a provincial election, Dunderdale announced that the house of assembly wouldn’t open that fall.

A government entering its third term didn’t have a legislative agenda to present and didn’t feel the need to face the opposition in a daily question period. The legislature sat dark until the following spring.

When the legislature finally did open, the government made a seemingly endless series of decisions that appeared designed to thwart the public’s right to know.

The Public Utilities Board had been allowed to assess Muskrat Falls, but only on the narrow and strictly defined terms set by the government. There would be no formal Muskrat Falls debate in the legislature because — as former minister Jerome Kennedy famously said — the opposition wasn’t capable of providing quality debate.

This marginalization of the legislature’s role was quickly followed by the notorious rolling back of access to information laws in Bill 29.

Kathy Dunderdale cancelled a meeting with Burton Winters' grandmother over fears it was turning into what she called a 'PR stunt.' (CBC )
Stacked on top of these policy missteps was the clumsy handling of the Burton Winters tragedy. When Dunderdale stared down massive outcry for a formal inquiry into perceived search and rescue failures, it left the impression of a cover-up. When she cancelled a meeting with the dead boy’s grandmother, it looked like the government didn’t care.

Through it all the Tories loudly and stridently dismissed any critique of this approach. But the cumulative message to the public was a mix of “you don’t need to know” and “you don’t deserve to know.”

Less than a year into its mandate, the government had burned through most of its political capital.

Fiscal reputation at stake

And then they started to burn through the real cash. When the years of spending growth finally tipped past the oil revenue, the record surpluses turned to alarming deficits. The PC reputation as sound fiscal managers was lost in a sea of red ink and public sector pink slips.

Through it all you could always find a helpful MHA — such as Paul Lane — or a political staffer on Twitter to tell you what a great job the PCs were doing. But as time went on, those became the only voices you could hear praising the government.

As the dismissiveness and the defensiveness grew, ex-colleagues and political allies went silent or became critics. Their external champions abandoned them.

When the PCs speak of the need to use this leadership race to re-engage with people, this is in part whom they are talking about.

All of these issues transcend the leadership shortcomings of Kathy Dunderdale. These were cabinet decisions, supported by the entire caucus.

The Progressive Conservative team needs to learn from this and — if they can’t truly reform — they must at least adapt.

If they don’t, it won’t be very long before the next Tory leader stops watching local TV, listening to local talk radio or reading the local paper.

About the Author

David Cochrane

CBC News

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.


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