Dunderdale takes risk with Harper pledge

Kathy Dunderdale says she has no regrets about taking Stephen Harper's word on the Lower Churchill megaproject, although pundits warn the rookie premier is taking an enormous risk.
Kathy Dunderdale was formally sworn in as Progressive Conservative leader on Saturday. (CBC)

Kathy Dunderdale says she has no regrets about taking Stephen Harper's word on backing the Lower Churchill megaproject in Labrador, although pundits warn the rookie Newfoundland and Labrador premier is taking an enormous risk.

Dunderdale joined Harper at a St. John's campaign rally  last Thursday where he said a re-elected Conservative government would provide a loan guarantee — or an unspecified financial equivalent — so long as the Muskrat Falls plan met three criteria for national energy projects.

"The commitment of the Harper government is so important to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," Dunderdale said at this weekend's Progressive Conservative convention in St. John's, where she was formally installed as the party's leader. She was sworn in as premier in December after Danny Williams retired from politics.

Dunderdale said she appeared with Harper because she expects he will form the next government. She indicated, however, that she is not completely devoted to the Harper campaign.

"But you know I'm not going to leave it there," she told reporters. "I'm asking the leaders of the other federal parties, 'What is your commitment to Muskrat Falls and what's your commitment to the people of the province as well?' "

Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have asked the federal government  for a loan guarantee that would substantially reduce the borrowing costs for the $6.5-billion project, and for support through an infrastructure program to connect the two provinces through subsea cables.

Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University, says Dunderdale may be moving too quickly and too soon for a province where Williams's "anything but Conservative" campaign shut out the federal Tories in 2008.

"I think it's going to be a difficult thing to sell, given the fact that Stephen Harper is not very popular in the province," Tomblin told CBC News.

"There has always been a question of trust — whether this is a promise for anything [and] what are the outcomes if it doesn't work out politically."

Political scientist Steve Tomblin says it will be hard for Kathy Dunderdale to sell her affiliation with Stephen Harper. ((CBC))

In contrast to the 2008 election, this Harper campaign has attracted high-profile candidates in Newfoundland and Labrador, including four former MHAs, three of whom had front-bench provincial cabinet posts.

But Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said voters in the province are not being offered very much and the Conservatives' promise will cost them nothing.

"I was quite amazed," McCurdy said.

"A loan guarantee? A loan guarantee was going to change the world? That's what you do when your young fellow is getting his first car and he can't get a loan so you sign it so he can get the financing not expecting to pay a cent on it."

John Allan, the Liberal candidate in St. John's East, said Harper's promise will not mean much to voters.

"There's nothing in writing. He has two or three outs," said Allan.

"Premier Dunderdale, as far as I am concerned, she has sold her soul to the devil. And I can understand why there's a rift between the provincial PC party and Danny Williams."

Williams pulled away from a tribute dinner planned in his honour this weekend, and said he felt Dunderdale and her staff were trying to distance themselves from him.