Gushue | Why are the Tories playing a silly blame game?

The provincial Liberals lost power almost a decade ago, but they have astonishingly become the prime target of blame among Tory ministers, writes John Gushue.

It's been almost 10 years since the Liberals lost power, but they're still a Tory target

When Clyde Wells led the Liberals to a majority government in April 1989, ending 17 years of Tory rule, a wiser journalist told me to see how long it would take before the new cabinet started complaining about the problems it inherited.

As I recall, that happened pretty much out of the gate. The house opened soon after, and a theme of the new premier and key ministers like Winston Baker and Hubert Kitchen was the wretched inheritance left by Tory misrule, mismanagement and blah-blah-blah.

I was tired of the line by that Christmas, but it lingered, especially when the Liberals brought down a slashing budget in 1990 that included hundreds of job cuts and triggered the labour movement's "Clyde Lied" campaign.

Flash forward to when Danny Williams led the Progressive Conservatives to a majority government in October 2003, ending 14 years of Liberal rule.

Clyde Wells and his ministers often blamed the Tories for the problems they inherited after taking power in 1989. (CP )

I don't know how much wiser I was by that time, but I knew enough to be able to predict the messaging from the new government. They inherited a mess, etc etc etc.

Fair enough. I think a new government has a grace period in which they not only get up to speed on the major issues, but get a little bit of a pass as they get used to simply being in power.

And, yes, they can have a swing or two at the recently vanquished. The key word there, though, is "recently."

Liberals did 'absolutely nothing'

In the last while, we in the newsroom have noticed the strangest thing: a tendency of current Tory cabinet ministers to lay the blame for their current woes on the doorstep of — believe it or not — the last Liberal government.

Consider Health Minister Susan Sullivan, who dressed down the Opposition on Monday as she defended a cut to the adult dental care program. The reason for the troubles? Um, that would be the party that's been out of power for almost 10 years. 

"We did our best predictions around this, but, as I laid out earlier, absolutely nothing was done for all of those years prior," Sullivan told the legislature. "The Liberal government when they were here did nothing, Mr. Speaker, absolutely nothing."

She's not alone. Jerome Kennedy has made similar remarks, as has Premier Kathy Dunderdale. "In 2003 we inherited a province that was almost bankrupt," Kennedy said the preceding Friday, explaining why the government now has to cut back the money it had no choice but to spend.

Then there's the provincial ferry service. Guess who's to blame there? Why, it's the Liberals! Transportation and Works Minister Paul Davis blamed the Liberals on Wednesday for setting the Tories up for failure.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale has blamed the Liberals for building up debt and letting infrastructure rot. (CBC)

"It took years and years of work, a $9.8 million investment by the people of the province, by this government when we inherited the rustbucket, the Nonia, from this crowd over here and we had to put that in service," Davis told the house.

The premier herself is definitely on side with the talking points.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the same day that a CRA poll found the PCs were now neck and neck with the NDP, the premier pointed her finger firmly at the Liberals. The province, she said, had been "accruing debt under the Liberal government and infrastructure [was] falling to pieces." In other words, the Tories simply had no choice but to spend the billions that they did.

There's no mistake that there were some pretty tough times when the Liberals were in power. The moratorium on northern cod happened in 1992, followed by an exodus from rural communities that drove the province's population down by 70,000 people.

There's a habit among politicians to cast blame on the other side for any number of problems, no matter how complex or long-running they have been.

But there's something utterly bizarre about the current vogue for blaming the Liberals for current provincial problems.

What was happening in 2003

Let's put things in context. In October 2003, the prime minister of Canada was Jean Chretien — that's right, Paul Martin was still in the wings, not to mention his many successors and the Conservative governments of Stephen Harper. In October 2003, George W. Bush was still quite popular, Barack Obama had not even been elected yet to the U.S. Senate, and Lindsay Lohan was a fresh-faced ingenue making adolescent-friendly movies for Disney.

In other words, it was a very, very long time ago.

We are now not only into the third term of a Progressive Conservative government, and not only on our second premier under that umbrella, but the premier is now into her third (count 'em, third) year on the job.

Unoriginal, possibly desperate

It says something — a lack of originality, perhaps, in finding a fresh rhetorical line of attack, or perhaps it's just tiredness and desperation — that the Tories are thematically pounding the point that they inherited a mess from the Liberals.

Things were indeed tough; if you'll remember, the first year or more with the Tories were no picnic, either. Faced with a financial mess, Williams had little choice but to cut back, going to the public airwaves with a plea for support as he hauled out a paring knife to the budget.

In an echo of the Clyde Lied campaign, Williams also ran smack into the ire of the labour movement. The theme in 2004 was "until the cows come home," with NAPE and CUPE members on strike for a month until they were legislated back to work.

Things improved. The price of oil surged, of course (do take time to see David Cochrane's analysis last week on what role luck played in all that), and the Tories are quick to applaud themselves for getting resource deals that have transformed the economy.

How do the Liberals feel about all this? Dwight Ball, the interim leader, brought it down to money during a recent debate.

"Well, it is interesting to hear the minister of finance," he said. "He has had in the last three years $7.4 billion in offshore royalties to work with. The Liberal government did not have that."

Ball went on to take credit, on behalf of the Liberals, for having "signed the deals that made it possible."

The Tories will argue that point, and that's fine.

But surely the Tories can do better. Apart from dealing with a withering assessment of their performance in public opinion polls, there must be a wiser option than beating up on a government that lost power almost a whole decade ago.